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N.C. to Slovenia: The end of the road

Cassie Parsons and Natalie Veres of Grateful Growers Farm and Harvest Moon Grille wrap up their embassy trip through Slovenia with a final blog post.

April 27-30:

Natalie Veres writes: Our final days in Slovenia were spent in the capitol city, Ljubljana (often callled LJ). The film crew captured our visit with several interesting and wonderful people, and Cassie’s final cooking segment was filmed at a gostilna, or inn, in nearby Skarucna.

First, we got to see what one innovative woman is doing to ensure the Slovene cooking tradition stays alive.

Anke Peljan had an idea a couple years ago to start a competition among kids ages 10-14 years to get them interested in their nation’s culinary heritage. Today, there are 94 teams competing nationwide.

The kids research the recipes. They must be a Slovene tradition and use local ingredients. The kids also get to ask their elders about the dishes, getting Grandma’s spin on strucklji, for example.

The teams of 4-6 kids then cook in local and regional contests before the winners face off in a national final. We got to taste food from two teams, Barjanci, and Miha and Friends. They made dried plum struklji and a Ljubljana egg dish.

The food was great and the concept even better. It was inspiring how these young people were embracing the food of their ancestors. (You can listen to our interview with Anke on our podcast at www.realfoodrealfarms.com).

Slovenes love to hike. One very popular destination nearby is Smarna Gora. At 664 meters elevation, its peak offers panoramic views of the LJ basin and the Julian Alps. Hikers can take any of 15 routes to the summit, where they are rewarded not only by the vistas, but with outstanding food (and wine and beer). On Sunday, you can even get doughnuts! We got to meet the proprietor of Gostilna Ledinek, Ana Cesnovar, whose family has been running the gostilna since 1974.

Ana grew up on top of this mountain, where the gostilna is open to visitors 352 days a year. The church adjacent to the gostilna was built in the baroque style in the mid-18th century.

Even if it is snowing and the scary-steep, scary-narrow road is impassable by car, they pack in food in rucksacks to serve guests.

The fare is traditional Slovene. We are served herbal tea, schnapps, barley soup, and zganci, a buckwheat and pork crackling dish that is served with kisla mleko (sour milk).

Back closer to sea level, we got to visit the expansive LJ market again, and then had a real treat: dinner at JB (www.jb-slo.com). Named for its proprietor, Janez Bratovz, JB boasts a classy décor and some of the best food we had in Slovenia. Cassie got to spend the afternoon with JB, who she describes as “one of the finest modern chefs I have ever met”. He is a master, with keen attention to detail and deep appreciation for food’s own flavors.

JB has a daughter, Nina, whose specialty is pastry. She is a wonderful chef in her own right, and hopes to have her own place soon. She is our host in the dining room this evening, bringing us plate after plate of papa’s proud work.

Every dish was sexy, creative, and delicious. From the octopus to the horse cheek, we oohed and ahhed.

The fourth and final TV cooking segment was filmed at Gostilna Skarucna. This is another multigenerational establishment, where meat is king. Slavko Zagar is most at home roasting a joint of meat over an open fire and handing drink after drink to guests while vinyl LP records play for ambience.

In response to a rude encounter with gravity (something got dropped on the ground), Cassie developed “plan B” for dinner. She made homemade tortillas with roasted meat and piles of vegetables we got from the market that morning. American-style apple pie was dessert.

The next day, our hosts from the U.S. Embassy threw a going-away party for us. The Felina Films team was there, as were some of the chefs we met during our stay.

We got so tight with this group that it was a tearful goodbye, but we somehow sense we’ll see each other again. Peter, the director, presented us with a book of poetry written by Slovenia’s most beloved poet, France Presern.

The book contains the Slovene national anthem, which we are expected to have memorized when we come back.

This is my final blog post for The Observer about our visit to Slovenia. I could go on and on about this trip. It was truly a remarkable experience.

I hope you enjoyed reading about our incredible adventure. It was an honor to share it with you.

If you’d like to read more, see more photos or listen to our podcasts, visit our website www.realfoodrealfarms.com. Adijo!

April 26:

After arriving at Domacija Stern, the inn in the village of Fram, we went to bed incredibly full from the Sterns’ vast and delicious dinner.

Our host Barbara Stern had done her homework and learned about our pig farm, so pork was the star of the menu. The whole family is involved in the farm-inn-restaurant operation. They also make value-added products from items they grow. A handmade hutch displays an array of bottles and jars of marmalades, juices, oils and even home remedies.

From the youngest (daughter, age 5) to the eldest, this extended family/team works to keep the guests happy and the operation solvent. In our podcast interview with Barbara (available at www.realfoodrealfarms.com), she says “every hand is important,” and means it.

