30 July 2011

Slovenian Food

The first word that comes to mind when thinking about Slovenian food is 'mushrooms.' They are absolutely everywhere, underfoot on hikes, garnishing most meat dishes. Most often, though, they are sitting pretty at the bottom of a soup bowl under the murky, grey surface of gobava juha. Mushroom soup in Slovenia isn't just slices of button mushrooms with a shitake thrown in here and there for exoticism. It's a veritable crash course in foraging, with each spoonful unearthing a plethora of funghi, all different shapes and sizes and flavors. Since every Slovenian meal begins with soup, gobova juha is pretty much a national menu fixture.
Most people describe the cuisine as 'meaty and hearty' and this applies to soup as well. If something is called a jota instead of a juha (soup), it will be thicker and more filling. This is a cabbage jota, which was a delicious chowder of sauerkraut. I was aware that smoked meat would be involved, but was surprised to find two whole pork ribs hanging out in the veggie bath. Merlin was happy to help me out with them, saying that they were smokey, cured perfection. I can say that it smelled like southern barbecue. Other common jotas involve barley, potatoes and/or radishes and are often referred to as "farmer's soup."
Now onto grains. First of all, yes, that country dijon colored gravy is mushroom. Honestly, if you're not a mushroom person, Slovenian food is just not for you. If you are - like I am - it's heaven. Buckwheat is very popular, showing up in breads, pastries, as groats (a.k.a kasha), as porridge with cracklings on top (Ajdovi Žganci) and in noodle form. This is ajdova krapi, crescent-shaped dumplings made of buckwheat flour and filled with cottage cheese or curd. It was much lighter than it looks, airier inside and less starchy outside than its dumpling sister, Pierogi. For the record: buckwheat is not related to wheat, is gluten free and is widely considered a healthy grain choice. That is, until you sprinkle it with pork trimmings.
Also in the 'lighter-than-it-looks' category is štruklji, Slovenian strudel. We've been served it alongside a number of dishes, here it is next to a big hunk of beef (with mushroom gravy, obviously). They are remarkably delicate and really, really tasty. The dough is stretched as thin as can be by the chef (as our host mother on the Arbijter tourist farm demonstrated to us one evening), then rolled over the filling of choice. Cottage cheese is almost always involved, but fruit, herbs or vegetables can definitely be added in. Then, the long roll is wrapped in cheese cloth, boiled and sliced to serve. The orange stuff on top is fried bread crumbs, which has dusted our other most common side dish: njoki (similar in every way, including pronunciation, to gnocchi). Mrs. Arbijter's njoki were big pillows that appeared to be baked. Strudel in the pot, gnocchi in the oven - you can see the influence of border countries Italy and Austria being given a Slovene twist.
A number of restaurants have been recommended to us as places to eat "enlightened Slovenian cuisine." As far as I can tell, this means that things are a little less lardy and vegetables play a larger part than the usual side salad or steamed cauliflower and broccoli. At Gostilna Lectar in Radovljica, this meant black radish dip served inside of a radish.
At Hotel Rakov Škocjan in Cerknica, it meant a slice of eggplant wrapped up around a spoonful of sweet cheese curd and sprinkled with almond and bučno olje (pumpkinseed oil). It felt so fancy in the middle of the woods, wearing hiking shoes and drinking draught wine. My trout and Merlin's venison, two very, very common Slovenian proteins, were especially delicious.
Oh, trout. It's particularly good in this country, especially around Lake Bohinj. Usually, it's served whole, fried or baked smothered in large amount of garlicky oil. Here, at Lectar, we ordered it smoked as a starter. Have I mentioned that Slovene portions are large? Well, they are, but that's not such a bad thing when you're talking about smoked trout. Unlike a lot of other pork and starch loving countries, fish is definitely given its due respect. Squid and shrimp make appearances on menus even far from the coast - probably because they hold up particularly well to freezing. Last time we were in Slovenia, we visited Piran on the country's small stretch of Adriatic coastline. I had the largest prawns I had seen or have seen since. This time around, though, it's been all postrv all the time.
No post about Slovenian food would be complete without a big shout out to the Styrian oil pumpkin. Since falling in love with pumpkinseed oil in Austria, we've been dying to get our hands on some more of it in Slovenia. These two countries produce large quantities of the oil, as well as the unique gourd from which they are made, in their Styrian regions (Štajerska in Slovenian). The pumpkins are green and orange with a pale yellow flesh and dark seeds. Those dark green roasted pumpkin seeds you buy at the store may very well be from Slovenia, as they are a big export. After a particularly filling meal, we were served cups of wine soaked fruit. Bučno we asked, thinking that the texture was squashy. Yep! Between this, the seeds and the oil, I really want to know if oil pumpkins can survive in Northeastern America. If so, I have a wonderful business idea...

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