Slovenia has emerged as a full-on foodie destination. For such a small country, it boasts an incredibly diverse range of cuisines, from Prekmurje in the northeast to Istria in the southwest. Indeed, the Slovenian Tourist Board (www.slovenia.info) has identified two dozen culinary micro-regions and has encouraged restaurants and local authorities to highlight their own specialities through festivals and on menus. Everywhere the emphasis is on farm-fresh and sustainability.
The Slovenian Kitchen
Squeezed between four different culinary regions – Austria to the north, Hungary to the east, the Balkans to the south and Italy to the west – Slovenia has adopted and modified the cooking styles of its neighbours, while adding in the fresh vegetables, herbs and grains it grows on its own in abundance. The result is diversity and invention. On menus you're likely to see foods and ingredients, such as buckwheat (ajda), barley soup and horse (konj), that you may have never encountered before. The default response, of course, is always 'YOLO': you only live once.
Start With a Soup
In keeping with the Central European tradition, most Slovenian meals start with soup (juha) – year-round but especially in winter. There are countless different varieties. As a starter, this is usually chicken/beef broth with little egg noodles (kokošja/goveja juha z rezanci) or mushroom soup (gobova juha), often made from hand-picked mushrooms. More substantial varieties, which can also serve as a small meal to save money, include barley soup (jesprenj); jota, a thick potage of beans, sauerkraut or sour turnip, sometimes potatoes, and smoked pork or sausage; and obara, a stew often made with chicken or veal.
Nothing is more Slovenian than bread (kruh), and it is generally excellent, especially wholewheat bread (kmečki temni kruh). Real treats are the braided loaves made for weddings and around Christmas (not dissimilar to Jewish challah) and ‘mottled bread’ (pisan kruh) in which three types of dough (usually buckwheat, wheat and corn) are rolled up together and baked.
In 'Pršut' of Excellence
There's one culinary delicacy in Slovenia that practically justifies the cost of the trip alone. Pršut is air-dried, thinly sliced ham from the Karst region that's related to Italian prosciutto, though in our opinion is somehow airier and even more flavourful. Look for it in the western regions of the country. It works well as a starter and pairs beautifully with a plate of hard cheese and a glass of dark-red Teran wine.
Pršut is certainly not the only processed meat that pairs beautifully with a local wine or beer. Slovenia is replete with sausages and salamis. These include the ubiquitous (and delicious) Carniolan sausage (Kranjska klobasa), which hails originally from the Julian Alps region but can be found around the country. It's a large, round sausage that's seasoned with garlic and pepper. When served with a side of potato salad or pickled turnip, it makes for a filling meal in itself. Klobasarna in Ljubljana, as the name might indicate, has built an entire (successful) business around it. In season, salami made from game (divjačinska salama) rivals pršut for our devotion.
Horse, Turkey & Trout
Most Slovenian meals revolve around some kind of meat (meso) as the main course, and as elsewhere in Europe rest assured you'll find plenty of dishes built on common meats like pork (svinjina), beef (govedina) and chicken (piščanec). For Slovenian cooks, though, there's no reason to stop there when there are so many other possibilities to be sampled. During hunting season, usually from September to December, look on menus for game (divjačina) dishes, such as deer (srna), boar (merjasec) and pheasant (fazan). Turkey (puran) is as common in some areas as chicken, and can be delicious grilled. Even horsemeat (konj) finds its way onto the Slovenian table. For some, a visit to Ljubljana would not be complete without a stopover at Hot Horse, where you can sample, gulp, a 'horse-burger'.
With their small Adriatic coast and Alpine rivers teeming with freshwater fish (riba), Slovenes are naturally big fans of fish and seafood, even far from the coast. When travelling through the Alps, look out for trout (postrv), particularly the variety from the Soča River, which can be superb. Ljubljana's fish market, in the city centre below the Plečnik Colonnade, has open-air fish stands where you can buy a fresh and filling plate of calamari for as low as €7. The coastal port of Piran has half a dozen excellent seafood restaurants of its own.