Breakfast included milk and yogurt from the Sterns’ own cows. For the camera, Barbara and her mother showed Cassie the secrets to an amazing soup, pohorska pisker, and a version of gibanica (porhorska gibanica) that is simpler than the one we enjoyed in the Prekmurje region and every bit as irresistible.

Have a look at the Sterns’ website for more ( www.kovacnik.com – select the language on the top right).

Having dawdled at the Stern’s, we had to skip our next stop and head to our final leg of the day: Kogl Vineyard ( www.kogl.net) in the tiny village of Velika Nedelja.

This will be the site for the Cassie’s cooking segment for the Slovenian TV show, and what a setting! At the top of the highest hill around, the estate house (built in 1820) is used for tastings and for inspiring awe. The views are panoramic, and we were blessed with a beautiful day to enjoy them.

Cassie set to work planning her menu, writing out a prep list for Natalie, and then headed off for more filming. She met with the winemaker, Mr. Svetko, who introduced Cassie to his wines and philosophy.

Records indicate wine grapes were planted on these hills in 1542. The Svetko family restored this hill to its winemaking tradition in 1983.

We lit the grill for veal shortribs (from Ziga Jensterlje) and mashed potatoes for gnocchi. Cabbage and carrots were shaved for a salad that featured local beans soaked in an elderflower syrup we got from Sterns. Guests arrived and dinner was served (and filmed) as the sun set.

Meaghan and Natalie plowed through the pile of dirty dishes and we finally headed back to Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, pulling into town around midnight. Another gorgeous, full day of loving life and food in Slovenia.

April 25:

Our drive to the Stajerska region took us east and south of Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital. We stopped first in Sentjur to visit one of Slovenia’s first certified Bio (organic), pasture-based veal farms.

Ziga Jensterlje has been farming nearly 10 years. While he grew up in the city, he always loved being on his grandparents’ farm. He studied agriculture and is clearly following his passion.

“Farming was just in me,” he said. On most veal farms, calves are separated from their mothers, confined in pens or small huts and bottle-fed. These calves stay with their mothers for eight months, spending all that time on pasture. They wean themselves when the time is right, naturally.

While Ziga doesn’t have the economic benefit of selling the cow’s milk (the babies drink it), he sells incredible meat, including some value-added products like salami, bologna (to die for), and hot dogs. Like us, he sells at a local farmers market, and tries to sell to a few restaurants.

Ziga expressed a familiar frustration: restaurants will buy a small amount of product from him, put his name on the menu, and then stop, switching to cheaper stuff.

This issue is one of the things that drove Cassie and I to pursue opening a restaurant so we could control our fate a bit more. But not everybody is able or willing to do that.

Small farms are struggling here too. We could all benefit from a little more conviction about supporting our neighbors...and support doesn’t mean a charitable contribution. It means a fair price for a great product that doesn’t travel far, so it’s fresh and benefits the local economy.

Ziga’s friend Aci Urbajs took us up to his place nearby. It was up a winding, steep road and we had to park a couple of cars at the top of the hill before we ventured on foot to the cabin several yards below. It was a beautiful place built from hand-hewn logs perched on the side of a hill with a breathtaking view.

Inside, Aci’s mother was tending a wood-fired oven where she was baking foccacia. When we commented on the beauty of the place, she smiled and said, “This is the sweet life.” Indeed. Aci’s father told us the place is 250 years old, carefully renovated and cared for.

In the adjacent room, Aci poured a selection of his biodynamic wines. One was labelled Organic Anarchy, a statement about his agricultural practices and philosophy about the need to be in harmony with nature.

From Aci’s, we wove down the hills to the adjacent village where more conviction is in practice: Rogaska crystal factory. This is the last place on Earth that employs full-time mouth-blowers to make exquisite glassware. Inside the furnace room, three teams of 4-5 men work on pieces. We watched a team making wine glasses.

This group of four men can crank out approximately 200 completed glasses in one eight-hour shift. They work quickly but carefully, in sync with each other, anticipating one another’s moves. It’s like a ballet.

In this room of extreme heat and sharp stuff, where the workers wear no protective gear (not a single pair of safety glasses or gloves to be found), they average only 2-5 injuries per year.

The Rogaska school where this skill was taught is now closed, with the future of this technique uncertain. Consumers seem more concerned about price than craftsmanship. Machines will likely replace these men. Rogaska is this area’s largest employer, with 900 people in this location.

On next to Maribor. This very old city is Slovenia’s second largest, with a population of 100,000.

We went first to the soccer stadium (of course), where Cassie met Zlatko Zahovic and got a few pointers on scoring penalty kicks. Then we headed down to the banks of the Drava river to the cafes and the “old town.”

