We arrived at Gostilna Ostrouška (pictured, above; all photos by Christopher Wurst), early yesterday where I met Gašper Čarmen (note: "Gostilna" means restaurant). He is the top wine sommelier in all of Slovenia, and he had recently returned from an international competition in Tokyo. He will be traveling with us for the next couple of days. Also there was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bay Fang,who traveled over from Croatia where she was visiting with the diplomatic team stationed there. She, too, will be joining us for the remainder of our trip.
While there, we sampled several eau de vie made from everything from basil to fennel, all from their own gardens, as well as wines also produced there. They also cure there own salumi and prosciutti. We dined on a frittata-like egg dish stuffed with fresh herbs called fritalja. It is flatter and more pancake-like than the Italian version.
Next, we traveled to Praprot, crossing into Italy to the Zidarich Winery, where we met with Benjamin Zidirich. The winery is perched on a hillside overlooking the Adriatic, and it is spectacular. I am afraid that the pictures do not do this locale justice.
The wine cave is dug down several hundred meters into the rich iron ore laden terra rosa, and it took 10 years to excavate and construct. The work was done by stone masons, and it is supported by large stone arches that house giant wooden fermentation tanks and Slovenian oak barriques, as well an incredible large sink that had been hand carved from solid stone. I have seen many wine cellars and caves over the years, but I have never seen anything that compares to that.
We tasted several of Ben's wines, including a lively Malvasia, made in the traditional fashion using a form of carbonic maceration, and a remarkably full bodied Refusco.
I was then treated to a tour of his curing room where dozens of prosciutti, pancetti and salumi were hanging in various stages of drying, which is done in the traditional way by allowing the northern wind to blow through the room. Suffice it to say, I was green with envy. Later, we enjoyed a lunch comprised of those, with local cheese and some more of Ben's wines.
That evening, we returned to Ljubljana (the capitol of Slovenia) where we attended a reception at the ambassador's residence, where I was challenged in a blind tasting of wines and foods from eastern Slovenia, which is the area of the country that chef Cassie Parsons from North Carolina will be covering. Cassie had just arrived in the country, and I was quick to alert her to get as much rest as possible before her adventure begins in earnest. She will be facing very long days, some as long as my day yesterday, which started at 6:30 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m.
Today we venture back to the wine growing region of Goriška Brda with a trip to another gostilna and a second visit to Movia Winery, where I will be cooking this evening. -- Lenny Russo
We were finally able to locate a "black kitchen" that was able to host a meal bringing together many of the folks we had previously visited on our tour of the region encompassed by the Julian Alps. A black kitchen is most akin to a smokehouse for those of us in the U.S.
I prepared a meal of heirloom beans and aromatic vegetables with klobasa and poached duck eggs topped with chives.The attendees were the two little old ladies who taught me how to make krape, and it was their gift of heirloom beans and duck eggs that took center stage. I also used the award-winning klobasa from Arval, and the sausage maker was at the table along with Tomaž Bolka of Gostilna Krištof, where I first tasted that sausage. Also in attendance were our friends the Lecters from the mountain village of Radovjlica, as well as chef Uroš Štefelin of Restavracija 1906.
As the meal was being served, we were paid a surprise viist by a mountain man character from a popular kid's show that dates back to the 1950s who proceeded to stick his fingers in my food, prompting a quick exchange of plates. Gifts were exchanged by all. Tomaž' handcrafted beer was consumed, and apple schnapps was hoisted in a toast.
Earlier in the day, I gave two interviews to Slovenian media. Late that evening, I gave a phone interview to Minnesota Public Radio.
The next day calls for a trip to the mercury mines of Idrija, where I will also take a ride with some professional rally drivers who race souped-up Yugos. That will be followed by a lesson making zlikrofi, which are like tortellini, and a visit to a top Slovene chef in Nebessa. -- Lenny Russo
Editor's note: As Lenny Russo, chef/owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul, travels around Slovenia, he is being followed by a film crew for a TV series in Slovenia. You can see more pictures at the Slovenia national TV website. The text is in Slovene but there are more pictures and, of course, links to Table Talk, the Star Tribune Taste blog.
Gostilna Krištof is located in Predoslje, which is a village in the municipalty of Kranj, which lies in the Upper Carniola Region of Slovenia. The gostilna has been the family for hundreds of years although not always in its present location.
Klobasa is the Slovenian version of kielbasa, and it was outstanding (all photos by Christopher Wurst). We also tasted the gostilna's hot sauces which won awards in competition in New York City. One was so hot it made my ears hurt. Everything there is made from scratch, including the breads. In addition, we were treated to what Krištof called Slovenian sashimi, which was sea bass smoked under glass using an ingenious mechanical pump of his own design and served on spoons with Slovenian olive oil, trout roe and tobikko. His menu is definitely worth taking a look at, and I venture to say that it the best restaurant we have experienced so far in Slovenia.
Next, we traveled to Bled where I was rowed to Bled Island by Olympic rowing medalist and six-time competitor Istok Čop. Once there, I climbed the hundred steps to the Church of St. Mary and rang the bell, which tradition says will grant your wish. I wished for spring, and I was sort of temporarily granted that as the temperature in Ljubljana reached 53 degree yesterday with partially clearing skies. It is winter again today with highs reaching only into the low 40s with a cold rain
After that, I drove to Restavracija 1906 where I met with Chef Uroš Štefelin. He prepared for me his take on traditional Slovenian veal liver, which was served in glass and layered with polenta, potato spuma, black truffles and brin cheese crisps. It was delicious. Then he presented the traditional Tepka pear, which a dried heirloom pear that had been reconstituted and dipped in chocolate ganache. We exchanged White Earth Nation wild rice and Tepka Schnapps.
