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Some months ago, I had the opportunity to do road-trip through Slovenia with Janez Bratovž, aka JB, the Slovenian chef whom I first met for Fine Dining Lovers last year. I jumped at the chance, particularly when the research included crisscrossing Slovenia with him on a quest for the best examples of the best indigenous Slovenian ingredients. Not only would we find the products themselves, but I would profile the producers of them, in his estimation the best producers and farmers of the finest raw materials for Slovenian cooking. That’s my idea of a good time.
What follows are five particularly intriguing Slovenian products that JB uses in his kitchen.
JB’s favorite pig is the local Krškopolje breed, translated as Blackstrap as they are marked with a black striped wrapping their bodies, like the bacon they will one day become. JB’s preferred producer is the Šuštar Farm, which also raises local Mangalica pigs (which are native to Slovenia and its neighbor, Hungary). Both are extremely high in fat, making them ideal for bacon and ham, or pršut, as the Slovenians call it. For the finest pršut in Slovenia we cross the country, from northern-central Carniola to the very edge of the nation, a short stroll to the Italian border. There we enter the agriturismo run by Uroš Klinec and his wife, Nejka. This is pršut that you quite literally cannot buy. They produce just about eighty legs a year, and it always sells out in advance. These pršut legs are aged at least two years, as much as four. Stored in a room with a constant 75% humidity, Uroš ages his pršut in a damper and more enclosed space than most producers. The burja (Bora) wind, laden with sea salt, works its magic but not with constant gusts, more with atmospheric saturation. His pršut is silken, 2/5 pure white fat striping the bottom, 3/5 perfect, evenly-colored pink muscle. “Great pršut must melt in your mouth,” JB whispers. “If you have to chew it, you already know it’s no good.”
Head down to the central farmer’s market in Ljubljana, and you’ll see a row of white-clad women, each selling sauerkraut, red cabbage and sour turnip. But there will only ever be a line of people waiting in front of one of them. It’s the stand run by Marjetka, and there’s a reason why she gets the lion’s share of the business: she has a different cabbage than anyone else in the market. Her family, which farms just on the edge of Ljubljana, keeps a single grain sack filled with seeds of what is called Ljubljana cabbage, Ljubljanske zelje. An indigenous type of cabbage, that sack of seeds is the last source of this nearly-extinct varietal. It is sown and harvested and the sack re-upped entirely within this family. And, according to JB, it makes one of the best sauerkraut on the planet, delicious to eat straight and raw, but recommended cooked with cracklings (preferably from a Blackstrap pig) and a side of sausage.
Carniolan Grey bee honey
It came as a surprise to learn that the honey produced by urban bees, those kept in busy cities, is actually cleaner than what comes from farms. The reason, according to Gorazd, the urban beekeeper whose hives are perched atop an office building in the heart of Slovenia’s capital, is that bees do not absorb pollution from cars, so it does not enter the honey, but they do absorb fertilizers and sprays used by industrialized farms, which can taint their honey. Slovenia has a millennial-old tradition of beekeeping. The Carniolan Grey bee is, as the name suggests, somewhat grey in coloration, and found only in the northern-central Carniola region of Slovenia, near the town of Kranj. It is unusually hearty, and produces a particular honey that has been consumed by the people of this region since the time of the ancient Romans, if not before, when honey was the primary sweetener.
Rdeča Trdinka red corn
Trdinka is the name of the corn, and while it comes in white and yellow varieties, it is the red version (rdeča trdinka) that steals the headlines. In a field owned by farmer Gregor Šlibar, row upon row of stalks have a surreal touch: The silky “hair” that puffs out of the corn husks is tinted pink. Reddish-pink tufts are scattered among the long, green stalks and the kernels are likewise shaded pink. When ground for polenta, the yellow meal is dotted with red flecks, like incarnadine stars in a sundrenched night sky. The taste of rdeča trdinka is delicate, and JB sources from Gregor Šlibar, because Gregor will make boutique grinds on his stone mill, perfectly gauged to allow JB to make his magical polenta back at the restaurant.
Styrian pumpkin seed oil
There are 825 types of pumpkins around the world, and only one of them is suitable for making pumpkin seed oil. Cucurbita pepo, also called Styriaca or Styrian pumpkins, are native to the swath of land that runs from Prekmurje in Slovenia across the border into Styria, Austria. This type of oil, used locally to dress salads or to top desserts, is rich, earthy, toasty, a nice compliment, or alternative, to using olive oil. Gorazd Kocbek and his family have been making it since 1929, processing it using the same, decades-old mechanical presses. In Kocbek’s green-tinged workshop, an elegant old man stirs the toasting seeds, before they are loaded into a stamper which presses the juices out, leaving a patty of dried, smashed seeds, which is used as feed for livestock, in a process with no waste whatsoever. The oil is available in several categories, and is also used in a wide variety of food products, including a pumpkin oil ice cream, which is a revelation. JB likes to use it as some would chocolate sauce, to top homemade gelato.
Part of what made my road trips with JB so rewarding was to see the great affection he has for his producers, and vice-versa. Both producer and master chef are deeply in love with their raw ingredients, and while JB may grab the headlines, he is the first to say that his producers are really the stars of the show, and it is his job to ensure that the ingredients are treated with appropriate respect, to let them shine through each dish.