Mix of traditional and sophisticated dishes
There are more than forty distinct cuisines in a country, whose main distinguishing feature is a great variety of land formation, climate, and history.There is no such thing as a single, uniform, distinct Slovenian cuisine. In the opinion of some experts, there are more than forty distinct cuisines in a country, whose main distinguishing feature is a great variety and diversity of land formation, climate, wind movements, humidity, terrain and history.
In the north-east there is the expanse of the Pannonian plain, in the east, the green and hilly Dolenjska region, in the south the Karst and the Adriatic coastline, in the north-west the Alps, the Barje marshes and the wine producing hills of Štajerska. All these factors influenced the development of the great variety and range represented by Slovenian cooking. To give two examples: crabs are found only in the rivers of Notranjska, pršut (Karst leg ham) can be dried only by the winds of Karst and the coast.
Slovenia is also a borderland country. It borders on four states with established and distinct national cuisines. From each Slovenians have borrowed culinary specialties, adapting them and making them their own.
Slovenian cuisine is not homogenous for another reason. The highly stratified population, founded in the town, the farmhouse, the cottage, the castle, the parsonage, the monastery and so on, led to the evolution of distinct cuisines. The urban populace for instance, was acquiring Austrian, German and French dishes. The evidence for this process appears in the first cookbook published in Slovenian language, Valentin Vodnik’s cookbook (1799). The influence of the German source is evident, but it also contains original elements. Certain occupations developed their own cuisine and special dishes. Thus we have the cuisines of: miners (eg omelette called miner’s heart), iron workers, raftsmen, charcoal-burners, foresters (eg. dormouse on the spit), blacksmiths (fižolovec – very thick bean soup), and the like.
When we speak of Slovenian cuisine we are usually referring to the traditional country dishes. Even here, there are differences in style and method, due to the diversity of countryside and climate. However, if we take away the greater differences among individual cuisines, we can summarize its characteristics in the following points:
• Slovenian cuisine is varied. This does not coincide with general view that it is uniform and monotonous. It is of course true that we often equate Slovenian cuisine with žganci, kislo zelje (sauerkraut) kranjske klobase (kranjske sausages), krvavice (blood sausage) and potica (traditional festive cake). However, there is much more to it than these well-known dishes. Indeed, Slovenian cuisine is comparable in range and variety to the cuisines of much larger countries. However, this fact is seldom recognized and is generally not reflected in the range of Slovenian culinary offerings.
• Slovenian cuisine is similar to the cuisines of bordering countries. As a border country Slovenia borrowed recipes from its neighbours, creating their own adaptations. bograč of Pokmurje has its origins in Hungarian goulash (its name taken from the clay-pot called bograč), the žlinkrofi of Idria were adapted from Italian ravioli. Such borrowing and adaptation is common to all countries (there are for instance very few genuine American dishes). Since Slovenian neighbours have superb cuisines, Slovenians have acquired some of that excellence. There are few autochtonous Slovenian dishes. Among these may be counted žganci, potica and pogača (round cake), named according to the filling ocvirkovka (from ocvirki, crackling) and špehovka (from špeh, bacon). So popular were these Slovenian specialties, that they spread to the neighbouring countries.
• Slovenian cuisine is simple and plain. This can be said for the greater part of the country cuisine, and cuisines of some occupational groups like miners. The famous miner’s heart is nothing but a thick omlette, folded in half. No great skill is required for the preparation of močnik, kaša (porridge or gruel), or šara. Other dishes recquire a great deal of experience, knowledge and skill. Potica for instance, does not always turn out as it should. Dishes were plain, due to the undeveloped technology of cooking in the old days. You can’t fry a wiener schnitzel in the traditional bread oven or open fireplace. Various appliances and refrigeration that we take for granted today did not exist at the beginning of the 20th century. Tins were unknown. Food was preserved in lard or zaseka (grained bacon, onions and salt), or dried in the chimney, or on top of the large country bread oven. Many domesticated animals, vegetables, fruits and spices are a recent acquisition. Traditional spices of Slovenian cuisine were parsley, marjoram, mint, melissa, sage, thyme, šetraj, bay leaf, imported pepper and cinnamon. Curry, ginger and soya sauce were not even heard of. Urban and parsonage cuisine was influenced by the German, Austrian, French and in some places Italian cuisine, and was progressive for its own time. In the famous cookbook of Valentin Vodnik, published in 1799, we find dishes of river crab, asparagus, game, mustard, hollandaise sauce, lemon ice (zmrzlina), almond cake.
