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Despite being one of the Europe’s smallest nations, the culinary reach of Slovenia stretches far beyond its borders. Across 24 gastronomic regions, you can devour 365 unique dishes and drinks, from the grain-heavy Slavic stews of the Pannonian Plain in the east to the Italian-style pastas and prosciutto of the karst region and western borders.
Balkan, Central European and Mediterranean flavours abound, but it’s what locals are doing with this legacy that is so thrilling for travellers. Whether exploring the burgeoning street food culture of the capital or rural restaurants turning rustic fare into high-end dining, at the heart of all this are a few simple dishes that sum up everything that’s unique about Slovenian food.
Few dishes permeate Slovenian culture as deeply as štruklji. These stuffed rolls (typically served in slices) come in 120 regional varieties, and such is their ubiquity, their name even now doubles as the word for ’feast’ in local parlance. You’ll find them everywhere, from wooden-beamed gostilna (inns) to Ljubljana’s Open Kitchen (mid-Mar–Oct), a market where traditional Slovenian fare gets a street-food makeover.
“In the past we didn’t have street food,” explains Cook Eat Slovenia tour guide and cookbook author, Špela Vodovc. “It’s only in the last few years that traditional Slovenian foods like this are found on the streets, and now there are places like Moji Štruklji Slovenije in Ljubljana’s Plečnik Market where you can choose from around 30 fillings.” Savoury or sweet, boiled or baked, buckwheat or potato dough? Most gostilna serve up the curd cheese or tarragon štrukllj common to the capital, but explore deeper for more flavours. Head west to the Vipava Valley and you’ll find sweet boiled versions stuffed with walnuts, cheese curd and raisins; visit neighbouring Goriška Brda and they’re given a Mediterranean twist with olives and salami; and in the north-east they’re even served in the water in which they’re boiled. Bliss.
Of course, variety isn’t everything. The rural north-eastern region of Prekmurje has always been a world apart. Cut off by the raging Mura river, its Hungarian connections go back a millennium, and even today it proudly retains its own dialect and local take on goulash – golaž. Aside from this, the area is also famed for its floury cakes, known as pogača, with one in particular so special that its recipe is protected by European law.
Prekmurska gibanica is a work of art: great slabs of filo pastry oozing with layers of curd cheese, crunchy walnuts, sweet apples and poppy seeds. Its original recipe dates from 1828 but bears little relation to today’s version. “The oldest documents say it was sprinkled with grated turnip, carrot and cottage cheese,” says Slovenian food historian and author Dr Janez Bogataj, adding, “it was usually served as a festive or ritual dish.” These days, you can find it at anytime, anywhere, but purveyors require a licence to make it. Such is its lure, traditional inns like Ljubljana’s venerable Gostilna Šestica still boast of being the first in the capital to legally make and sell this cake, so keep an eye out for the yellow ‘Traditional Food Served’ logo to ensure you’re getting the real deal.
The Mediterranean influence is strong in Slovenia, particularly in the western and central regions. Idrija’s famed idrijski žlikrof – moreish potato-stuffed pasta dumplings served with meat – is another protected dish rooted in locality. This is heartily rustic fare, and needed to be, as the staple of the workers who once dug the region’s vast mercury mines.
Pasta was working man’s food and a variety of dishes scatter rural Slovenia, from the tagliatelle-like squares of bleki to the ‘pasta rags’ (makovi külinji) of Prekmurje, made from leftover scraps, poppy seeds and sour cream. This was humble fare, often reserved for celebrations, but a new generation of chefs have taken it to another level.
“Pasta here is very different to Italy,” says chef Jure Tomič, who has won international recognition for the pastas at his Ošterija Debeluh, in the eastern border town of Brežice. “Slovenia is not a country where this is a traditional dish, but we have some very nice examples…We’re always trying to create new and different fillings and tastes.”
It’s not just pasta getting a makeover. Acclaimed chef Ana Roš’s take on the dumpling-like Kobariski štruklji in her Alpine-set Hiša Franko restaurant is one example among many of chefs turning rustic Slovenian dishes into high-end dining. It’s a revolution. Tomič and Roš both found fame away from Ljubljana, just as Tomaž Kavčič’s Gostilna Pri Lojzetu helped birth Slovenia’s Slow Food movement by focusing on ‘poor man’s ingredients’ in the Vipava Valley. Travellers in the provinces here are spoilt for choice.
It’s a revolution arguably extending to local Slovenian produce, too, which is finally getting the acclaim it deserves. Gorenjska’s Kranjska klobasa (Carniolan sausage) is perhaps the most famous example: a juicy, reddish-brown sausage with a hint of smoke that even has its own annual festival now, held a few kilometres outside Ljubljana.
“Only 12 companies can produce it,” explains Dr Bogataj. “Other butchers can make Kranjska, of course, but they aren’t allowed to use the name. It’s possibly even the first sausage in space, since US astronaut Sunita Williams devoured one in orbit.” Not bad for a dish that has roots going back to the 17th century.
Back on Earth, however, it’s still the food of the people, and a visit to the capital’s Klobasarna snack bar yields proof that this simplest of dishes – a bread roll, a sliced Kranjska klobasa, cabbage and a dollop of horseradish – is all you need to be happy. As locals like to say, ljubezen gre skozi želodec (love comes through the stomach).
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