.Like most places in Slovenia, the history here is palpable. Maribor is the home of both our TV director Peter and our makeup maven Natasha Sevcnikar. They delight in showing us around. One popular landmark is “the old vine,” a wine grapevine that’s more than 400 years old. It still produces velvety black grapes and very nice wine.

Finally, we pile back into our caravan of cars and head to the place where we will spanje (sleep) for the night: Domacija Stern, pri Kovacniku in the village of Fram.

Once we leave the highway, the road winds up and up, first through a small burg and then into more rural territory. I’m feeling more at home here in all this green space. Spring has finally asserted itself and the trees and flowers are bursting.

Finally, we arrive at the Sterns, safe and relieved to be parked for the night. True to Slovene custom, Barbara Stern and her family greet us warmly: homemade sage liquer and a platter of cured meats on the patio. We watch the sun sink beyond the edge of their pasture as the tray of wines and a basket of bread come out. Yep, I’m home.

April 24:

The morning began on the golf course. Peter, the director of the Slovenian TV show, and Cassie challenged each other to an abbreviated round (6 holes, due to schedule constraints) with some pretty high stakes: The loser has to give up an addiction for one year. For Peter, it was smoking, and for Cassie, it was coffee.

Cassie used to golf but hasn’t touched a club in over six years, so it was a daring bet. Evergreen is located at a gorgeous golf course ( www.golf-ljubljana.si) with views of the Julian Alps all around. The weather was perfect and cloudless. Meghan and Natalie headed to the kitchen to continue prepping for that night’s fundraiser dinner. There was still a lot of baking to do: biscuits, cornbread, dessert, and bialys.

On the golf course, Peter was the victor. But in an act of solidarity (and because he knows he should), Peter agreed to also give up smoking.

Cassie and chef Anze Gumbac changed into their chef garb and joined us in the kitchen. We had eight courses to execute and everything was coming together, but we had a few challenges. The pork belly we ordered and wasn’t the cut we are used to in the States. It seemed to be more from the chest of the pig and was irregularly shaped, less fatty and tended to dry out. Cassie used the same method of braising and pressing to get it a more uniform thickness, but the lack of fat gave us results that were good but a bit disappointing.

Following the example of a Cheerwine reduction she makes at home, she used a local soft drink named Cockta (a holdover from the days when Coca-Cola was impossible to get here). It has nostalgic value, along with some complex vanilla and cherry flavors. It has a strongly acidic, almost citrus finish. Lots of reduction, a little Cointreau, some butter and we had a darn good sauce.

Overall, the dinner was a big success. The food was wonderful and fresh, and importantly, it was sourced locally. Our 50 guests were well fed and happy. The charity, Youth House, got a nice bump and we made some terrific friends. Anze, Borut, Iztok, and Ramsey were great to work with and taught us a lot, including some new kitchen slang. Their dishwashing staff is also exemplary. Meaghan, one of our guides from the American Embassy, went above and beyond the call of duty as a diplomat and was a huge help in the kitchen.

Here was the menu:

1. Southern-style biscuits and cornbread with house made jams (dried fig + ginger, apple herb, and chestnut honey).

2. Pierogi duo: cottage cheese + potato, and horse meat + sauerkraut.

3. Pumpkin soup with bacon + pumpkin seed brittle.

4. Smoked trout and cured trout plate with bialy.

5. Herb grappe & dandelion jelly shooter.

6. Pork belly braised in Cockta, served with fried root veg chips.

7. Flourless chocolate torte with frozen Jack Daniels mousse.

8. Cheese and pickle plate.

April 22:

Before our second day in the Dolenska region, it rained hard overnight and fog had us socked in for the morning. Despite the damp, we still had a filming schedule. So after a splendid Repovz breakfast, we headed out for another full day.

We started on the outskirts of Sentjanz in a heavily wooded area with super-steep terrain and curvy gravel roads. We came to a stop at a clearing by the convergence of two beautiful streams.

Four men and their horses were waiting in this lush meadow. Rajko Bregar leads a horseback riding group here. Today, he and his friends were Cassie’s guides as she toured the beautiful valley and gathered wild herbs for dinner.

Cemaz (pronounced “chay-mazsh”) was a primary target for our wild food gathering. This wild garlic is a broad-leafed herb and is used a lot in cooking here. Since its high season is spring, people do different things to make it last: make pesto out of it, dehydrate it, freeze it, etc.

We have experienced a lot of cemaz since being here and really enjoy it. Gostilna Repovz had a terrific spread to use on dark bread.