Bring in the Buckwheat
There's something about the taste of buckwheat (ajda) that's so earthy and satisfying, it's a mystery that more cuisines around the world don't make better use of it. Thankfully, buckwheat's appeal is not lost on cooks around Slovenia, who've built starters and whole main courses around this neglected, grainlike plant. Hardcore buckwheat fans should just go for the groats (žganci), unadorned and filling. They make for an excellent side or even modest main course. Groats here can also be made from barley (ječmen) and corn (koruza).
Beyond simple groats and starters, more ambitious local cooks have built up an entire buckwheat culinary repertoire. A real rib sticker is buckwheat porridge (ajdovi žganci z ocvirki), usually flavoured with the addition of pork crackling or scratchings (ocvirki). Our personal favourite would have to be buckwheat 'fritters' or dumplings (ajdovi krapi) stuffed with cottage cheese. The Gostilna Psnak, tucked away within Triglav National Park, has perfected the art of the 'ajda'.
Slovenian cuisine boasts several calorific desserts. These are some of the favourites:
Potica A national institution, Potica is a kind of nut roll (although it’s often made with savoury fillings as well) eaten after a meal or at teatime.
Prekmurska gibanica Made from Slovenia’s easternmost province, is this rich concoction of pastry filled with poppyseeds, walnuts, apples and cottage cheese and topped with cream.
Blejska kremna rezina Also known as 'Bled cream cake' or even kremšnita – a layer of vanilla custard topped with whipped cream and sandwiched between layers of flaky pastry.
Strudel (zavitek or štrudelj) Filled with fruit, nuts and/or curd cheese (skuta).
The most popular street food in Slovenia is a Balkan import called burek – flaky pastry sometimes stuffed with meat but more often cheese or even apple – that is a cousin of Turkish börek. It’s sold at outdoor stalls or kiosks and is very cheap and filling.
Other cheap snacks available are čevapčiči (spicy meatballs of beef or pork), pljeskavica (spicy meat patties), ražnjiči (shish kebab) and pizza (which sometimes appears spelled in Slovene as pica).
Feature: Going Meatless & Other Dietary Needs
Slovenes love their veggies, though surprisingly for a country that places such high value on foods that are farm-fresh and locally grown, there are not many dedicated vegetarian or vegan restaurants. Even a relatively large city like Ljubljana suffers from a dearth of these types of places. Vegetarian and vegan diners need not despair, though, as menus everywhere feature plenty of meatless options, and fresh fruit and veg markets abound.
Vegetarian Survival Kit
In practice, vegetarians normally have to tough it out by selecting meatless entries at standard restaurants and inns. The good news is that many restaurants will specially designate suitable entrees on menus with a sign or a symbol.
Štruklji are dumplings made with cheese and often flavoured with chives or tarragon. These are widely available, as are dishes like mushroom risotto (gobova rižota) and fried cheese (ocvrti sir). Slovenes enjoy fresh solata (salad) and you can get one anywhere, even in a countryside gostilna. In season (usually late summer and autumn) the whole country indulges in jurčki (wild boletus mushrooms or ceps) in soups or salads or served grilled.
Options improve considerably for self-caterers. Fresh produce, cheeses and breads are widely available everywhere. Ljubljana's Central Market is a veg picnicker's dream.
Food Allergies & Intolerances
The situation is similar for diners with special food requirements, allergies or intolerances. The EU has mandated that restaurants display any possible food allergies alongside dishes on menus, though compliance with this law remains spotty.
In theory, at least, waiters should be informed of potential allergy risks. The best bet remains to ask before ordering.
Feature: The Year in Food
The true harbingers of the spring cycle are dandelion greens and lamb's lettuce. Then comes asparagus from Istria, just ahead of the first strawberries and cherries from Goriška Brda.
