Rupert Parker finds that eating in the city of Ljubljana and its surroundings is a delicious introduction to the food of Slovenia
For nearly 700 years Ljubljana was part of the Hapsburg Empire and of course much of the food is Austrian influenced, with some Hungarian touches. Being so close to the Ottomans, there’s a Turkish angle and the Italians during WW2 also left their mark. I’m told that there are 24 distinct culinary regions in Slovenia but I’m here to sample just one of them. Organic food is very much in the spotlight as Ljubljana is 2016’s European Green Capital.
Gostilna Na Gradu
I start my journey by taking the funicular up to the castle overlooking the town. In the early 20th century this served as a prison and you can even visit some of the cells. I’m here to eat at Gostilna Na gradu which prides itself on serving traditional Slovenian food and indeed their tasting menu is called “Walk Across Slovenia”. Fittingly I start with a “Castle” platter of meat and cheese – Kranjska sausage, Frank’s roast beef with Istrian olive oil, lemon juice and salt flowers, Tolmin cottage cheese with Istrian tomatoes, and smoked Novak trout with apple horseradish. The beef and the smoked trout are the standouts but it’s a good representation of the sort of food I’m going to be eating over the next few days.
The Italian influence is noticeable in the excellent pumpkin ravioli, rolled in sage butter, smoked cottage cheese and poppy seeds which comes next. Main course is full-on hunter’s food – deer shoulder, mashed parsnip, roasted chicory, with a sauce of apple and thyme. Dessert is a dumpling from Kobarid, stuffed with a mixture of walnuts, rum and raisins and served with baked apple ice cream. Even though central European food has a reputation for being heavy, I don’t feel overstuffed, largely I think due to the light touch of chefs Ana Roš and Valter Kramar.
Next I’m back in the old town in the rustic Spajza Restaurant, all creaking wooden floors, low beams and a labyrinth of tiny rooms. I can’t resist the frog’s legs, apparently from the nearby marshes, a mainstay of the Ljubljana menu for centuries. I get two large pairs, like chicken wishbones, with a sesame seed crust, served on a celeriac puree. They’re certainly meaty and the sesame adds spice to the rather bland meat.
For main course, I can’t resist the young horse served with a wild mushroom sauce, and the waitress advises me to have it rare. I’m slightly dubious but it’s meltingly tender and I would be hard pressed to tell the difference between this and a fillet steak. Delicious.
About 50 km north of the city is Velika Planina, a mountain pasture, accessible by cable car and chairlift. Every summer farmers bring their cows up to the Alp and live here in wooden cottages. To keep their animals safe from wolves, they also share the same space at night. The make a smoked cheese from curds and cream called Trnic. The shape resembles a woman’s breast complete with nipple, and apparently they made them in pairs, one to eat on the mountain, the other to take back to their beloved back in the valley.
At the first stop of the chairlift is Zeleni Rob, a simple restaurant serving Slovenian mountain specialities. Their thick soup, Ričet, containing barley, beans, potatoes, carrots and dried pork is excellent. They have two types of sausage, accompanied with buckwheat porridge, topped with chopped pieces of fat, unhealthy but delicious. For dessert you get what some would say is Slovenia’s best Štruklji, (sweet dumplings stuffed with curd cheese), and I can’t disagree. Afterwards, if you need to work off the calories, take a mountain bike down to the bottom, arranged with Outdoor Mania.
20 km west of Ljubljana, is the village of Vrhnika, famous for being the birthplace of Ivan Cankar, a famous Slovenian writer. It’s also home to The Human Fish Brewery, named after the strange eel-like creature which live in the nearby caves. On Friday afternoons and weekends the brewery welcomes visitors to their make-shift bar to sample their pale ale, stout and IPA, as well as their seasonal beers.
It might be wise to line your stomach beforehand at the Balj Inn with Barjanska Juha, Ljubljana marsh beef and vegetable soup, accompanied by Prešce, bread rolls made with dark and light flour. For a fantastic view of the area, it’s worth a trip to the top of the Planina hill and climbing the 22m viewing tower. The mist mystically hugs the valley and you can see almost all of Slovenia from here. Another reason to visit are the excellent Štruklji, stuffed with prunes, at the Planina Lodge nearby.
Trnulja Country Estate
Just a few kilometres outside the city, is the Trnulja Country Estate, with apartments built solely with sustainable eco materials, a perfect place to stay when visiting Europe’s Green Capital 2016. It’s a working organic farm with goats, donkeys and fields of hemp, soy beans and vegetables. As you’d expect their cooking is inspired by their seasonable produce and I enjoy their shaved pumpkin salad, followed by tender slices of their own goat meat. Everything is washed down with organic wine and their cold pressed hemp oil dresses the salads. They run a cooking school here so you can learn how to prepare Slovenian delicacies from traditional recipes using their certified organic ingredients.
Welcome to Ljubljana has more information about the city as a green capital.
I Feel Slovenia has more information about the country.
Hotel Slon makes a comfortable base in the centre. Rooms with breakfast start at €200 based on two people sharing.
Wizz Air operates three weekly flights to Ljubljana on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from London Luton. Fares start from £25.99 for a one-way ticket, including all taxes and non-optional charges.
Ibis Luton is convenient for early flights. Rooms from only £52. 01582 424488.