Next we drove high into the lower Julian Alps. I have been driving a brand new little red Fiat 500, which proved remarkably up to the task given condition of the roads once we lost pavement and replaced it with ice, snow and ruts. We stopped in Radovna at Gostilna Psnak where I toured the farm and dined on blood sausage with sauerkraut and quark krape. Krape are made form buckwheat sometimes mixed with ground Tepka pear flour. These were 100 percent buckwheat and stuffed with the farm's own quark.
Everything there is product of the farm, and it is all organically raised. They have an aviary, the doors of which are painted with the family history of the farm, which was purchased by the father of Mr. Psnak, whom we met later. He is now 84 years old and no longer working the farm, but Mr. Psnak has been working it six days a week every week for the last 20 years from 2 a.m. until 8 p.m. The farm has been a working farm for over 400 years. They also have what is called a black kitchen, which is essentially a smokehouse that has been blackened by the smoke and where we saw hams hanging as they were being cured and smoked. Again, we left them with some White Earth wild rice.
More later. -- Lenny Russo
The first day out began with truffle hunting in Belvedur. It is spring black truffle season here. Gina, the amazing truffle hunting dog, led us to an oak tree where I able to dig out the truffles.
Next we headed to Franc Morgan's olive groves. Franc (below) is a gold medal winner in an international olive oil competition held in Italy every year. His awards are too numerous to mention, but, sadly, his production so small that it is consumed exclusively here in Slovenia. It might be the best olive oil I have ever tasted, and it is ubiquitous in the finest restaurants across Slovenia.
We tasted several varieties including orange-infused oil that is pressed with whole oranges. It was poured over vanilla gelato and a lemon-infused variety made in the same way I later used at a dinner prepared the next evening. We also tasted an olive based digestif.
Then we headed to Klenart vineyard situated on a hill overlookin Trieste on one side and the Bay of Piran on the other side.
We tasted all of his wines including a pinot noir rose that I served at the same dinner.
The next day began with securing a fish from a fisher named Momo in the port side town of Piran. He brought a rare catch. The folks there were declaring it salmon, but it looked a steelhead trout to me. Once I cut into it, it turned out I was right. Nonetheless, catching a fish of the species in the Bay of Piran is extremely unusual. It must have traveled down a river on it's way to open water and made a wrong turn.
The we headed to the famous Istrian salt flats where there is now a nature preserve and salt has been produced since medieval times when it was the primary source of revenue for the region and a major source of revenue for the Venetian city state. There I picked up some amazing fleur de sel that has an almost sweet finish to it.
After that, we headed into the uplands of Istria where I prepared a meal from that morning's trout cooked over an open fire along with potatoes mashed with the black truffles and a garnish of variegated radicchio with fresh fennel tossed in lemon juice and Franc's lemon-infused olive oil.
I finished the dish with the fleur de sel. It was served en brodo with a broth made from the trout bones and aromatic vegetables with some Klenart Ribula white wine. We started with some Klenart sparkling wine made from chardonnay and pinot noir (They call the pinot noir modri pinot ). I served Klenart rose with the meal and we finished with the olive-oil digestif from Morgan.
Today I have several interviews. Then I am preparing a meal of heirloom beans with klobasa and duck eggs in a "black kitchen." More later.-- Lenny Russo
Friday, April 5
Northwest corner of Slovenia, where Italy, Austria and Slovenia meet.
Yesterday was incredible. The scenery driving through the Julian Alps on the way to Rateče was astounding.
Upon our arrival we were greeted by Jerča Oman, 81, and Franiča Kopavnik, 63, who treated us to an herbal aperitif and some canapés made with their own ham, quark and pickled cêpes and chanterelles.
Then they gave me lessons on the making of traditional Slovenian krape which are dumplings, both savory and sweet, stuffed with a mixture of reconstituted dried tepka pears topped with either a sweetened bèchamel or ground pork. We finished with some tepka schnapps.
After dropping a baby goat in my arms, Franiča sent us on our way with gifts of fresh duck eggs, chicken eggs and beautiful dried heirloom beans of multiple varieties. While Ratece is thought to have on average one of the coldest mean temperatures in all of Slovenia and the ground was still covered in snow, the joy these women bring to their lives was so enveloping that we could have been on a beach in a tropical paradise and not felt as warm.
I carried that warmth with me as I drove to Gostilna Lecter in Radovljica. That is, until we were pulled over by the Slovenian police because the filmmakers were shooting video out the back of their van in violation of the Slovenian seat belt law. It got a little tense while I waited in my little red Fiat until the director invoked the name of the American Embassy, whereupon we were sent on our way with wishes of good luck and good tidings.
Upon arriving at Gostilna Lecter, I was treated to a lesson of traditional gingerbread cake decoration. I have to admit that I am not much of a cake decorator, and my first effort turned out to be my best.
Once filming was complete, we settled in with some large bottles of Laško beer while owner Jože Andrejas (below) serenaded us with some amazing blues harmonica. Apparently he is big Sonny Terry fan, and he can really wail!
Today is a much needed day off aside form a brief preparation meeting for tomorrow's schedule. -- Lenny Russo
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