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There are many reasons adventurers consider Slovenia one of Central Europe’s most desirable travel destinations. From the iridescent beauty of Lake Bled to the cobblestone streets of Ljubljana and the low-key luxury of the area’s many ski-resorts, Slovenia is synonymous with the “good life.” Now, in addition to its many national treasures, comes a new generation of culinary masters.
Recently, Slovenia hosted its first large-scale culinary event of the season, the Gourmet Cup. To attract global attention, the festival enlisted one of the country’s most famous residents, chef Ana Roš. In 2017, the flaxen-haired, diplomat-turned-chef, who many will recognize from Netflix’s Chefs Table, received the unexpected title of “World’s Best Female Chef.” This honor quickly propelled Roš and her countryside restaurant, Hiša Franko, into the limelight.
For the Gourmet Cup, Roš decamped from Hiša Franko in Soca Valley, to a makeshift kitchen on the legendary hilltop Ljubljana Castle for this one-night-only cooking extravaganza. Along with two other chefs, Philip Rachinger and Luka Jezeršek, Roš prepared three of the dinner’s nine-courses.
“During the past three years, the food scene in Slovenia has changed so much. Before, we were embarrassed about our food,” a local confided. As I swirled my fork around a plate of organic deer heart, prepared with delicate flavors of oysters, Riesling, and bergamot, it’s hard to imagine an era when Slovenians would have taken shame in their cuisine. A nation of rural farmers, the world has often viewed Slovenian fare as “peasant food,” but in recent years it's shaken up this image by marrying organic, locally sourced produce with upscale comfort food.
“Slovenian chefs have elevated traditional dishes and local ingredients,” says Jezeršek, who lists potica (a traditional dessert) as a prime example. “With the help of modern technology, we can now make smaller versions of the dish, which was traditionally only prepared for larger holidays and special occasions. It’s very demanding to prepare from scratch.” Jezeršek explained that the delicacy is now widely available.
The menu at the Gourmet Cup dinner boasted many heritage foods made contemporary: millet porridge, crackling, tongue, and deer heart, all cooked with skill and imagination; bowls of delicately sliced veal served with a pour-over broth, the deer enhanced with smoked eel and Umeboshi Plum.
“Four years ago, I predicted Slovenia would be on the way to becoming one of the biggest culinary destinations in Europe,” says Chef Janez Bratovz, of Restaurant JB. “Not just because of the established chefs, but from youngsters doing a good job.” If Roš is the darling of Slovenian cuisine, Bratovz is the grandfather. The first Slovenian chef to have his restaurant listed in the San Pellegrino World’s 100 Best Restaurant List, Bratovz has elevated classic Slovenian dishes since the country’s independence.
At his restaurant in downtown Ljubljana, Bratovz continues to create fresh, modern meals like pork crackling served with a hen’s egg, complimented by locally-sourced vegetables and seasoning. “Ingredients are the most important thing,” he said, emphatically. “Because Slovenia is small, it’s not so globalized, and so farmers are producing good ingredients that are readily available.”
As both the capital and largest city in Slovenia, Ljubljana brims with top chefs, both established and emerging, and high caliber restaurants whipping up fine locally influenced cuisine. “Slovenia is located at the crossroads of the Alpine world, Pannonian Plain, and the Mediterranean. We have 24 gastronomic regions, and this is a great basis for developing contemporary Slovenian dishes, which strongly rely on traditions and culture,” says Jezeršek. To sample Slovenia’s prodigious culinary delights, go to Ljubljana’s Central Market, located in the core of the city, any day of the week. Here, you’ll find some of Slovenia’s finest produce, market tables laden with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Chef Igor Jagodic of Restaurant Strelec, a high-end eatery located inside Ljubljana Castle, leans towards local ingredients like veal and smoked goose liver. Rising chef Bine Volčič, the tattoed mastermind behind the new bistro Monstera, fuses contemporary and traditional Slovenia leek soup with shrimp ceviche. Go beyond Ljubljana, and you’ll find regional cuisine influenced by the rich culinary history of Slovenia’s neighbors. Located on the Italian border in Nova Gorica, Dam Restaurant, under chef Uros Fakuc, creates Mediterranean seafood-focused dishes. At Vila Podvin, nestled up in the small Alpine town of Radovljica on the Austrian border, chef Uros Stefelina makes hearty, warming dishes with ingredients from nearby farms. The commonality? Local produce executed in modern ways.
At the Gourmet Cup dinner, the camaraderie between the three chefs, Roš, Jezeršek, and Rachinger, is palpable. But Roš and Jezeršek, both Slovenian, aren’t cooking to advocate their restaurants—they’re hoping to advance Slovenia’s food story as a whole. I can’t help but be reminded of Denmark’s underdog culinary scene, and of chef Rene Redzepi, who worked tirelessly to reinvent Danish food’s global perception. We all know whether that was a success. In 2018, perhaps our obsession with Nordic culinary minimalism may even give way to the rise of Slovenian comfort?