The Alps to the north, the Pannonian plains to the east and the Adriatic Coastline to the west: Slovenia is a small country with diverse landscape. Often treated as Central Europe’s bypass between Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary, this underrated country merits more visitors who actually stop and explore for a while.
Its capital Ljubljana (pronounced Loo-blee-yana if you’re wondering), lies at the heart of the country in a basin surrounded by mountains and fertile agricultural fields. Ljubljana is small. I’m not just talking about its compact city centre, with its cliff-top castle, neo-classical monuments blended with Central European style and art nouveau accents, but locals say you can cycle from one suburban extreme to the other in just 45 minutes. However, beautiful things come in small packages, and Ljubljana is no exception.
“Ljubljana was never a capital,” Iva, my guide, said, “It was always a merchant town part of a bigger empire, such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Yugoslavia, where some other city was a capital. It only became a capital city in the 1990s after Slovenia got its independence.”
It’s Slovenia’s newfound freedom after 10-day conflict (a blip in time, when you compare it to other former Yugoslavian countries, like Bosnia & Herzegovina) and ability to stand on its own two feet, infused the country with strong and preserved culture. And, what better way to explore Ljubljana and Slovenian culture than through food?
The Art of the Slovenian Kitchen
Journalist Iva set up her gastronomy-themed walking tours, Ljubljananam, to showcase Slovenia’s culinary diversity. These leisurely walking tours may involve more eating than walking, but in Ljubljana’s compact city centre, it’s easy to see the Slovenian capital on foot without taking mile-long hikes.
The tours stop at a maximum number of 6 people and are customisable. I joined up with a pescatarian couple from the US on the tour, which then skewed the tour towards cheese and seafood, but being a cheese lover myself, I was more than happy with that. And while it was a Sunday, the slowest day in Ljubljana and also for the tour, I still felt like I really got a taste for food and life in Ljubljana.
“The contemporary restaurant scene is quite new here,” Iva said as we strolled through the old town, up the cobbled streets past old medieval houses, which once stood alone and were fused together in the 17th-18th centuries with their new facades.
“While the country was under a socialist regime, everything was the same, the same food and look. Now, since independence and the financial crisis, more and more businesses and restaurants are popping up. Saying that, Slovenians are more into lunch. Places like this one, where they have a set lunch menu with fresh, seasonal ingredients, are becoming popular.”
Our first stop took us to a simple eatery (to preserve the mystery element of the tour, I am keeping some of the locations secret), open only for lunches, located in a courtyard beside a church and a chandelier hanging above the street. The simple menu served as few select items showcasing ingredients that are in season that changed on a daily basis.
Us meat eaters sampled the local specials kicking off with an aromatic beef broth accented with fritati, a local type of shredded pancake, followed by a Slovenian take of beef and aubergine moussaka, where the freshness of the seasonal produce really came through in its simplicity. The vegetarian alternatives also maintained its Slovenian authenticity, with local buckwheat bread with pumpkin seed oil – more on that later – and cottage cheese and then a vegetarian interpretation of a local dish: stuffed peppers.
Taste of Istria
While our courses satisfied our empty stomachs happy, we strolled down the old town past wine shops and design boutiques to an Istrian bistro specialising in wine, fish, and cheese. Taking a seat among the potted olive trees, the aroma of fresh fish wafted out of the shop opposite as the sardines sizzled in vats of oil.
“This place specialises in Istrian cuisine,” Iva said, “Slovenia has a small coastline, which stretches about 43km. Most people associate Istria with Croatia, but our coast lies at the top of the peninsula. While a many Slovenian dishes show influences from heavier cuisines such as Austro-Hungarian or Balkan, we also have a branch of Mediterranean cuisine thanks to the coastal region, which is very close to Italy.”
“We grow our own olives and make our own olive oil, but since Slovenia is such a small country when it comes to production, we often import from Italy. This is the reason you won’t see many exports of Slovenian wine or olive oil, we use it up it ourselves.”