Cassie got along with her horse fairly well, although he was keen on heading back to the stable when they got to a fork in the trail that led to home. Cassie managed to stay in the saddle, though, and completed her cemaz-collecting mission.

Rain dogged the drive to the next location: Domacija Novak, in the village of Dvor ( www.novakdoma.eu). This is a bed and breakfast that offers lodging, meals, cooking classes and even guided trout fishing tours in the Krka river. We were greeted by Miriam and Boris Novak, the proprietors.

The smell of fresh bread wafted from the kitchen and we were drawn inside. Cassie was cooking dinner on-camera for guests that night, and the kitchen was marvelous.

Most of the ingredients Miriam uses come from her own garden or are gathered from the wild or caught from the Krka. Like other gostilnas, or inns, they get their meat from local hunters or neighbors who raise a few animals. Trout is a mainstay and was on our menu that night.

Cassie gave Natalie and our helpers, Meaghan and Vesna, a prep list and went outside to get outfitted in makeup and chest waders. Boris was taking her fly fishing. The water was clear, cold and moving fast. After a few lessons in casting, Cassie got the hang of it and was so into the rhythm of fishing that she stopped talking, much to the dismay of Peter, the director, who had to remind her she was being filmed.

Back in the kitchen, we were fileting trout caught earlier and cranking out the prep list.

Miriam cracked open a bottle of prosecco and sliced incredible bread made with millet, hemp seeds, and a hint of the herb lovage.

Yes, it was incredible. Miriam vowed to translate the recipe to English and send it. In return, she gets our recipe for pumpernickel. Fair is fair.

Once back to the domacija and dried off, Cassie put together the dinner on camera. Taking a variation on the strukli she learned to make at Repovz, she stuffed it with trout and tarragon and made a sauce with stock we made from the fish trimmings.

On the side were carrot salad dressed with pumpkin oil and garlic, risotto made with spelt from Repovz, beet and chestnut honey chutney and pickled egg.

We also got to use a trout that Boris had cured and smoked. We sliced it paper-thin and added a curl of it to the dish. A prosciutto chip topped it off.

The guests were all gostilna proprietors. They shared conversation about the challenges and triumphs of their trade. The consensus was that small businesses and small farms here face the same issues we do in the U.S.: The pressures of competition from big agriculture and the steamroller of genetically-modified foods.

The only hope we have is for consumers to be informed and to stand our ground against the defilement of our food.

April 21:

Our travels took us next to Dolenska. This region is focused on agriculture and is trying to cultivate tourism. It is hilly, and rich with magnificent views and interesting people.

Our first stop was the Gostilna Repovz. This restaurant/inn has been run by generations of the Repovz family for 200 years. They also operate a farm that includes apples, grapes, spelt, buckwheat, produce and herbs. They have been using organic practices for 20 years. All of this is done by a relatively small team of folks: a family of five and a few friends and neighbors who work during harvest and busy nights at the restaurant. The inn has four rooms, and the restaurant seats about 80. The oldest son, Grega Repovz, who is in his mid-20s, was our guide for this leg of the trip.

Gostilna Repovz is in the village of Sentjanz, with a population of about 1,000. After high school, Grega went to Ljubljana, the capital city, to get training and experience in modern restaurants.

He also wanted to learn more about wines. He is passionate about good wine and studied them by working with Gasper, whom we met at eVino earlier in our stay.

Grega’s mom is the chef. Her specialties are traditional dishes of Dolenska, which highlight homegrown ingredients: breads and risottos made with spelt, potica – a brioche stuffed with tarragon and scota (a fresh cheese like ricotta) and soups full of vegetables and a bit of meat purchased from neighbors. Her dandelion green salad was one of the best we’ve had in Slovenia so far. It included potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and bacon, all very lightly dressed with Repovz vinegar.

One very popular dish, strukli, is a dumpling made by rolling out a thin dough and spreading a filling over it. The dough is rolled and tied in a tea towel. The whole lot is poached, then cut pinwheel-style. The pinwheels can be fried and topped with a sauce or powdered sugar, depending on the filling. Cassie learned to make this and put that lesson to work later in our trip.

From Gostilna Repovz, Grega took us to meet family friends who have one of the oldest zitanicas in the area. A zitanica is like a rustic “man cave” without a big-screen TV. These small houses dot the hillsides all around Dolenska. They are generally plopped right in the middle of a vineyard and were used originally as full-time dwellings. This one is over 100 years old, and was recently renovated.

In the lower level is tool storage and a wine cellar where the proprietor, Milan, makes the local specialty, cvicik. This wine is tart and bright and is almost always served with food.