• Slovenian traditional cuisine is “heavy”, caloric. Many dishes are hard to digest. It is based on the use of animal fat (ocvirki-crackling, zaseka, bacon, lard, dripping), pork, flour-based dishes, potatoes, beans, butter, cream and eggs, (24 eggs go into Gorenjska prata). Mushrooms are used occasionally, vegetables are comparatively few with the exception of cabbage and turnip. Many of these dishes are now regarded as unhealthy. This can be said of city and country cooking. Farmers burnt calories through heavy work, while city people tended to be overweight and died of stroke and other diseases. Today many of these dishes have been adapted and changed in accordance with new insights into what constitutes a well-balanced diet. Oil has replaced lard, veal or chicken is chosen rather than pork, mushrooms are used for flavour rather than served as the main dish, etc. Instead of a mountain of žganci drowned in pork fat and full-cream milk, the modern day Slovenian eats a small serving without fat, accompanied with vegetable sauce or yoghurt. From many recipes, the tastier and healthier variants are selected. For example polenta is now served with cottage cheese, a tradition of Primorska coastal region.
• Traditional Slovenian cuisine almost exclusively used food products grown in Slovenia. Imported food was the exception, oranges and lemons (and lemon juice) were almost non-existent. Such products were better known in the city or on the coast, where ships made their stops.
Soups are a relatively recent invention in Slovenian cuisine, but there are over 100. Earlier there were various kinds of porridge, stew and hotpot meals. The most common soups without meat were lean and plain, typical is the soup made from turnip peel. Most common meat soups were beef and chicken soup. All parts of a vegetable or fruit were put to use, for example, turnip and apple peel were dried to be used respectively in soup or tea, crab shells were boiled or fried in butter to flavour soup.
The soups of the Pokmurje and parts of Štajerska were more substantial. In Pomurje they had soup even for breakfast, often as the main meal. On special occasions two soups were served. In some places they stirred in millet or buckwheat meal or added cream and sour milk. Sour soups were a feature of the north-east country from Prekmurje to Koroška. The famous Štajerska sour soup of Pohorje, consisting of veal, offal and sour cream is the best remedy for hangover. In the hilly vinyard country they even made wine soup. The Gorenjska soups were leaner. The most common were prežganka, potato and beef soup. The most valued was the beef soup, traditionally served with golden globs of fat and marrow swimming on top. Very popular addition were dumplings, some made of spleen or brains. Common were mutton and turnip soup, crackling soup and in Dolenjska, potato soup.
The common soup style in Alpine region was called šara. For these soups they took the off-cuts of dried meat, offal and various kinds of so-called ‘pig vegetables’, such as yellow kohlrabi, turnip, yellow and red carrots and potatoes. In Bela Krajina they cooked šara with millet or barley, and without meat. With a greater range of vegetables and spices available today, šara can be quite tasty.
Another kind of popular soup is jota, which developed from močnik (gruel or porridge). The housewife mixed in various vegetables, primarily sour pickled cabbage (kislo zelje, sauerkraut) or sour pickled turnip (kisla repa, sour turnip), sometimes adding dried pork. The most common jota consists of kislo zelje, cooked beans and potatoes with the addition of smoked pork, sausage or ribs, a very wholesome and popular thick soup eaten with bread.
Ričet is a thick soup known all over Slovenia. The basic ingredients are pearl barley and dried meat. In some places dried plums or pears are added. Plain ričet (without tasty additions) was often served in prison. That is the origin of the expression to live on ričet. The soup is still popular today, and is regularly on the menu of many households and restaurants. Improved roasted ričet is offered at the restaurant Letališče Lesce.
