Home Cooked Slovenian Food

by James R. Dangel


Since discovering where my grandmother's cousins live, I've visited Slovenia each year since 1997.* During each visit, I've especially enjoyed meeting new members of my long lost family and eating Slovene delicacies. When I visit, everyone is extremely friendly and I'm accepted as family everywhere, but too often I'm treated like royalty. I like it best when I'm not getting something special, and I especially enjoy the food as it might be prepared and served on any ordinary day and if I were a more familiar member of the family. However, everyone wants to present their best for company, even though I want to be "family" and treated exactly like everyone else. I know it won't actually happen, but it would never come even close to regular or normal if I didn't ask.

I am continuing to learn about the food and customs of the place where one-quarter of me originates. Each time I've been to Slovenia, I've stayed with different cousins. Anica Kramberger risked most in 1996 when she invited two strange men from another country, my father's cousin and myself, to stay at her home in Ptuj (although I had sent enough genealogy material that she had little doubt we were real cousins). It was a wonderful offer, and staying in a hotel is nowhere near as helpful for learning about family roots. In January of 1997, Anica served us wonderful food, took us to visit family in the old family home, and arranged for family to take us out visiting and sightseeing.

It has been interesting to get to know my cousins better and to see the different cooking and living situations. While it is enjoyable to eat and visit in restaurants, my experiences of home cooking have been even more rewarding. After my first visit, I found a few of my cousins who live in Ljubljana. Living in the capital is not the same as living in Ptuj. My Ljubljana cousins don't have land to raise their own food, but this still doesn't mean they are willing to eat out. Invariably, unless they are all working, they eat at home and seem to prefer it. When I traveled about the countryside with them, they didn't hesitate to eat at gostilnas; some of these are quite fancy restaurants, but most are where local food is served for a reasonable price. It's part of the adventure.

Visitors, whether unannounced or on a planned visit, are always expected to eat and drink. No one will eat until the guest does, and they may have waited and the children are probably quite hungry. Consequently, I've learned to pace myself when visiting and try not to fill up anywhere! "Unexpected" means there is a delay before food is offered to go with wine or coffee-everything must be sliced fresh. There is always bread, cheese, and sliced meat accompanied with cucumber pickles, pickled mild peppers, or ajvar, a spicy but not hot red pepper relish. Most often, everything is homemade. If the bread was not baked at home, it was usually bought at the store that morning. No one thinks anything of making a special daily trip for bread. At the store the bread is cut to the size requested and weighed for pricing. Nearby are cheese and sausage that can be thinly sliced to place on top of bread. These "sliced-on-demand-at-the-store" items are probably used most frequently for company.

Everyone pickles their own homegrown or fresh from the market cucumbers and mild peppers. Ajvar was new to me on my last trip and very good. Everyone eats it on bread, with meat, or by the spoonful. Another exceptional treat is the homemade sausage made immediately after a pig has been butchered, or better yet, the preserved smoked pork that has been stored covered with lard in a cool cellar. I had read about this most wonderful sliced pork in the countryside of France and was very surprised to have it served to me in Slovenia. Of course, this is Europe, so the bread is topped with the meat or cheese and never with another slice of bread as in America.

Drinks and Beverages


First and foremost, wine is the most important drink in Slovenia, and a major industry in the area surrounding Ptuj. Almost every family in this important wine growing region makes its own wine at home in town or in the country in a small vineyard cottage with a wine cellar. If space around the house is limited, grapevines may be trellised over a patio table or a parking space. Anyone with any room at all grows grapes, and it is rare to visit a family that doesn't serve its own wine.

A most interesting feature of drinking wine in the Ptuj area is the custom of offering water to mix in the wine. This custom is not usual in Ljubljana and other areas to the west. A bottle of mineral water, with or without gas carbonation, is offered everywhere along with wine. The choice of mixing the water with the wine is up to the drinker, as is the ratio of water to wine. Although water is frequently added to wine when it is offered, everyone knows the best wines and when not to add water! There is also a definite preference for the local white wine, and many don't consider the local red wine suitable in an area famous for its white wine. I enjoy both the white and the red. In the cafes or gostilnas, a glass of local white wine might cost 75 cents American, while a cup of coffee will be several times more expensive.

The first drink normally offered in the morning is herb tea, usually sweetened; I learned to taste it first, before adding sugar! The tea is followed by Turkish coffee, which is coffee boiled with sugar in a special small pot with a long handle. The froth is carefully divided between the cups. This is the coffee served at home, strong and sweet, and served in small cups, usually with milk or cream offered. Coffee is customarily offered in the morning but is available almost any time. A shot of "slivovka" or plum brandy may also be offered with the coffee. In my experience, slivovka could be offered at any time of the day since many of my cousins have their own stills and make their own. Offering a toast to everyone's health is expected.

Milk, juice, or soft drinks are often available. When I stayed with cousins who own a dairy farm, it was customary each morning for everyone to have a hot cup of their own freshly boiled milk. The younger family members might flavor the hot milk with chocolate.