Upstairs in the zitanica is a wood-fired oven. The design of these ovens is pure genius, and we have seen them in all the regions we have visited. The baking hearth is in the kitchen while the body of the oven sticks out into a living area. It is covered by decorative cast-iron plates and slabs of stone, which hold the heat from the oven and warm the room.

Milan’s wife showed Cassie how to make potica, the tarragon-stuffed bread served at Gostilna Repovz. She also learned to make other breads on this incredible hearth, and we got to enjoy them in the the vineyard on a makeshift picnic table.

Fortified by cvicik and potica, we went next to another friend of Grega’s, Joze Livk. Joze is a farmer in Sentjanz who also makes baskets. The craft of making “dry goods” like baskets and wooden tools was the primary income for many men of this area in the last century. Their cropland was so damaged by war that they needed another way to make money. Joze taught Cassie how to make a traditional-style basket and again, we ate and drank. This time we enjoyed grappe made by Milan, who tends bees for his vineyard. Joze’s brother and their wives shared the family’s story and showed us a painting of their mama, who passed away five years ago. She lived to 99 and like so many people here, endured a great deal of hardship brought on by war, occupation, and poverty. The house we were in was burned down by the Germans during World War II. Joze and his brother rebuilt it, and now Joze and his wife live there and farm the land around it.

Weary from the day’s travels, we headed back to Repovz for an incredible dinner made by Grega’s mom, which featured beef shank soup with ravioli, dandelion salad, horse cutlet, spelt risotto, and struckli.

Afterward, we enjoyed a walk on the quiet, curvy roads around Sentjanz. Our rooms at the gostilna were simple and wonderfully comfortable.

April 18:

We headed out of town early in the morning to rendezvous with the film crew for our first location shoot, in the Prekmurje region. This area is in the northeastern corner, bordering Austria, Hungary and Croatia.

The landscape of long, flat stretches and rolling hills reminds us that there was once an ancient ocean here, Panonnia. It is the primary place for agriculture, although wine is grown all over the country.

We have a packed schedule today: Four stops before we wrap, and lots of driving. From Ljubjlana to our first stop is a two-hour journey.

Our first visit is to Jerulazem, home of the Kupljen vineyard and winery. Since 1926, the Kupljen family has been making terrific wine here. They have a taverna nearby, where they serve food sourced from local growers. They love to celebrate the specialties of the region and immediately treat us to a platter of roasted vegetables to go with their sparkling wine, which is made with a Riesling grape.

Because it is only 9 a.m., Jozef has chosen to serve us a brut, which is not too sweet. While the crew was setting up and Cassie was getting her makeup, the rest of us enjoyed the beautiful morning and this terrific breakfast. The wine and food kept coming while Cassie was filmed talking with the winery owner and his daughter-in-law, Lydia.

After the Riesling, we had a Sipon, crisp and rich with minerality. It went nicely with a “breakfast” pizza with a crust made from buckwheat and topped with sweetened cottage cheese, similar to ricotta.

The merlot was dry, elegant and full of cherry notes. It was served with a simple pizza whose crust was fashioned from the scraps left over from breadmaking. It was brushed with pumpkin seed oil and topped with pork cracklings. We ate a delicious platter of cured meats, cheeses and vegetables. As the crew was packing up to leave, Jozef broke out a bottle of Turmalin, a blush champagne. It wasn’t noon yet and we were off to our next stop, the town of Lujtomer to visit a potter.

Zasha’s family has been making pottery for nearly 150 years. Zasha is the 5th generation, and his young son, who is 8, is already learning the trade. For this segment of the show, we will film Zasha teaching Cassie how to throw a pot used for baking gibanica, a favorite regional dessert.

After filming, we are treated to a terrific lunch of bograc (pronounced bo-grach), a meat stew with a rich broth and vegetables, which was made by Zasha’s wife. Yes, we had more wine and homemade bread.

And we had gibanica, although it was a version that was different than what we had seen so far. This one had cottage cheese and raisin. It was barely sweet, but very rich and tasty.

We were now ready to head to our next stop: gostilna Rajh. Tanja and Damir greeted us with housemade buckwheat bread topped with different kinds of spreads, one a pumpkin oil butter and the other a blend of cream and pureed wild garlic.

Tanja introduced us to her grandmother, Maria, who taught Cassie how to make the famed gibanica. Maria will turn 90 in July, and she starts every morning at 7a.m. in the kitchen. Maria has been cooking at Rajh for 70 years. That’s SEVENTY years.

This restaurant has been in business since 1886, handed down from generation to generation. Tanja runs the place, which she took over from her father when he retired. Her husband, Damir, manages another gostilna near Murska Sobota. The family also has a coffee shop in a shopping center nearby.