Meat based soups were served only on Sundays and feast days, more frequently in prosperous country and city households. Apart from the beef soup, chicken soup was greatly valued. It was thought that it had medicinal properties and brought health to the ailing, the pregnant women and women in childbed. The poor people of the time subsisted mainly on ješprenj (barley soup} and močnik. (porridge or gruel) Very similar to soup and still popular today is obara or ajmoht. Obara (Slovenian stew) is made with prežganje (clarified butter and flour) and contains meat, offal, potatoes, herbs and other additions. Most valued was chicken obara served with ajdovi žganci (buckwheat žganci). In the old days they feasted on frog and dormouse obara in Dolenjska.
Slovenians were familiar with a wide variety of meat, which was mostly served on Sundays and festive occasions. Pork was popular and common everywhere in Slovenia. Poultry also featured largely. In Bela Krajina and Primorska they ate mutton and goat meat. On Martinovo, Martinmas or St. Martin’s Day (wine harvest celebration) people feast on roast goose, duck, turkey and chicken. In Dolenjska and Notranjska, they ate dormouse and even hedgehogs. Until the great crab plague in the 19th century, crab was a source of income and often on the menu in Dolenjska and Notranjska.
When the waters of the intermittent Cerknice Lake poured off in spring, people collected in baskets fish left on dry land. To preserve the great crop, fish was then salted, dried or smoked. In Prekmurje they ate carp and trout cooked in locally made pumpkin oil. In Primorska they prepared fish soups, eel in wine, grilled cuttle-fish, stuffed calamari, prawns in wine. Istria is famed for the dried stockfish of the northern seas, the polenovka or bakalar, brought to Istria by sailors. They still prepare it on special days, particularly Christmas, and in some places on Good Friday. The fish is pounded till tender, then olive oil and garlic is added. The smell is very strong while cooking (like cauliflower). Later the smell disperses and the dish exhibits a pleasant, distinctive character. It is usually served like a type of goulash with polenta or boiled potatoes.
Traditionally one of the high points of the year was the day, when koline (a range of meat products from the slaughtered pig were prepared for preserving, drying or smoking). The pig was slaughtered and meat made into krvavice (blood sausages), pečenice (frying sausages), kranjske klobase (kranjske sausages), famous Slovenian želodec (stomach sausage, similar to the Scottish haggis), stuffed with fillings of local varieties (eg. gorenjski, savinjski, notranjski and primorski želodec). From morning till night the household made meat products of all the parts of the pig, such as liver sausage, bacon, ocvirki, zaseka and so on. Krvavice were made from the head, offal, meat cutoffs, lard and bacon, millet, buckwheat and barley meal, spices and blood. In more recent times, rice has been added. In Primorska they sometimes added sugar and raisins. Krvavica without blood was called white sausage. From the water in which krvavice were cooked, came the soup called godla (transl. as mess). Some krvavice burst open and the stuffing is spilled out, thickening the soup. In lower Gorenjska, the zaseka was ground from fresh bacon, in the upper Gorenjska, from the smoked bacon. A side product of koline was žolca (aspic), traditionally prepared at Easter. Kranjske klobase are popular outside the borders of Slovenia, and are produced and sold under this name in Australia. Country people also prepared salami and dried them in the chimney, together with sausages, ribs and other meat. Only in Kras (Karst) region and along the coast they dried pršut (prosciutto) in the dry local wind. Salami and sausages were made from prime meat and bacon, smoked but juicy inside. Another specialty is šunka (ham), baked in bread. In Prekmurje koline were eaten with bujta repa (arch. killed turnip).
Famous are the mavžlji of Koroška. Meat of pig’s head, fried bread, buckwheat grain and spices are wrapped in pork membrane and roasted. Similar is Gorenjska prata, where the ingredients are meat of pig’s head, remnants of roast, ham, bread and spices. These are mixed and roasted in pork membrane. From Štajerska originate roasted Martin goose, cavalry pot with beef tail, rafters’ goulash and Savinja rafters’ steak.