The bounty continues with raspberries and blueberries and then stone fruits like apricots. Next are pears and apples from Kozjansko and the start of the nut harvest. In the east, lots of goulash is stewed in outdoor cauldrons.
Folk engage in the national sport – mushroom gathering – and chestnut stalls arrive in Ljubljana. St Martin’s Day (11 November) is when winemakers’ fermenting grape juice officially becomes wine.
Persimmons, olives and root vegetables arrive in the markets. It's time for hearty soups like jota and ričet and mulled wine (made with white wine here too). Christmas wouldn’t be complete without potica (nut roll).
On the whole, Slovenes are not big eaters of breakfast (zajtrk), preferring a cup of coffee at home or on the way to work. Instead, many people eat a light meal called malica (literally, snack) at around 10.30am.
Lunch (kosilo) is traditionally the main meal in the countryside, and it’s eaten at noon if malica has been skipped. Sometimes it is eaten much later, such as in the middle of the afternoon.
Dinner (večerja) – supper, really – is less substantial when eaten at home, often just sliced meats and cheese on a platter and salad.
Borrowing from the Neighbours
Culinary anthropologists looking over Slovenian menus would obviously notice the many subtle but undeniable influences that Slovenia's neighbours have had in shaping the national cuisine (or is it cuisines?).
From Austria & Hungary
From Austria, there’s sausage (klobasa), strudel (zavitek or štrudelj) filled with fruit, nuts and/or curd cheese (skuta), and, of course, Wiener schnitzel (dunajski zrezek).
Hungary has contributed golaž (goulash), paprikaš (piquant chicken or beef ‘stew’) and palačinka (pancake filled with jam or nuts and topped with chocolate).
From Italy & the Balkans
The ravioli-like žlikrofi (pasta stuffed with potatoes, onion and spiced pork), njoki (potato dumplings) and rižota (risotto) have some clear Italian origins.
From Croatia and the rest of the Balkans come such popular grills as čevapčiči (spicy meatballs of beef or pork), pljeskavica (meat patties) and Ljubljana's number-one street food: burek (flaky pastry stuffed with meat or cheese).
Grapes & Grains
Slovenia is a badly underrated wine (vino) destination, but in fact wine has been made here since the arrival of the Celts in the 5th century BC (and the wine has only gotten much better since then!).
Slovenes usually drink wine with meals or socially at home. As elsewhere in Central Europe, a bottle or a glass of mineral water is ordered along with the wine when eating. It’s a different story in summer, when people enjoy a brizganec or špricer (spritzer or wine cooler) of red or white wine mixed with mineral water. Wine comes in 0.75L bottles or is ordered by the deci (decilitre; 0.1L). A normal glass of wine is about dva deci (0.2L).
Wine-Making Regions & Varietals
Slovenia counts three major wine-growing regions, each with their own respective strengths and traditional varietals. Two regions, Podravje and Posavje, lie towards the eastern part of the country, while a third, Primorska, is in the west.
Podravje (literally ‘on the Drava’), encompassing the far-eastern Prekmurje and Štajerska Slovenija (Slovenian Styria) districts, is known best for quality whites, such as Welschriesling (Laški Rizling), Riesling (Renski Rizling), a true German Riesling, pinot blanc (Beli Pinot), Gewürtztraminer (Traminec) and Furmint (Šipon).
Posavje ('on the Sava') runs roughly through the southeast of the country across the Sava River into Dolenjska and Bela Krajina, and includes the Bizeljsko-Sremič, Dolenjska and Bela Krajina (Metlika) districts. This region produces both whites and reds, but its most famous wine is Cviček, a distinctly Slovenian dry light red – almost a rosé – with a low (8.5% to 10%) alcohol content.
Other popular varietals include the traditional dark-red Metlika black (Metliška Črnina), the white muscatel (Rumeni Muškat) and an Austrian red, Blaufränkisch.