Beer or pivo is common and might be offered anywhere. Everyone has their preference for one of the national brands, Laško or Union. The former is brewed in the town of Laško near Celje and has a green label decorated with a set of mountain goat horns. The Union Brewery is in Ljubljana and several of my cousins work there, but few of my cousins, even in Ljubljana, preferred Union to Laško.

Once there was homemade apple cider to drink, and it was a favorite of mine. It came from the ancient wine cellar in the old family house.

Breakfast


I'm not a big breakfast person. I'm always anxious for my morning coffee and nothing else matters, but I did enjoy the herb tea or warm milk when it was offered. As I mentioned before, fresh bread is usually eaten in the morning. It is frequently offered with butter and sometimes with homemade jam. Sliced meat and cheese were always offered to go with the bread; perhaps because I was company.

Breakfast was varied. After it was clear that I didn't want anything special, I occasionally still got something unusual. Once I was given homemade hot chocolate from cacao and milk and served with corn meal mush (polenta) for breakfast. It was quite good. Another time I had kaša or buckwheat groats, a wholesome cooked whole grain. At times, homegrown fresh eggs, hot meat, or sausage was served.

The Main Meal


In Slovenia, the main meal of the day is served in the early afternoon. It could be noon at or it might be at three o'clock when family members return home for the day from work. I guess that's why they eat breakfast, since they have to last quite awhile sometimes. A full meal is seldom served in the evening. It is more often a snack and could be any of the things mentioned for when there are visitors. I sometimes wonder what is really served when I'm not there! I do know that I slept better for not having had a late large supper. This is in contrast to France, where they might be still talking and visiting at eight p.m. before going out for a full meal. In America, many people eat their main meal at five or six p.m. because they go to work later and frequently have sandwiches for lunch at midday.

The usual Sunday soup may often have been specially prepared for me on other days. This is a clear meat and vegetable broth served with fine noodles; I once even saw some noodles drying. The meat may have ended up breaded and fried for the main course. After I had been a guest more than once, the vegetables were divided up and added to the bowl of anyone who wanted them.

Salad in Slovenia is a given. Everyone always eats a green salad dressed with oil and vinegar. If they don't grow their own various fresh greens, they purchase them at the market. The salad oil in Ptuj is always bučno olje, a green-colored pumpkinseed oil that is seldom used by anyone out of the area. My cousins in Ljubljana have been away too long: they think bučno olje is too strongly flavored! I like it, though, and the color is great with vegetables. Several of my cousins press the oil for sale, and almost anyone with room to grow anything will grow pumpkins. Pumpkins are grown only for the seeds, and I didn't see anyone eat them except cows and pigs. Otherwise, they get plowed under in the field or piled on the compost heap. In the fall, it was common to see people drying small quantities of pumpkinseed everywhere. Perhaps everyone makes their own oil, or they trade the seeds for oil or sell them. The process I saw for pressing the oil was fairly complicated.

It's normal to share the same salad bowl with whoever is close. The salad could be put on the plate or in a separate bowl, but more often it is eaten communally. The situation with serving bowls-without serving utensils-is similar, and it is no big deal to help yourself to anything with your fork by the bite or to fill your plate. Everyone enjoys their food and eating, and I fit right in since I'm very casual. When I alone was offered an additional plate, I could politely ignore it and use my fingers like everyone else.

It was interesting to stay in the homes of different cousins because I could see what and how food was prepared in each home. It was normal in different homes to have meat breaded and fried, oven-baked, or stewed as goulash on the stovetop. Pork was the most typical meat, then chicken, and rarely beef-except for the dairy farmers! Potatoes and rice were frequently served with the same meal and on the same serving dish.

Desserts


Some families always had dessert, and others not at all. The latter usually offered something sweet with coffee at other times. For expected company there was usually something sweet offered at some time during the visit. Sweet desserts are seasonal for holidays, or when company is expected. I have my favorite: apple strudel or štruklji, which is never with soggy raisins as in Austria and America. Without knowing I liked it, Anica had some ready when we arrived, and now each time I visit she makes it for me. I would rather eat it than anything!



Anica Kramberger and her štruklji - Davorin Munda photo

Another seasonal treat is gibanica, a layered pastry served everywhere during October (or Vinotok, meaning "wine is flowing in the barrels") and November during the new wine celebrations. Gibanica is more elaborate and layered with apple and poppy seeds when from the west of Slovenia or made by a cousin from Primorska. The local variety around Ptuj was more the shape and texture of raised pizza dough topped with beaten egg and thick sour cream or perhaps slightly sweetened cottage cheese and was frequently served hot out of the oven. I once even saw it rising, being topped, and just as it came out of the old peč, a combination heating and cooking oven. Another time, I had buckwheat gibanica.

Another standard sweet is potica, usually home-baked but available anytime in the markets and stores. Everyone is familiar with the walnut and spice filling of this rolled sweet bread. I had it served between each pass through the vineyard when picking grapes, offered with the previous year's wine.