Our ancestors ate a great deal of cabbage and turnips. They were pickled in large barrels for winter food as kislo zelje (sour cabbage or sauerkraut in German) and kisla repa (sour turnip). They were served as an accompaniment to potatoes and sausages, a side dish or as the main ingredient in soups. Kislo zelje was also used as filling for štruklji. While the French and Germans are familiar with sour pickled cabbage, they aren’t familiar with sour pickled turnip. In Slovenian cooking it is used much the same as kislo zelje, and preferred by many as lighter and more delicate in taste. Trnovo, today a suburb of Ljubljana, was renowned for producing cabbage. It was of such quality that it was exported to Vienna and other large cities of the Austrian empire. It is said that the emperor Joseph II enjoyed it and would have no other.
Other common vegetables were potatoes, beans, broadbeans, lentils, chicory, and in some places cucumbers, pumpkins and egg plant (Istria). Turnip peel was dried on top of the bread oven and used for the soup called alleluja. In some places they served it on Good Friday. The tradition has it, that it was invented during the great famine of 16th century. Later they improved it by adding other ingredients like flour, kaša, or zaseka.
Regrat (dandelion) is Slovenian wild lettuce, which has been gathered in the fields for centuries. Even today regrat and potato salad is highly valued. Since it can be picked only for a short time in early spring, much is made of it. Families go on regrat picking expeditions, and pick enough for a whole week. Some gostilne (restaurants) even celebrate regrat days, for instance gostilna pri Kuklju in Velike Lašče.
Beans are served regularly. Lentils (leča), and broad beans (bob) have almost disappeared from Slovenian tables. Potatoes came into use only in the 18th century and then literally took over Slovenian cuisine. They are served simply with butter, or sour milk, used as an ingredient in soups, served as salad, or as an ingredient in a green salad, made into delicious dumplings, mashed, baked, fried, roasted or praženi (cooked, sliced and fried with onions and a spoon of lard or oil in a covered pot).
In the Middle Ages people ate acorns and other forest fruits, particularly in times of famine. Chestnuts were valued, and served as basis for many outstanding dishes. Walnuts and hazelnuts were used in cakes and desserts. Wild strawberries, loganberries, blackberries, blueberries were a rich source of vitamins.
Mushrooms have always been popular, and Slovenians liked picking and eating them. There are many varieties. They are used as an ingredient in soups and stuffing, as a side dish or accompaniment, fried, mixed with scrambled eggs, etc. Another specialty is a mushroom buckwheat kaša, in Štajerska they bake a mushroom potica and in Dolenjska sausages are stuffed with mushrooms.
An old Slovenian dish is kaša (porridge). Kaša is already mentioned in Valvasor’s The Glory of the Duchy of Krain (17th century). Millet kaša, today almost unknown, was served most often. It was served at wedding feasts, following the common belief that it ensured fertility. Less common was barley kaša or ričet, and buckwheat kaša. Often it was served with prunes, turnip or cabbage. Kaša is a popular dish in other Slavic countries.
Buckwheat (ajda) was introduced to central Europe from the far east, brought there by the Mongols. It was mentioned for the first time in town records in 1426 AD. Although known in other European countries, it was only in Slovenia that it became a popular national food. Buckwheat is the main ingredient in the preparation of žganci. It is also used in the making of polenta, krapi (fritters), kaša, potica, pogača (round cake), torta (cake), bread, and in more recent times, buckwheat noodles. Altogether Slovenian cuisine can boast of over hundred buckwheat dishes.
Ajdovi žganci are the best known and popular Slovenian national dish. Buckwheat flour is poured into boiling salted water (krop). After a while the lump of flour is pierced with the wooden spoon. This allows the steam to escape and the water to boil over the flour. After twenty minutes, some water is poured off and the flour mixed with water. The mixture is spooned into a serving dish, and hot lard with ocvirki (very small slices of tender crackling) poured over it. It is usually served with obara, kislo zelje or kisla repa.