Tanja attributes their longevity to “patience” and “more patience,” and an unwavering commitment to tradition. When it was trendy for gostilnas to serve imported food, Rajh stuck to its heritage.

“It didn’t make sense to serve octopus here, even when people asked for it. We are not near the seaside. We serve what is here.” says Tanja. Now, she says, people are going back to the traditions, appreciating the freshness and relevance to the surroundings. Tanja and Damir work with local farmers and encourage them to continue using “eco” (organic) methods. Their two children are being groomed to step up to continue the tradition of Rajh, but they admit, “we can hope, but we can’t force them to do this. It depends very much on the kind of partners they have. To run restaurants, you must have very understanding partners. It is difficult.”

Difficulties (including multiple wars, occupations, expulsions and a stint at Auschwitz) notwithstanding, this family continues to do terrific stuff for its community. Rajh is a testimony of the power of commitment to tradition and excellence.

Cassie finished up her cooking class with Grandma Maria and we headed off to the river Mura.

A mile or two down a dirt road, we came to a crossing. Not a bridge, mind you: The Mura is a deep, swift river about 50 yards wide at this point. To cross, you drive up onto a floating platform that is attached to a cable that spans the river. The ferry pilot, a wiry but incredibly strong guy, unhooks the massive chains from the dock and shifts a hand-hewn rudder into place. In a few minutes, we dock at the other side. It is a reliable and time-tested method still used daily by locals.

Another 100 yards up the river, we found a grist mill that is also floating on the Mura. Also held in place by cables, the mill has a large waterwheel about 10 feet wide and 20 feet in diameter. The force of the flowing river turns the wheel, which powers the series of gears and millstones inside, turning local, organically grown grains into meal and flour.

The miller is ready to retire, and he is pessimistic about the future of the mill. He says local young people are not interested in continuing this trade. He also expressed frustration about the big food companies overpowering local agricultural efforts, buying up land and turning the operations into those that rely on chemicals and modern breeds of plants.

Cassie encouraged him to hang in there and keep trying. He thanked her for her visit with the gift of a bag of cornmeal we will use in our dinner next week.

April 16 (received April 17)

The days here have been so full, they are starting to run together.

One day started early with a visit from Vesna, the stylist for Felina Films, the production company that is filming the TV show. Vesna came to our hotel and went through our closets, making wardrobe recommendations.

I’m pretty sure she was horrified but was very polite about it. She made a couple of shopping suggestions and let us get on with our morning.

We visited the Ljubjlana market (again), this time with a journalist, Stane Mazgon, who writes for Jana Magazine. Jana is a well-regarded family-oriented publication that has been circulated in Slovenia for 40 years. Stane and his photographer, Istok, visited with us over coffee, then we took off for the market.

Stane clearly loves his city and this market and is incredibly familiar with both. Even though we have been to the market every day, it was fun to see it with Stane. He knows the vendors very well and shared some of his favorite recipes for the many beautiful products.

One farmer, Rezna, has been selling produce at the LJ market for 50 years. We got raddichio from her that was perky and delicious.

Many of the varieties of fruits and vegetables they grow and sell here are familiar to us, but there are some we don’t see often in the Southeastern U.S., such as artichoke and some varieties of apples. You can also buy whole grains or freshly milled flour, dried beans, honey, mushrooms, herbs, nuts, dried fruits, a huge variety of smoked and cured meats, fermented foods, cheeses, yogurt, milk, fish, olive oil, and more baked goods than I have ever seen in one place.

Non-food items include clothing, fur pelts, shoes, souvenirs, and natural medicines. I am not sure how many vendors are here but I would guess more than 100 on Saturday. On weekdays, the vending crowd is lighter, but there is always a huge variety.

Our shooting schedule for the TV show is starting to come together. We head to the Prekmurje region Thursday and Friday and will explore towns near the Mura river and eventually get near the Hungarian border.

April 17

We went to the coffee shop Lolita this morning for a meeting with Chef Anze. He and Cassie are working together on a big dinner at his place, Evergreen Restaurant, next week.

Evergreen restaurant is part of Kaval Group, led by Dada Jervosek and her husband. Dada is a dynamic and driven woman who was trained as an architect but “always had the dream of having a restaurant.”

Today, her company has seven restaurants, seven coffee shops, and a phenomenal catering business.

Lolita is one of the coffee shops, and it’s a showcase for sexy pastry in a stylish setting. In fact, Lolita was recently on the short list for for “best hospitality interior design award” by the RBDA in London.

Most of the pastries are made in the kitchen facilities at Evergreen, and it is incredibly beautiful, delicious stuff. This evening, we toured several Kaval locations, and each is unique. Dada says the small size of Ljubjlana, the capital city, prevents her from doing the same thing in more than one place like chain restaurants in the U.S., so each is a little different. Each business is thoughtful and beautiful, a pleasure to be in.

