“Is there anyone from Sweden here?” asks chef David Vračko, sending a wave of nervous laughter and puzzled looks across the dining room. A few minutes later, he returns carrying a single speaker and places it on a small table in the middle of the room. The thumping piano and chanting vocals of Abba’s ‘Chiquitita’ soon fills the room as silky banana sorbets are dutifully served by waiters, who file in to the beat of the music.
This culinary spectacle is taking place at Vračko’s restaurant, Mak, located on an unassuming, low-lit street corner in Maribor in northeastern Slovenia. We’re three hours into the meal and only now is dessert being served.
Bearded, with long, brown, tied-back hair and a faded blue towel over his shoulder at all times, Vračko cuts something of a dishevelled figure. After spending 10 years learning his trade abroad, he returned to Maribor in 2011 to open Mak, which has since won several awards, including the Michelin plate.
“Don’t be afraid, I’ll explain everything,” he’d said earlier with a grin when I was presented with a fiery chunk of salami balanced precariously on a skinny, foot-high breadstick. Shortly afterwards, he returned wielding a blowtorch before charring the meat with a satisfying blast.
Vračko’s theatrical and undeniably entertaining take on fine dining is a capricious finale to my 100-mile journey east across Slovenia’s north, a compact yet cinematic landscape of wide plateaus, swaying wheat fields, yawning green valleys and densely forested mountains.
Having gained independence in 1992, this small country of two million people, blanketed by around 60% forest, has established itself as a world leader when it comes to sustainability. It’s also a key destination for outdoor pursuits, with hiking and kayaking popular in the summer, and skiing and snowboarding taking place in the mountains of Triglav National Park in the country’s north during winter. And it’s in Slovenia’s soaring northwest, some 2,130ft up St Jošt hill, that I take in my first vistas of its bucolic landscape.
Run by the Kristan family, Pr’Končovc is a farm and restaurant perched high in the hills amid a web of dense beech woodlands and snaking trails. It’s a humid June afternoon and I’m shown to a large carved wooden table at the lip of a perilous drop, with the nearby town of Kranj unfolding below and a small white train gliding by in the hazy distance. Only the chatter of birds pierces the lingering silence as I’m presented with a brothy veal stew served alongside a bowl of thick buckwheat groats.
“This really is something people here would have been eating, say, 200 years ago,” explains local guide Jure Ausec as I gaze out across the landscape. The hearty soup and occasional sweet hits of onion are as evocative as the landscape of unspoiled rural scenery fanning out beneath the farm.
“In fact, my grandma still makes this,” he says, smiling. I wonder whether the same is true of the succulent cuts of roe venison I’m served later, followed by a traditional potica nut roll stuffed with tangy figs and walnuts.
Pockmarked by small towns and hillside villages, this region has held onto its culture, including its traditional cuisine, despite centuries under the yoke of powerful states to the north, most notably the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
“Everything tastes better in the mountains,” announces Jure as we leave and I can only agree — although the incoming grey clouds and a distant low rumble of thunder give me pause for thought.
It’s a short, 30-minute ride to the small medieval town of Radovljica at the foothills of the Julian Alps and a stone’s throw from the seductive shores of Lake Bled. Aside from its picturesque location, Radovljica also claims to be ‘the sweetest town in the world’ — a claim that draws on both its historic tradition of beekeeping and honey production, and its obsession with chocolate.
And nobody epitomises the town’s sweet tooth more than Nataša Mikelj. A former director of the local tourist board, Nataša re-evaluated her life during the pandemic and subsequently decided to open a chocolate shop, Radol’ca Chocolate, with her husband Gregor.
“We aren’t young anymore, but our motto is ‘it’s never too late’,” she tells me as I browse row after row of swirling pralines and shining liqueurs. It turns out her inspiring story is just as compelling as the treats on show.
“It wasn’t an easy decision because we had to quit our jobs and we have children, too,” she explains. “And before, I was with the local tourist board, and now the locals see me outside cleaning windows and they think ‘didn’t you used to be a director?’ And I say that if I’d known this life was so good, I’d have made the change much earlier.”
In true Slovenian fashion, I’m presented with a delicate chestnut honey and pollen truffle and it’s just as syrupy-smooth as the town’s schmaltzy nickname. Radovljica also hosts an annual chocolate festival, while the decorative 18th-century facade of Radovljica Manor hides a museum dedicated entirely to beekeeping, a practice deeply woven into the Slovenians’ national consciousness.
Northern Slovenia’s sweet tooth is also reflected in its wines and, under stormy skies, I hit the road east towards the Podravska wine region and Ptuj, Slovenia’s oldest recorded city. Explosions of lightning illuminate the charcoal clouds above, while slanting rain patters against the windscreen.
“We have more than 780 years’ experience of trading wine in this region. Our wine was exported all over Europe in the 1300s,” says Ksenja Arbeiter, tour guide at Ptuj Wine Cellar. White grapes dominate the Podravska region, and down here lie dusty, ageing stacks of Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings. The samples I’m given slip down easily, expressing floral and fruity notes on the nose with a light body. They’re delicious, though rarely seen on wine lists outside Slovenia.
“Around 80% is sold here and the remaining 20% is exported to the US and China,” explains Ksenja. “China is just getting into wine culture and they like to buy our 20-year-old and 30-year-old vintages. It’s something new and interesting for them.”
Emerging from the cellar, as golden rays of sunlight burst through the dispersing clouds, I ponder that last statement. Slovenia has achieved much during its 30 years of independence, but here in its rugged northern hills, the food remains rich, historic and timeless. Listening to Abba while eating is optional, however.
Three eateries in Northern Slovenia
Take in sweeping views from a wooden booth high up in the Jošt hills while enjoying traditional Slovenian fare like hearty juha soup and a sweet potica nut roll. It’s a family-run restaurant, so expect a warm welcome and a humble explanation of each dish (especially for those unfamiliar with Slovenian cuisine). If you’re lucky, you’ll also be visited by the family’s sociable white cat. Tasting menu from €35 (£30). koncovc.si
2. Repnik Inn
In a picturesque setting near the foothills of the Kamnik-Savinja Alps, the rustic Repnik Inn is a great place to end a day of activity in Kamnik. While goulash is the speciality here, don’t miss the succulent roast veal shanks served with delicate cheese dumplings. There’s a full tasting menu, too, as well as sweet and mellow Slovenian mead. Tasting menus from €60 (£51). gostilna-repnik.si
3. Kipertz Café
The Kipertz Café at the Mitra Hotel is a Ptuj institution and its 300-year history emanates from the elegant stone interior. Formerly a shop, it was transformed by local coffee roaster Jožef Kipertz who bought the hotel building in 1785. The evocative setting and aromatic coffee make this a great spot in which to enjoy breakfast. If you have time, be sure to return to the hotel’s ornate Osterberger wine cellar in the evening for a tasting session. Mains from €5 (£4). hotel-mitra.si
Four foods to try in Slovenia
1. Ajdovi Žganci
Buckwheat is a traditional part of Slovenian rural life, and this dense, nutty-tasting porridge made from it is perfect warming winter fare.
Look out for this type of nut roll, which can be made from a variety of sweet or savoury fillings, including walnut, tarragon, chocolate or leek.
Beekeeping has long been part of Slovenian culture and honey is widely used as a sweetener in desserts such as medenjaki (ginger biscuits) and potica.
4. Podravje white wine
The north-eastern Podravje region produces whites of exceptional quality (and value) — the Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings are both reliable options.
How to do it
Published in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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