Another popular and old traditional dish is polenta (corn semolina) at home in Primorska and Kras where it sometimes took the place of bread. Beside the more common corn polenta there is also buckwheat and potato polenta.
Žlinkrofi are similar to Italian ravioli. The best known are the Idria žlinkrofi. Initially they were made with potato filling, later with meat and eggs. In Koroška they make buckwheat žlinkrofi with fruit filling, potato, meat and eggs. In Savinjska Valley meat filling was common. More recently žlinkrofi have been made with cream cheese filling.
In the place of noodles Slovenians had mlinci, or blinci (unleavened round bread). Ethnologists believe that unleavened bread came to Slovenia from the Middle East via the Balkans. Mlinci were served in Notranjska in a large bowl, broken into small pieces. They were scalded with krop (boiling salted water). After a few minutes the water was drained off and melted butter with fried onion rounds poured over them. This is a tasty dish, served traditionally in some places on Christmas Eve. Some restaurants still serve the traditional duck with mlinci, for instance Gostilna Iker in Ljubljana.
Štruklji are another well-known Slovenian specialty and possibly the oldest of Slovenian dishes. A cookbook published in Graz in 1589, mentions “tarragon štruklji”, which the writer calls Slovenian. They are made of ‘stretched’ or yeast dough. The dough is rolled out thinly, spread with a variety of fillings and made into a roll, which is then wrapped in cloth and cooked. Evidence of their importance is in the common Slovenian surname, Štrukelj. There is also a village near castle Turjak, called Štrukljeva vas. Štruklji are named after the filling: orehovi (walnut), sirovi (cream cheese), krompirjevi (potato), pehtranovi (tarragon), metini (mint), fižolovi (beans) and many others. They may further be filled with breadcrumbs fried in butter, eggs, cheese, cream, bacon, blood, beans, potato, crackling, and other ingredients. There are more than one hundred different štruklji recipes. Gostilna pri Kuklju, Velike Lasce, serves several varieties.
Štruklji are most popular in Dolenjska, and ethnologists surmise that this is where they originate. Štruklji are a ceremonial dish. They used to be served on feast days, at carnival time (pust), weddings, wakes (sedmina), at harvest time (žetev), at threshing (mlatev), on namedays (god). Other Slovenian regions also prepare štruklji. In Štajerska they make buckwheat štruklji, in Gorenjska walnut, cream cheese and cream štruklji. In some places they are steamed. In Notranjska they prepare baked štruklji with cream. A specialty are the Gorenjska štruklji with plum or bilberry filling.
Gibanice and similar krapce are a specialty of the north-east, in Pomurje and Prlekija. The dough is baked in several layers, with filling between layers. In some gibanice there are as many as nine layers, each with a different filling. One layer may be walnuts, another cream cheese, another poppy seed, another apples, and so on. The renowned Prlekija gibanica is filled with cream cheese and topped with cream and egg yolks. Loparnice are gibanice, that are placed on the oven spade (lopar) and baked in the bread oven.
Among the cakes there is the quintessentially Slovenian potica, most likely autochtonous. It is a festive cake, already mentioned by Valvasor in the 17th century. In non-Slovenian cookbooks it is referred to as kranjska or ljubljanska potica. The name is probably derived from the word poviti (to roll up). Potica is baked in a model, which gives it shape. There is a variety of models. Also a great variety of fillings: walnut, carob, hazelnut, poppyseed, almond, cheese curd, cream, honey, tarragon, mint, crackling, ground bacon, dried fruit, particularly raisins. More recently cocoa and chocolate have been added, and even more recently, desiccated coconut. A specialty is ajdova potica. In Bizeljsko they make it with a filling of cream, cream cheese and walnuts.
In the traditional Slovenian cuisine there are at least fifty varieties of potica. Preparation of potica is a lengthy and time consuming process and these days it is sold by bakeries and patisseries. The recipe for the more unusual pehtranova (tarragon) and ajdova (buckwheat) potica can be found on the web pages of http://www.kulinarika.net , Kulinarična Slovenija (Culinary Slovenia).