This made the glass crisp local wine, made from the local Malvasia grape from the Čok winery near the Istrian coast, a rare experience. The clean sharpness of the wine served as the perfect accompaniment to the fried sardines and cheese board mixed up with protected origin Istrian cheeses: Cow milk cheese from Socerb and Potok, as well as a tangy goat milk cheese from Krkavče, and a sheep’s cheese from Vremščica. We also sampled a mix of plump, tart Slovenian olives, also hailing from the Istrian region.
Pumpkin seed oil forms an important base for Slovenian cuisine. This rich, green oil is a staple in the Slovenian kitchen, usually roasted, and served on salads and even in desserts. Wandering round Ljubljana’s old town, near to the Central Market area, we stopped in a small shop selling a variety of oils and liqueurs, such as those made from pine spruces or lemon and sage, with handwritten labels pasted on the bottle.
While pumpkin seed oil is often bought indiscriminately from the health food store without considering taste. Here, each oil comes to life with a distinct personality – cold pressed, raw pumpkin seeds or roasted, the latter offered a delightful intensity.
Beers of Slovenia
Slovenia might have wonderful wines, but its beers are also worth celebrating. Beer production is hardly new in Ljubljana, where a 4000-year-old bottle of beer was excavated from the castle grounds. In fact, beer production in Slovenia probably pre-dates its wine!
Sitting on the banks of the Ljubljanica River, we took a break from food to try some of Slovenia’s microbrewed beers.
While the country has two large-scale breweries, much like the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, microbrewing is becoming a big thing, and you can find several independent breweries across the country. What really makes Slovenia’s beers stand out is the excellent hops grown locally.
Taking a break from food, we sat down at a riverside terrace in a hipster joint where your water comes in a chemistry set, but the beer was excellent. We kicked off with a pale ale from the Human Fish Brewery, named for the skin-coloured amphibian residing in the Postojna Caves, then followed by Pelicon’s 3rd Pill IPA, a smooth IPA with a herby aroma, and finally, a smoky, rich, coffee-like Vizir Black Jack Stout brewed by a family near the Croatian border.
Slovenia’s proximity to Italy has allowed the craft gelato movement to take off in the local gastronomic scene. Strolling the city’s streets you come across various gelato boutiques tempting you in with classic and more experimental flavours.
“This is my absolute favourite,” Iva told us as we crossed the bridge, taking us up the steps to a plaza with views over Ljubljana castle. “The woman who owns the shop studied the art of gelato making in Italy. Everything is made with local ingredients in small quantities, and new batches are made freshly and kept no longer than two days. Another secret is their gelatos is so fresh they keep it covered. You wouldn’t leave your food uncovered at home, would you? So why trust gelato that’s been sitting there exposed all day!”
The little gelato parlour lies hidden off in a small square with a few tables and benches outside. Inside you’ll find a rare choice of flavours, enhanced with Slovenian tastes, like dark chocolate with salt flower from the Adriatic coast, perhaps the best gelato I ever tasted, along with concoctions featuring the classic pumpkin seed oil, seasonal sorbets, and more. This gelateria bears the name “Romantika”, which feels apt, considering each bite is a love affair with your taste buds.
Good coffee is always welcome. Winding round the roads of the old town, Iva led us into a hidden courtyard to the unique time cafe. This homey café offers an all you can drink model that charges by the minute (5cents per minute) and not per coffee. The place is engineered to make you stay, with comfy sofas, wifi, books, and magazines. The state of the art espresso machine is at your leisure and if you’ve ever wanted to play barista, then this is for you.
After grinding the beans, and getting the machine ready, pick out a cup from the mismatched crockery. Vintage clocks lie dotted around the room, offering a reminder that time is a commodity in this hidden nook within Ljubljana.
Ziferblat embodies Ljubljana’s innovative nature, a cute and compact setting with a creative mind behind it.
At the end of the day I left full on local cuisine, wine, beer, gelato and rounded off with a sharp espresso, I felt a more local connection to Ljubljana. While I could have researched and explored these places alone, doing so with Iva felt more like having a local friend show you around, inspiring you with the city’s culinary secrets.
All that was left for me to do was burn it all off with a hike up to the Ljubljana castle!