We are so excited about working with these incredible people in such amazing places, and for a good cause. Chef Anze is a real gem, and we have enjoyed his company and collaboration very much.

Dada and her team are an inspiration. So much about being here is just that. We are so blessed and grateful.

We have been through the city market each of the six days we have been here, and we see something or somebody new each time. Today, we went down the steps to the Ribarnica (fish market), which is on the lower level of the market along the river. Most of the freshwater fish here is from Slovenia and the saltwater creatures mostly come from the Mediterranean or Adriatic seas.

Cassie and Chef Anze had a great time picking out ingredients to use for next week’s dinner, a fundraiser for Youth House, a local charity that benefits homeless kids. The menu for the seven-course dinner is coming together nicely.

April 15:

Today we got our first look at the inside of the TV studio we’ll be working with: POP-TV ( www.spored.24ur.com/program/pop-tv). This is the country’s largest independent TV station.

Cassie did two interviews, one for the TV camera and one for the weekend insert of the Ljubjlana newspaper. There was a photo shoot too, and then we were whisked off to meet Gaspar, Slovenia’s premier sommelier. He will guide us along the wine landscape during the filming of the TV show.

Gaspar just returned from a trip to Japan, where he participated in an international sommelier competition. He finished in the top 12, which is remarkable for such a young man from this small country.

Gaspar is the CEO of a wine distribution company/wine bar ( www.evino.si). His family also owns another restaurant here in Ljubjlana, where his mother is the head chef. We are hoping to get there Wednesday for a meal.

In the meantime, we’re off to do laundry and study up on the next leg of our journey. We head to the Prekmurje region on Thursday, near the Hungarian border.

April 14:

Meet Meghan and Maggie: they are Embassy employees and our hosts for our trip. Meghan is the Deputy Public Affairs Officer, and Maggie a co-ordinator for the Embassy’s Community Liasion Office. You will be hearing a lot about them.

Curiously enough, Meghan is a native of Ohio (so is Natalie), and Maggie grew up in Sarasota, Fla. (right across the river from Cassie’s hometown). They both went to college in North Carolina. We didn’t know any of this until we got here. Such a small world!

We are doing our utmost to enjoy every moment, which is not hard. Since we start the “work” portion of our visit (filming for the TV show) on Wednesday, we piled in the car with Meghan and Maggie and headed northwest to Bled ( www.bled.si/en).

Bled is famous as a destination for tourists drawn by its natural beauty. There is a castle (a Grad) on top of a cliff that overlooks a pristine lake. The Julian Alps are in the background. It is simply breathtaking (figuratively, because it is so beautiful, and literally, because the walk to the castle is pretty steep). We rewarded ourselves with a sladoled – an ice cream.

A short drive up the windy roads and we got to Lake Bohinj ( www.bohinj.si/en). By our estimation, it is even more beautiful (and less crowded) than Bled. A church that overlooks the lake (Church of St. John the Baptist) dates back to the 1300s. Slovenes are obviously proud of their heritage and the natural beauty of their country. They go to great lengths to protect and restore historical sights. Our hotel was built over 400 years ago.

After our trip to the magnificent mountains, we got back to – the capital, Ljubjlana – and stretched our legs along the river. Here, the cafes were just getting into full swing as the sun was setting. Our sladoled having worn off, we stopped in to Gujzina ( www.prekmurska-gostilna.si), a lovely and simple gostilna (restaurant) advertising “traditional Slovene dishes” on the sidewalk signboard.

Being Sunday night, it wasn’t busy (typical of U.S. restaurants also), and we had the tiny dining room to ourselves for awhile. We ordered “meat on a desk” (really, the menu said that exactly), the dodoli trio, and a couple of small salads.

Meat on a desk is what we call a charcuterie plate, but served on a wooden cutting board. It featured cured and smoked ham, pork pate, salami with pumpkin seeds, and lard with cracklings (for spreading on bread). The pate was light, velvety, and rather than leading with the flavor of liver, finished with a hint of it. The dodoli trio was a plate of dumplings fixed two ways: pan-seared or bathed in sour cream and onions. Between them was a fluffy pile of perfectly cooked buckwheat.

You will likely hear lots about dumplings during our stay. The ones we had at Gujzina are an Eastern Slovene tradition, fluffy and about the size of a flattened golf ball. They were simply made of mashed potato and a bit of flour to bind them. The pan-seared version was fried lightly in butter. The sour cream version was poached and then dressed just before serving. The salads were a mix of seasonal greens and tomato tossed in pumpkin seed oil and topped with a handful of kidney beans. We enjoyed every bite.