The Primorska (coastal) wine region, which encompasses the districts of Slovenska Istra (Slovenia Istria), Kras (Karst), Vipavska Dolina (Vipava Valley) and the celebrated Goriška Brda (Gorica Hills), excels at reds. The most famous of these is Teran, a ruby-red, peppery wine with high acidity made from Slovenian Refošk (Refosco) grapes in the Karst region.
Other wines from this region are malvasia (Malvazija), a yellowish white from Slovenian Istria that is light and dry, and red merlots, especially the ones from the Vipava Valley and Goriška Brda. A relatively recent phenomenon from the Vipava Valley is so-called 'orange' wine, a white wine with an orange tinge due to contact with the colouring pigments of red grape skins.
Pairing food with wine is as great an obsession in Slovenia as it is in other wine-producing countries. Most people know that pršut with black olives, hard cheese and a glass of Teran is a near-perfect match, but what's less appreciated is the wonderful synergy other wines from the Karst, including red rebula, enjoy with these foodstuffs.
With heavier and/or spicier meat dishes, such as goulash and salami, try Cviček. Malvazija, a yellowish white from the coast, is good with fish, as is Laški Rizling. And with sweet food such as strudel and potica, it’s got to be a glass of late-harvest Rumeni Muškat.
Hops & Beers
Eastern Slovenia is a major hops-growing region and beer (pivo) is popular, especially with younger people. The local hops (Štajerska hmelj) grown in the Savinja Valley are used locally and also exported to brewers around the world. They have been described as having the flavour of lemongrass.
Beer is traditionally served in a pub (pivnica), though it's almost always possible to grab a beer in any restaurant, inn or cafe. Draught beer (točeno pivo) is ordered as veliko pivo (‘large beer’; 0.5L) or malo pivo (‘small beer’; 0.3L). Many places now offer craft beers, sometimes on tap but usually in bottles.
The Big Boys
Slovenia has two major commercial brewers, both of which are owned by the Laško brewery in the town of that name south of Celje. Laško produces the country’s two most popular brands: Zlatorog and Union (which is brewed in Ljubljana). Both brands are standard pilsners, with a light golden colour and a hoppy, almost bitter taste. Of the two, Zlatorog is the more popular. Union is generally seen as the working-class beer – the right choice for a bender, when just about anything will do.
Laško also makes a popular, sweetish dark beer (temno pivo) called, appropriately enough, Laško Dark. It’s frequently available on tap in bars and pubs. Union makes a very popular, low-alcohol (2.5%) shandy called Radler, flavoured with orange, lemon or grapefruit and available in cans and bottles.
A Craft Beer Revolution
Just like beer aficionados around the world, Slovenes have enthusiastically embraced the craft beer movement, and alongside the more common Laško offerings like Zlatorog and Union, at many pubs you'll find a bewildering menu of India Pale Ales (IPAs) and American Pale Ales (APAs), as well as other ales, brown ales, stouts and porters (and we're leaving out many others). These are often made by small, independent breweries you're likely never to have heard of. To help you decide, bar menus normally include a description of the beer and its alcohol content. Note craft beers tend to be much stronger than traditional pilsner-style beers.
Many of these new Slovenian beers are excellent. Some of the most highly regarded names to watch for include HumanFish, based in Vrhnika, Pelicon in Ajdovščina, Reservoir Dogs in Nova Gorica, and Bevog, which is actually run out of Austria. The Ljubljana TIC organises a two-tour tour of Ljubljana's best places to sample craft beers. For a more-DIY tour in the capital, check out the craft beer offerings at Pritličje, Klub Daktari and Patrick's Irish Pub.
That's the Spirit
Wine and beer are fine for daily tipples, but special occasions often call for something a tad stronger. That's where žganje, a general term for strong brandy distilled from fruits, comes in. One of Slovenia's best brandies is Pleterska Hruška (also called viljamovka), a pear-based concoction made by the Carthusian monks at the Pleterje monastery near Kostanjevica na Krki in Dolenjska. For firewater with other fruits or flavourings, look out for the following:
Borovnica Made from forest blueberries.
