Slovenia, the lush, dark forests, castles perched like birds of prey on cliff-tops, fortified churches, waterfalls, gorges, and postcard-perfect lakes of the imagination. This oft-overlooked gem of a country, nestled between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia has an enormous amount to offer the intelligent traveler, especially when it comes to food.
You must have a Slovenian mother-in-law in order to really appreciate its roots. Slovenian food is unrefined—and all the better for it. While there are a handful of fine dining restaurants, the vast majority of Slovenia’s best eating establishments are called gostilnas, country inns. The attitude toward food there is down-home, lots of meat and heavy sauces, little regard for health food options, and as large portions as possible. This is not a country that promotes vegetarianism, nor is it for those on a diet.
Traditional Slovene meals begin with one of two soups: beef noodle or mushroom. Recipes tend to vary surprisingly little, the beef soup always filled with fresh, hand-made noodles, and the broth built on beef shank boiled with carrots and bay leaves. Mushroom soup starts with fresh porcini mushrooms, which sprout in abundance throughout Slovenia’s forests (hunting them is something of a national pastime), and can be creamy or clear-brothed. Soup is always accompanied by bread and the diversity of breads is astonishing: dusted with seeds, laced with onion, dotted with walnuts or sunflower seeds, made with corn flower, buckwheat, rye, or wholegrain. Softness is prioritized over texture, external crunch, and chew. It is largely a conduit for sauces, and the sauces are aplenty.
For lighter meals, try enoloncnice. Roughly translated to “meals in bowl,” they ride the line between stews and soups, and all are hearty and warming. Golaž and bograc borrow from neighboring Hungary, thick stews of meat with paprika. Obara is a clear stew of chicken or veal, enriched with grains. Ricet features spelt or barley, segadin balances the meat with cabbage. Each region has its own variations on these one-bowl meals.
For more elaborate meals, mains in Slovenia revolve around large cuts of meat with a side of potatoes, kislo zelje (sauerkraut), or a variation on sauerkraut that also tastes a lot better than it sounds: sour turnip, called kisla repa. The meats are browned and then steamed, cooked far longer than is popular elsewhere. You’ll only find rare-cooked meats at more upscale restaurants. Cuts of meat tend to be thin, to maximize portions—so thin, in fact, that rare cooking is an impossibility. Thicker cuts must be specially requested, and are often met with looks of confusion from local butchers. This habit of cooking meat through means that the meat itself offers more of a texture than a flavor—what you wind up tasting is the sauce. Natural sauces from pecenice (cooked sausage), krvavica (blood sausage), and zrezki (cutlets) are sautéed in sunflower oil or lard studded with cracklings, enriched by white flour, and flavored with bouillon cubes.
Dessert is another realm where Slovenian cuisine shines. The two national desserts are potica and gibanica. Potica is a Bundt cake made by grandmothers everywhere, particularly around Christmas. It is traditionally filled with ground walnuts, but variations with poppy seeds, chocolate, hazelnuts, and even sage may be found. The image of grandmothers, rolling out homemade dough on the kitchen table, then using a table cloth to pinch and twirl the filled dough into a cable that is then coiled into a Bundt pan, is the Slovene equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting of granny carving the Christmas turkey. The resulting marbled cake, not crumbly but firm, represents the taste of the holidays for Slovenes. Slovenian food is a wonderful hybrid of alpine sausage and sauces, Austrian pastries, Hungarian stews, Balkan meats, and a gentle touch of northern Italian flavor. Ideal for winter, or for a feast of a holiday, any time of year.