Slovenians have other types of cakes: pince, gibanice, šarklji, kolači, which are made of fine yeast dough, with many egg yolks, milk and butter. Raisins may be added to the dough or part of it can be flavoured with chocolate powder, so that the cake is patterned yellow and brown, with a marble effect. Krofi, bobi, miške, buhtelni, flancati and apple štrudel are known all over Slovenia. These small cakes were introduced to Slovenia from neighbouring Alpine countries and became typically Slovenian. A recent acquisition are the renowned kremšnite or kremne rezine of Bled and particularly grmade of Bled, blejske grmade). Recipe can be found on the website Kulinarična Slovenija and sampled in the restaurant Letališče Lesce.
Honey was used to a considerable extent. Medenjaki, honey cakes, come in different shapes. They are commonly heart-shaped and often used as gifts. Most famous are the little breads of Škofja Loka and Dražgoše (kruhki).
One of the most important foods of Slovenia is bread (kruh). Slovenians are a nation of bread lovers. Bread is eaten with every meal. It was taken along to work in the fields and on travels. Bread was baked in the great bread oven, usually once a week. It was put in the oven and removed with the oven spade. The cottage dwellers baked bread with ‘black’ flour, sometimes adding bran and potatoes. Well-to-do farmers had bread made with white flour, sometimes with the addition of dried fruit or walnuts. Beside white and black bread, they bake bread from wheat, rye, barley, and corn, and often a mixture of two kinds of flour. The importance of bread is demonstrated with the custom of greeting guests with a dish of bread and salt. The tradition is still played out at ceremonial receptions.
This was a description of only a part of Slovenian traditional food. We only touched on culinary customs on festive occasions such as weddings, name days, wakes, carnivals etc. Of relevance would be a description of the traditional black kitchen with open fireplace, oven spade, oven fork, clay and iron pots. This is something to be addressed in the future. In Dolenjska the potters produced special three-legged pots. They used them to cook the midday meal when working in the fields. Underneath they heaped live coals and cooked “južina”.
An important part of tradition are eating customs. The farming family sat around a large table. In the middle of the table was placed a large bowl with food, into which were dipped wooden spoons, and from which the whole family ate. In a well-to-do household servants ate at another table.
Slovenian classical dishes are not frequently on the table today. A place in the sun was won only by some of them, such as potica, gibanica, polenta, regrat salad, ričet, jota, bograč, žganci, kranjske klobase and a few more. But who is cooking šara, mavžlje, krapce, močnik or bujta repa? One of the main reasons is the lack of knowledge about Slovenian national cuisine. Another reason is lack of understanding of improvement and adapation that is possible. Yet another is quick fix cuisine McDonald style, which is supplanting the slower ways of cooking. It is interesting that traditional dishes have been retained in original form by our emigrants in America and Australia.
Slovenian cuisine is on the menu of many restaurants and gostilne (inns) in Slovenia, and Slovenian specialties are on the increase. Some gostilne also offer traditional Slovenian ambient, such as Gostilna Lectar in Radovljica, restaurant Koren in Podljubelj, Gostilna Pri Kuklju in Velike Lašče. (where you can see the remnants of the black kitchen), Gostilna Martin in Trbovlje (famous for specialties of the Sava valley, restaurant Sinjor in Martjanci, in Gostilna Siker in Pernica, where you can eat original dishes of Prekmurje. Enjoy!
In conclusion, let us mention the contemporary Slovenian cuisine. Dishes are borrowed from all renowned European cuisines, some more than others. If you asked a tourist, he or she would probably say pica. However the modern Slovenian cuisine is not so uniform and one-sided, and offers much more, even the most sophisticated dishes. For example, gostilna Hana in Ljubljana offers to connoisseurs not only Slovenian dishes, but also “carpaccio with ruccola”, marinated losos, gratined escargot, fried banana with cognac and a lot more. The countries of former Yugoslavia have also had influence and gained the right of domicile. Gostilna Pod Rožnikom offers a number of specialties. There is little doubt that Slovenian cuisine is changing and will keep on changing.
Article by Marinka Pečjak, July 2000.