Last summer we had the trip of a lifetime, visiting the U.K., then ambling around Venice before slipping over the border into Slovenia. I’ve already recounted much of our travels around the Alps of Slovenia, in earlier posts. We spent our last couple of days in this often overlooked country in its Medieval capital, Ljubljana. A gorgeous, working city, home to just 300,000, Ljubljana is built around a wide, slow flowing river, with an obligatory, picturesque castle atop a steep hill.
I was lucky enough to grow up in the U.K. and our family holidays were often spent visiting Europe—France and Italy for the most part. Back in the late 1970s and 80s, that meant spending a lot of time driving through quiet sleepy villages, with dogs laid out basking in the heat of the sun, with my parents cursing that they had forgotten to feed us while the stores were still open.
Siesta-time was very much in force back then. The shops would close around lunchtime until early evening, and restaurants would shutter just as soon as folks had eaten their big, multi-course lunch. Today, things have changed a lot in the popular tourist spots across mainland Europe. Tour buses clutter the landscape and restaurants and stores have learned to stay open longer to accommodate the Euros that accompany these visitors.
My point in sharing this? If you want a glimpse of a European city of yesteryear, then Ljubljana is the place to go. It adheres to the traditions of closing down during the day to avoid the heat, and comes to life in the evening. People still live and work here, as opposed to serving tourists. There are many, many options to eat great food ‘like a local’, but in truth, it’s because those are the folks being catered to.
If you want an insider’s view of the city’s eating highlights, then you’d be well advised to join a food walking tour. We joined up with Iva, who runs Ljubljanajam Foodwalks, on a steaming hot morning expecting to be with the group for a couple of hours and enjoy some light snacks—we had a big dinner planned. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Nearly five hours later, and stuffed to the gills with bites from Ljubljana’s finest chefs and cooks, we stumbled back to our basement apartment for a nap and canceled our dinner reservation.
Our tour started with a wander around the food market – picking up some of the season’s freshest fruits: apricots and figs to sample. I was intrigued to see a refrigerated dairy vending machine, complete with local cheese and milk products. While I’d prefer a local cheese-seller to an automated option, at least this way you can get artisanal delights at any time of day or night.
Without spilling too many details of the tour, I’ll share a few photos that hopefully will get your mouth watering. We were a small group, just four of us (all from the U.S.), plus our guide. Iva explained to us that the underlying principle of traditional Slovenian cooking is abundance: there must a large amount of food on the plate for things to be right with the world. And it’s almost an insult to be given a small serving. (Abandon all hope of managing your waistline.)
As we munched on our apricots and figs in a local cafe, we were introduced to what has become one of my favorite local delights: dark, nutty pumpkin seed oil. So deep green in color, it’s almost black, we tried it with a small cube of bread. I fell for it immediately.
It has a depth and toasty nuttiness that left me wanting to drink a whole bottle. Like toasted sesame oil only 10 times better. I have since tried it drizzled on dark chocolate ice cream and it’s insanely good. Rather than cook in it, you use it to finish dishes. I imagine it could be great on warm pasta and in a salad.
Bordered as it is by four different countries—Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia—Slovenian cooking benefits from many influences and varies wildly, depending on which part of the country you’re in. The south prepares dishes in a typically Mediterranean style: lots of fish and light vegetables, while the north, bordered by Austria, leans to heavier, warming foods like sausages and stews. Along the way, we even tried a soup with sauerkraut. It was pretty tasty.
Every Friday from mid-March to October, local restaurants, cooks and drink vendors (local gin, anyone?), set up stalls right next to the river at Open Kitchen and feed you their delights. Think of this as a food truck gathering, but without the trucks. It’s an awesome way to sample the regional food and figure out which restaurants you might want to visit in person, and a fun way to catch the local vibe and feed yourself.
Our tour continued around the city, through the old cobbled streets, across the river, and near the university. Slovenian’s most famous chef, Ana Roš, has made her mark here even though we are a long way from her home territory up in the Alps. She had recently published her favorite places to eat on Cnn.com when we were there – it’s a great cheat sheet for where to go – and we were lucky enough to stop in at Monstera for a bite as our tour started to wind-down.
In total, I think we visited about 6-7 different eateries, wrapping up with locally-made ice cream, and then on to coffee as post-prandial sleep beckoned. The hot and steamy morning had turned into a thunderous afternoon, and we dashed home, bellies slowing us down, just as the big fat drops of rain started to fall and bellowing thunder followed it close behind.
Not only did Iva tell us all the local ins and outs of the food scene (“we are a nation of foragers“), but as an ex-journalist she is well-versed on Slovenian current affairs (“the government owns 40% of the economy“). What’s more, she pointed out other places for us to checkout during our stay. Thanks to her, I enjoyed a lovely late night cocktail at Kolibri – along with a plate of local meat and cheeses. I highly recommend this scenic spot in the old town.
You can contact Iva to arrange your own food tour of Ljubljana here.