A confession: I don’t care much for museums. I have little interest in ancient temples, historic sculptures and classical paintings. Cathedrals (literally) leave me cold. When it comes to travel, I pick my destinations purely based on the food I want to eat.
Over the last few years, I have honed my technique. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners are booked before flights. Transport is tailored around grazing. Scenic runs and walks are factored in as strategic digestion breaks. Holiday research revolves around must-eat local dishes and unique dining experiences.
Sometimes it starts with an article or an interview with a chef. Occasionally it’s a screenshot of a dish on Instagram — a most modern form of newspaper clipping. Often it’s determined by a list or a beautifully shot documentary.
This, I confess, is how I came to book my three-day road trip through Slovenia. Ana Ros, a self-taught chef with a diplomat’s training, had just been voted World’s Best Female Chef by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and her remote countryside restaurant Hisa Franko in the northwest of Slovenia had featured in Netflix’s cult series Chef’s Table. Attracted as much by the blue skies and turquoise rivers of the Soca Valley as I was drawn to the simple elegance of Ros’s dishes, I decided this tiny Central European country was my must-visit destination for 2017.
So engrossed was I in forming an eating itinerary that I neglected to investigate travel times, booking a Wizz Air flight from London Luton to Ljubljana and somewhat underestimating the distance to Soca in the west. But my under planning turned out to be my fortune. A three-day jaunt in a nifty hire car was the perfect amount of time to take in the capital and the iconic Lake Bled before combining peaceful countryside with destination dining at Hisa Franko.
It is hard to believe this compact country, nestled between the British holiday staples of Italy and Croatia, with Austria and Hungary to its north and east, has gone under the radar for so long, because it really is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. Slovenians are warm and welcoming, not yet jaded by the swathes of tourists who will surely soon flock to their country. Photo opportunities come at every corner and good food is abundant.
Slovenian cuisine is, understandably, overshadowed by that of its Italian neighbour. Ros tells me there was no place for culinary creativity during the period of socialism and communism before the country gained independence in 1991. Now, she and her fellow cooks are making up for lost time.
Our gastronomic tour began in Ljubljana’s photogenic Old Town with juicy red cherries, hearty stew and craft beer, followed by a short climb to Ljubljana Castle for panoramic views of the iconic Triple Bridge over the Ljubljanica river. For dinner, local chef Bine Volcic took us through a degustation of sophisticated seasonal produce including baby cuttlefish and spicy sausage at his laid-back restaurant, Monstera Bistro.
On day two, we began our road trip, stopping at the Postojna caves before lunching on struklji, a pasta-like dumpling stuffed with boiled cottage cheese or nuts, and soup served in a bread bowl. Dessert was soft, honey-dough gingerbread, freshly decorated inside Radovljica’s gingerbread museum. We arrived at Lake Bled in time for an invigorating swim and a boat trip to the lake’s central island castle.
Next day, a sunrise hike brought us unrivalled views of the magical, mystical lake and we rewarded ourselves with Bled cake, a multi-layered, puff pastry delicacy like a giant vanilla slice. Finally, we navigated mountainous roads and hairpin turns to reach the picture-perfect Soca Valley, where tall trees and crystal clear river rapids run beneath the stunning backdrop of the Julian Alps.
It is this geographic diversity that leads to Slovenia’s true culinary riches, and chef Ros has found the winning formula to show it off. From a hyperlocal natural larder of river, forest and mountain, she prepares intricate dishes like cauliflower ravioli in a light broth of kid goat. Ros’s husband and Hisa Franko co-owner Valter Kramar completes the meal with homemade Tolmin cheese and biodynamic wine.
Driving back to Ljubljana that evening, high on fresh air and good food, we reflected on a successful gastronomic trip. It may have taken a famous chef to put Slovenian cuisine on the map, but something tells me it’s here to stay.