I can't forget the filled doughnuts that are served everywhere during the kurent season. During my first visit, I was in Ptuj for the local version of Carnival prior to Lent. Many of my cousins join other locals dressed in kurent costumes of sheepskins and colorful masks, wearing cowbells to scare away winter, and entertaining the town. There was lots of wine and jelly-filled deep-fried doughnuts, usually apricot, my favorite fruit. I find them in cookbooks but without the filling as ocvrte miske or krofi.



Young cousins in kurent costumes in Ptuj

Besides these larger dessert treats, a smaller variety of sliced cookies or baked treats is often offered.

Typical and Special Items


At the market, I quickly learned to recognize and love the smell of salted (pickled) grated turnips or kisla repa, and I could not walk past a stand without buying some. Fortunately, my hosts were willing to prepare it for me. I love repa! I had never heard of it until I found my first Slovene cookbook. It is prepared the same as another cole crop, cabbage, which becomes sauerkraut. Rutabagas are a variation of turnips, too, but I was told they were only grown as pig food in Slovenia. I now have some freshly prepared sour repa and rutabaga of my own to eat, but I've never seen it for sale in the United States. The kisla repa is prepared by simmering it and then adding sour cream. I can report both are very good!

Another Slovene specialty is a savory cheese strudel, not a dessert, which is also called štruklji. A slightly sweetened cottage cheese filling is rolled in strudel dough and boiled gently in cheesecloth. After cooling, it is sliced and sautéed in butter-a very pleasant way to start a meal.

Stuffed peppers are popular and in season in the fall. Out of season, peppers are served pickled in vinegar.

I once had buckwheat dumplings in soup; perhaps they were a type of žganci. I've always liked buckwheat; on Sundays, my other grandmother usually prepared buckwheat pancakes.

Another time fresh fried potato chips from the family's own potatoes were served. They looked like they were out of a package but were much better.

Sliced raw onions are regularly served; mixed with pumpkinseed oil they are a delicacy. I was told an ancient farm custom was to eat raw leeks dipped in salt, followed by a bite of bread.

It was very interesting to see pšenica (wheat) taken from the barn in a sack and then by tractor and cart to the mill to be ground into flour. The old Tement family mill used to be in Zabovci where the present mill is located, and my Tement cousins still live in the old house across the street where my great-great-grandmother Ursula was born in 1840. They bake their bread in the peč, a combination heating and cooking oven that you often see in European museum palaces and Slovene farmhouses.


Marijana & Franci Tement in old family home; Janez & Lizika Janžekovič;
both homes with peč

There is always special food on St. Martin's Day, November 11th. St. Martin's Day is the day that grape juice officially becomes new wine, changing from mošt to vino, and I was there to sample lots of wine and eat the traditional dinner. Red cabbage is prepared German-style, sweet and sour, and a beautifully roasted goose is traditional. Another unusual offering is mlinci, a flat thin dough that has been baked, broken up, covered with boiling water, drained, and then roasted with the goose. The other specialty is gibanica for dessert, and of course, last year's wine and the new wine are both abundant!

I've yet to sample all the different types of foods from Slovenia that I have seen in pictures or read about in cookbooks. There are several cookbooks compiled by Slovene groups in the United States and Canada, but my favorite is Traditional Slovenian Cookery: Culinary Riches of the Regions of Slovenia by Slavko Adamlje, which besides recipes has beautiful photographs and informative regional sections (Mladinska knjiga, Ljubljana 1997). Some recipes I recognize from visiting my cousins; others are a little different. I wanted to go to the restaurant where the photographs were taken but was unsuccessful in getting my cousins to go with me. I finally decided that they were right: it is expensive, and better local food is available at home or at a gostilna. Now I no longer seek out all the different foods I read about in books but am content to see what life brings when I'm enjoying visiting.
 
 



* My account of finding relatives appeared as "Jim's Search for Roots" in the Summer 1997 issue of Slovenija magazine.

This article was published with only the first picture in the Summer 2000 issue Slovenija magazine.




You can search Amazon.com to find Slovenian Cookbooks.
This one is good, too, and easier to get than navigating the Slovenian language website below.

Mladinska knjiga has a new edition of their cookbook with the title changed slightly (also a different printer and the color photographs were better in the first edition.


SLOVENIAN COOKERY
Written by Slavko Adamlje  
Format: 19 x 25 cm
144 pages

Slovenia is a country of great beauty and diversity, and this is reflected in the country's unique culinary riches. Traditional Slovenian Cookery, by one of the most eminent Slovene chefs, is not just a cook book: it presents Slovene dishes in the context of the way of life and traditions of Slovenia's regions, including special sections describing the wine regions and advice on which wines provide the best accompaniment to the food.
The book is also available in English.


ALOJZ ADAMLJE
ALOJZ ADAMLJE, born 1950, studied at the Paris Ritz Escofier - Ecole de gastronomie francaise. He has been awarded numerous national and international awards and recognitions at restaurant and tourism fairs in Slovenia and abroad.
SLOVENIAN COOKERY


James R. Dangel
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