A chef’s guide to Slovenia, the culinary destination for 2021

If you’re looking to dream up a tasty escape, this lesser-known culinary corner of Europe might just be it: Slovenia has been crowned European Region of Gastronomy for 2021. Chef Ana Roš shares her tips for wild ingredients and hyper-local home cooking.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Encircled by Italy, Austria and Hungary, Slovenia offers a rich map for culinary journeys. This relatively small country is nonetheless densely and diversely packed: snow-dusted peaks, emerald lakes and rivers flanked by pristine forests, and a little slice of Adriatic coast, all within two hour’s drive. And this topographical diversity translates into a uniquely varied gastronomic landscape that’s seen the country designated European Region of Gastronomy 2021.

And, this month, Slovenia has received its first ever Michelin recognition. The country has been included in the 180-year-old culinary guide for the very first time – with Hiša Franko awarded an exceptional two stars, plus a 'special sustainability award'. An additional five restaurants have been awarded one Michelin star each, and there are numerous listings for Slovenian venues awarded in the Bib Gourmand and The Plate categories.

Lately garnering attention for its output of orange wine (along with northeastern Italy, the country is the crucible of the skin-contact, orange-hued white wine that’s been creating an oenophile buzz across Europe for some time), it’s also a place, traditionally, associated with Slavic-style mountain food. And while you’d be remiss to overlook such delicacies as kraški pršut — prosciutto from Slovenia’s karst mountains — and Carniolan smoked sausage from the Kranjska ski region, any exploration of the country’s cuisine will quickly reveal a diversity that reflects both its geographical contrasts and the army of chefs and vintners currently reimagining and refining its gastronomic traditions.

Among these, chef Ana Roš has become something of a de facto food ambassador for Slovenia, championing the zero-kilometre policy at which the country excels from her restaurant Hiša Franko in the Soča Valley, near the Italian border. Named best female chef by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy in 2017, Ana’s latest creation, Sun and Rain, is as much a cookbook as it is a handbook for endemic produce, most of it foraged, grown or made on site at Hiša Franko.

A byword for sustainable dining, Hiša Franko’s recipes might be tricky to replicate, thanks to their hyper-local ingredients, but here, Ana and her team, including her sommelier husband Valter Kramar, share five Slovenian favourites, accessible eats that can be found or recreated here in the UK.

Spelt bread

Grains and pseudo grains loom large in Slovenian cuisine. “They inform and enrich our daily eating,” says Hiša Franko’s head baker, Nataša Djuric. Sourdough spelt bread made with natural yeast is a house staple. “Spelt here has an amazing nutty flavour and nutritional value,” says Nataša. The perfect accompaniment for zemljanka, cheese aged in limestone karst caves, the abundant river trout or even fish fresh from the Gulf of Trieste.

Natural wines

Slovenia’s steep terroirs produce a huge diversity of wine such as Istrian Malvasia and award-winning Vipava Valley whites. Along with such accolades as being home to the oldest noble vine in the world still bearing grapes, in Maribor, Slovenia is a hub for natural or ‘raw’ wines. Low in sulphites, naturally fermented (no added yeast) and often either organic and/or biodynamic, natural wines might be on-trend, but they’ve been produced in Slovenia for several decades. Characteristically cloudy, these unfiltered wines have distinctive lively, funky flavours. “Food here is so herby and fresh, it’s hard to pair with regular wines,” says Hiša Franko sommelier, Valter Kramar. “We had to ‘teach’ guests how to drink the wine. Something we now seek to do internationally.”

Aged cheese

Cheese plays a big part in Slovenian diary offerings — predominantly sheep but also cow and goat. “We have more than 300 different cheeses in our cellar,” says Valter. “Fresh cheese and those aged between two to six months are usual in Slovenia. But we’ve got cheeses aged from one to more than five years.” A favourite is tolminc, an aged cheese from cows grazed in the high alpine pastures around the Soča Valley.

Elder blossoms

Gardening and forging have been part of Slovenian culture for centuries. “Even in the capital, Ljubljana, you’ll find blooming patches of green, thick with herbs, veggies and fruits,” says Ana. “Now is the season for elder blossoms. You’ll see plenty of people scaling trees for the flowers, which are used in everything from vinegar to pressé drinks and spring salads.” Foraging looms large in early summer when nature is at its bests. “We use high mountain pine cones for ice cream, acacia flowers fermented in jars set out in the sun, and wild asparagus and nettles used in pestos, salads and side dishes.”

Ravioli with goat cottage cheese

Dumplings and ravioli are Slovenian staples, brought to a refined reimagining at Hiša Franko filled with tangy, fermented goat’s milk cottage cheese. “We use the protected Drežnica goat, the country’s only indigenous breed of goat,” says Valter. Substitute at home with raw milk cottage cheese to get a similar flavour.

Ana Roš’s goat’s milk cottage cheese ravioli

This dish is served in a vegetable broth with roasted corn, polenta and hazelnuts
Serves: 6

For the dough:

500g semola rimacinata di grano duro
360g egg yolks
1 egg
30ml olive oil

For the filling:
500g goat’s milk cottage cheese
500ml cream

For the hazelnut and prosciutto broth:
1 carrot
1 roasted onion
1 stick celery
350g prosciutto
500ml hazelnut oil
100g brown butter

For the corn:
300g corn

For the polenta:
100g polenta

For the praline:
200g hazelnuts
50ml hazelnut oil
15g salt

For the garnish:
nasturtium flowers and nasturtium leaves

1. Work the dough ingredients together with your hands until the dough is slightly hot. Cover with clingfilm and let it sit in the refrigerator for 1 hr.
2. Place the filling ingredients in a Thermomix and blend into an emulsion, heating up to 70C. Cool it down and let it sit in the refrigerator.
3. To make the broth, cook the vegetables, prosciutto and 2.5 litres of water in a pressure cooker for 2 hrs. Strain, then emulsify with the hazelnut oil and brown butter.
4. Boil the corn for 30 mins, then drain and roast in a cast iron pan until golden and smoky. Allow to cool.
5. Roast the polenta in a dry iron pan until browned. Leave to cool on baking paper.
6. Roast the hazelnuts in the oven at 175C for 10 mins without adding any fat, shaking the tray from time to time. Blitz with the hazelnut oil and salt until smooth.
7. When you’re ready to serve, cook the ravioli. Pan fry them with the hazelnut praline, some cooking water and the prosciutto broth. Add the corn. Top with the roasted polenta. Serve over the prosciutto hazelnut broth. Garnish with the nasturtium flowers and leaves.

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