April 13: Ljubjlana,Slovenia

After checking into our hotel, we did our best to adjust to local time by staying awake a few hours. A brisk walk along the local streets (open to pedestrians only) was just the ticket. A few local vendors were out selling everything from sladoled (ice cream that is much like gelato) to souvenirs and pantry staples. Cassie’s first purchase was a bag of shallots and a braid of garlic from an old woman on the corner. We explored for a couple hours and retired back to the hotel to nap and shower.

After our rest, we attended a reception at the Ambassador’s residence here in LJ (Ljubjlana). Chef Lenny Russo from Heartland Restaurant in St. Paul has been here for the last two weeks, touring the western regions of the country. The event last night was to welcome us and to put Lenny to the test identifying the dishes prepared by the Ambassador’s chef, who by all accounts is the best in Slovenia.

Each of the five courses was paired with a regional wine. All of us looked on as Lenny tried the dishes, and we enjoyed our own taste of everything as well. But we had the advantage of a menu to tell us what was served.

From the first sip of the sparkling wine (Tjasina penina), to the decadent but not too sweet layered cake (gibanica), it was incredibly flavorful and rich with a love for the ingredients and the tradition.

In a couple weeks, we will return to the Ambassador’s residence for a similar “taste test,” where Cassie will sample items from the western regions.

After catching up on our sleep, we walked a couple of blocks to the LJ market. Just like in the U.S., Saturday is the big market day, even though many vendors sell daily in the plaza. Although there is one large central plaza, there are smaller offshoots of the market that feature different items: breads, meats, produce, cheeses, dried fruit and nuts, flowers, etc.

Naturally, we were immediately drawn to a vendor selling pork. She proudly displayed her certificates noting gold and silver medals awarded for her wares, made on her farm by her and her husband. Their farm is Kmetija Babic from the town of Ptuj.

Our Slovene isn’t great and her English was sketchy, but we communicated nicely over our mutual love of pigs and pork. The vendor next to her, a baker named Tina, was gracious enough to translate what we couldn’t decipher on our own.

We loaded our bag with prekajena klobasa (fresh sausage like kielbasa), pec sunkarica (a cooked ham), and domace hrenkova (hot dogs). Thank goodness we have a full kitchen in our suite!

Tina the baker told us the story of her “mali kruhek” (honey bread). This Slovene tradition goes back almost 400 years to the nuns of St. Clara, who made the bread mainly for church officials and nobility.

The simple ingredients of this unleavened bread (rye and/or wheat flour, honey, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and potash) maximize the bread’s keeping qualities and discourage insects (plus it is absolutely delicious).

Tina said the bread would be edible for up to a year, after which it would become a beautiful decoration. The decorating of the bread could remain simple for everyday use, or incredibly ornate, with some designs taking a dozen hours.

The bread is surprisingly light, and the flavor reminiscent of a subtle spice cookie. It is slightly chewy and perfectly with tea or coffee.

The tradition of making honey bread (and many other foods) was passed from the nuns to local girls, who passed the lessons on to their daughters. Those who lacked daughters taught the wives of their sons. Tina learned from her mother-in-law, who learned from her mother, whose lessons came from the generations of women in her family, all the way back to the nuns at St. Clara.

April 11: Leaving for Slovenia

From Cassie: Here we go…Slovenia bound! I feel just like I did going to the high school state championship basketball tournament so many years ago: Mom and Dad in the bleachers (aka our farm), my teammates (at Harvest Moon Grille) are all chattering about plays (recipes), and our goal is to “have fun” (win).

The big win for me is getting to meet dozens of beautiful people from Slovenia and sharing culinary traditions. Already, the preparation for this trip has been heartwarming. Our restaurant and farmers’ market customers have come out in throngs to wish us well. Our colleagues at the farm and at Harvest Moon Grille have stepped up to make being away as easy and worry-free as possible. All of this outpouring has made getting ready for this adventure less daunting than I had expected (plus Natalie makes it all look so easy). We are now less than 24 hours from take-off, and we are incredibly excited. My bags are packed, I have a spanking new journal to keep notes in, two magazines to read on the plane (yes, of course they are food-related), and my heart is so very full and my mind open. Certainly, this is going to be a trip of a lifetime.

A huge part of the mission of this trip is for us to share what we can with you here at home. We are so glad you are willing and able to join us through this medium and are grateful to The Observer for hosting it. We also want to thank the great folks in Lincoln County for providing wonderful gifts to share with our new friends in Slovenia.

We now head eastward, with the intention of creating some great new relationships and some fabulous dishes.

Se vidimo kmalu (see you soon)!

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