When it comes to Slovenia, Ljubljana and Lake Bled perhaps represent the breadth of knowledge of most international visitors. But things are changing, with Slovenia quickly becoming one of Europe’s top foodie destinations. It is, at least in part, thanks to a woman – Ana Roš, chef at Hiša Franko, a family-run restaurant located in the alpine surroundings of the Soča valley and bordered by the Julian Alps.
50 reasons to love the world – 2021
Why do you like the world?
“Because I was able to visit the small stone villages of the magical region of Kras, Slovenia, where I would not have considered going if I had not needed to stay in my country. I am grateful to have had the chance to see the beautiful colors of the region – oranges, violets and greens – and its unique landscape, which looks like a kind of Mediterranean but overlooks the Alps. – Ana Roš, chef
More reasons to love the world
In June 2020, Michelin announced its very first stars awarded to a Slovenian restaurant, awarding two stars to Hiša Franko. The restaurant is also currently ranked 38th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and Roš has been featured in Netflix’s Chef’s Table.
The innovative and self-taught chef presides over a menu that draws inspiration from the astonishing variety of products offered by the Slovenian terroir – so diverse that in 2016 local ethnologists divided the country into 23 distinct gastronomic regions. These rich natural ingredients and the resulting cuisine, which combines Italian, Balkan and Alpine influences – in dishes such as buckwheat fritter with sour ricotta and porcini mushrooms, and dried sardines with figs and black lemon – saw Slovenia named the European Region of Gastronomy for 2021.
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Ana Roš: her food and her story
Roš has not had a traditional chef’s journey to stardom. Apparently destined to become a diplomat or professional skier (she spent 10 years in the Yugoslav national ski team and graduated in international and diplomatic sciences from an Italian university), Roš instead decided to work in the kitchen of the family restaurant in her future husband Valter, where she began her culinary exploration.
I am more inspired by the territory, the beauty of nature, by the quality of the products
“Ana Roš’s cooking style is a kind of collage: an expression of the land, the season and absolutely my personality, which is strong,” said the chef, reflecting on her own practice. With creative re-imaginations of traditional dishes from the Soča Valley (which include the famous Soča trout and bovški krafi, sweet pear pasta), however, Roš’s innovative menus are not linked to any particular tradition or technique. Instead, they take the chef’s environment as a launching pad, echoing the organic (and eclectic) nature of his path to the kitchen.
“I’m well known for being self-taught and never studied in any restaurant or culinary school, so chefs were not my inspiration. I am more inspired by the territory, the beauty of nature, by the quality of the products that I have around, ”she explained.
Roš describes his approach to cooking as “technical, almost scientific”, with “raw” being his favorite way of preparing ingredients, especially vegetables. The result of such a rigorous and methodical approach, which sees the dishes go through a 10-day experimentation and testing process, is a culinary experience away from the dry clinical environment of a testing lab.
“The element of surprise is essential for me – alternating textures (cold / hot and soft / hard) or some contrast in taste (bitter / sour or sweet / salty),” said Roš, who also notes the key role. herbs and spices, harvested in Hiša Franko’s own garden, to delight and surprise diners.
Nature and people are at the heart of the chef’s commitment to working with local ingredients, including herbs and wild flowers, honey and lamb from the nearby mountains. “We follow the seasons, we respect the terroir by sourcing totally locally”, she explained, stressing that “using local ingredients also means supporting local producers”.
As well as contributing to the local economy and the restaurant’s reputation for sustainability, Roš’s dedication to celebrating local ingredients is testament to his role as an advocate of Slovenian gastronomy on the world stage. “I think the only goal I had during all these years of hard work was to … create a tourist and gastronomic destination – for [the local town of] Kobarid, the Soča valley or Slovenia, ”she said.
Slovenian food culture: diverse landscapes and shifting borders
Defining Slovenian cuisine is no easy task. According to Roš, a (quite literal) avoidance of fixed borders gives the country’s gastronomy its main strengths. “So what is Slovenian cuisine?” she said, “You don’t know because in the north the food can be completely different from what we eat in the west or the south.” Describing Slovenian cuisine as one of the “windiest” she has ever encountered, referring to its evolution and adaptation amidst changing cultural and political tides, she goes on to dissect the various influences on the country:
“I think Slovenia is unique when it comes to culinary traditions, as it is a very small country – only 21,000 km² – and is bordered by countries known for their strong culinary cultures, with Italy at the west, Austria with Viennese cuisine to the north, and the Balkans to the south, with a small border with Hungary.