Slivovka Made with plums.
Češnjevec Made with cherries.
Sadjevec Made with mixed fruit.
Brinjevec Made with juniper.
Medeno žganje Fruit brandy flavoured with honey.
Feature: Deciphering the Wine Label
Before you plunk down your euros to buy a bottle of wine, it's helpful to know exactly what you are getting. Slovenian wines follow a carefully scripted formula for letting customers know what's in the bottle, but the system is not always transparent if you don't speak Slovene.
What Place, What Grape?
On a Slovenian wine label, the first word usually identifies where the wine is from and the second specifies the grape variety: Vipavski merlot, Mariborski traminec etc.
But this may not always be the case, and some wines bear names according to their places of origin, such as Jeruzalemčan, Bizeljčan or Haložan.
'Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée'
Slovenia's version of appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) is zaščiteno geografsko poreklo (ZGP), a trademark protection that guarantees provenance and sets the limits to three quality levels.
Some 9% or so is designated vrhunsko vino (premium wine), around 54% is kakovostno vino (quality wine) and 27% is deželno vino (regional wine), not dissimilar to French vin du pays. The last 10% are wines classified as priznano tradicionalno poimenovanje (recognised traditional designation) such as Cviček, Teran, Metliška Črnina, Belokranjec and Bizeljčan.
Very roughly, anything costing more than about €8 in the shops is a serious bottle of Slovenian wine; pay more than €12 and you’ll be getting something very fine indeed.
Specialities & Sparkling Wines
One excellent Slovenian sparkling wine that employs the demanding méthode classique is Zlata Radgonska Penina from Gornja Radgona in Slovenian Styria, which is based on chardonnay and Beli Pinot. Kraška Penina, a sparkling Teran, is unique.
Late-harvest dessert wines include Rumeni Muškat from Bela Krajina and Slovenian Istria.
Feature: Exploring Slovenia's Wineries
Slovenia’s three major wine-producing regions – Podravje and Posavje in the east and Primorska in the west – are all relatively compact. With some advance planning, it’s easy to pair a visit to a region with a tour of the local wineries.
Jeruzalem-Ljutomer Wine Road
Arguably, the country’s best-known wine route, the eastern Jeruzalem-Ljutomer Wine Road, begins at Ormož and stretches a scenic 18km to Ljutomer. It's drivable, but better on bike. Wineries here specialise in luscious whites, like as pinot gris and sauvignon, as well as sparkling wines.
The Metlika wine area is rapidly gaining prominence due to the quality of up-and-coming varietals like sauvignon blanc and Blaufränkisch, and the enduring quality of its ice wines. This is home to Metliška Črnina (Metlika Black), a ruby-red unique to the region. Elsewhere, cyclists will want to make the 17km journey from Brežice to Bizeljsko to experience the charming Bizeljsko-Sremič wine district.
The Karst & Vipava Valley
The Karst Wine Region in the southwest is a good place to sample some of the best reds. The rich, red soil of the Karst is responsible for the dark hue of arguably the country’s best-known wine: Teran. A wine road links 170 winemakers, and is best explored by car.
North of the Karst, the wineries of the Vipava Valley and around Goriška Brda have earned a reputation as Slovenia’s most daring in recent years. Wineries are small-scale and open to visitors. Tour outfits like Winestronaut can put together a tasting.
Slovenia covers the entire eating spectrum, from fancy sit-down places to street kiosks and food trucks. Most restaurants will have an English menu.
Restavracija A classic restaurant where you sit down and are served by a waiter.
Gostilna (Gostišče) These are rustic inns, with waiters too, and can be fancy or modest.
Samopostrežna restavracija A self-service place, where you order from a counter and carry your food on a tray.
Krčma More like taverns, with an emphasis on drinking rather than eating, though often serves snacks.
Slaščičarna The place for sweets and ice cream, along with coffee and milkshakes.