The tumultuous history of the region has helped shape such an eclectic cuisine, explained Roš, because “borders have always been on the move, 100 km this way and that way, and these [border regions] are often where minorities live ”, creating even more diversity. The chef notes the particular impact of recent history on her work: “Slovenia was part of a communist country (Yugoslavia) where creativity – including in gastronomy – was not as sustained as in the West. We are now building a new Slovenian kitchen. “
At the center of this new Slovenian cuisine is the astonishing range of products on offer in this relatively small country, born of its rich biodiversity and contrasting landscapes. On the same day, you can hike in the Alps, explore lush forests, stroll beyond the Adriatic (where you will find the Sečovlje salt marshes) and enjoy the healing waters of the thermal springs. “I have an incredible terroir in my hands,” said Roš. “Slovenia is beautiful and can produce amazing things from Tolminc cheese [a hard cow’s milk cheese] produced at 2000 m altitude up to the marbled trout of the Soča river.
For visitors traveling to Slovenia, Roš recommends (in addition to visiting Hiša Franko naturally) to eat gostilnas, which she describes as “the Slovenian version of osteria“. Here, she explains, the food is traditional but sometimes with a “surprising twist”. Foodies looking to deepen their understanding of Slovenian gastronomy would do well to seek out organic food producers and winegrowers in the country: “I think they would be surprised at what they might find,” said the chef.
Hiša Franko’s future: standing firm in the face of uncertainty
With the restaurant industry among the hardest hit by the lockdowns that have taken effect across the globe against the Covid-19 pandemic, Roš is keenly aware of the challenges and lingering uncertainty ahead. “It’s very difficult to try to predict what’s going to happen next,” she said. “The pandemic has hit us and our industry very hard, and it has surely changed our sense of security and our sense of being safe in what we do.”
The chef is, however, determined that her mission and her way of working are not victims of the coronavirus. “I cannot change the way I am or the way I work. It would be better if I found another job rather than that. Hiša Franko will not change, it will remain exactly as it is – an expression of where we come from and times. Faced with the unique challenges of this time, she believes that “it is important to continue to think and believe that people will always want to socialize, eat and drink and enjoy their lives.
Rather than falling victim to the pandemic, the chef sees restaurants as a key part of our recovery. “I think some of the most important recovery times will be the social and psychological moments, where people are hungry for a good time and want to go out,” she said, describing restaurants as offering a “bubble” of relaxation – something in short supply in the world right now. “I think the role of entertainment, which I see restaurants as a part of, is an important part of our recovery,” Roš continued, “because we are social beings and we need companionship. The chef describes our need for “good times” as the basis for her relative optimism.
Cooking Slovenian at home
“It’s very difficult for a Slovenian chef to suggest what people around the world or in cities should cook,” said Roš, when asked what Slovenian dishes novice chefs might try at home. Trying to make an “interpretation” of her food “in a far away place” is particularly difficult, she explained, due to the special quality of Slovenian ingredients. “We live so close to nature that it is hard to imagine that one can get, for example, the fermented cottage cheese or the local lamb, which has a special local flavor.”
Instead, Roš suggests looking at the recipes of Slovenian chefs and planning your next trip: “I honestly believe that when you read the chef’s recipes there should be a dream, a wish to go to a place and then eat that food there. “In the meantime, she recommends“ think locally. ”“ Start buying seasonal produce, use organic or biodynamic vegetables, eat a lot of raw vegetables, eat a lot of fruit, use spices, ”she said.
But what matters even more to the chef is his state of mind towards food: “Make happy food. Don’t count calories when you eat, just enjoy the food. This is the best recipe I can give. “
BBC Travel celebrates 50 reasons to love the world in 2021, thanks to the inspiration of famous voices and unsung heroes in local communities around the world.
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