After checking in to our hotel we did our best to adjust to local time by staying awake a few hours. A brisk walk along the local streets (which are open to pedestrians only) was just the ticket. A few local vendors were out selling their wares: everything from sladoled (ice cream that is much like gelato) to souveniers and pantry staples. Cassie’s first purchase here in Slovenia was a bag of shallots and a braid of garlic from an old woman selling her produce on the corner. We explored for a couple hours and retired back to the hotel to nap and shower.
After our rest, last night we attended a reception at the Ambassador’s residence here in LJ (Ljubjlana). Chef Lenny Russo from Heartland Restaurant in St. Paul Minnesota has been here for the last two weeks, touring the western regions of the country.
The event last night was to welcome us and to put Lenny to the test in identifying the dishes that were prepared by the Ambassador’s chef, who by all accounts is the best in Slovenia. Each of the five courses was paired with a regional wine. All of us looked on as he tried the dishes, and we enjoyed our own taste of everything as well, but had the advantage of having a menu to tell us what was served.
From the first sip of the sparkling wine (Tjasina penina), to the decadent but not to sweet layered cake (gibanica), it was all so incredibly flavorful and rich with a love for the ingredients and the tradition. In a couple weeks, we will return to the Ambassador’s residence for a similar “taste test” where Cassie will sample items from the western regions.
Today after catching up on our sleep we walked a couple of blocks to the LJ market. Just like in the US, Saturday is the big market day, even though many vendors sell daily in the plaza. Although there is one large central plaza, there are smaller offshoots of the market that feature different items: breads, meats, produce, cheeses, dried fruit and nuts, flowers, etc. Naturally we were immediately drawn to a vendor selling pork. She proudly displayed her certificates noting gold and silver medals awarded for her wares, all made on her farm by her and her husband. Their farm is Kmetija Babic from the town of Ptuj. Our Slovene isn’t great, and her English was sketchy, but we communicated nicely over our mutual love of pigs and pork. The vendor next to her, a baker named Tina, was gracious enough to translate what we couldn’t decipher on our own. We loaded our bag with prekajena klobasa (fresh sausage like kielbasa), pec sunkarica (a cooked ham), and domace hrenkova (hot dogs). Thank goodness we have a full kitchen in our suite!
Tina, the baker in the adjacent stall, then told us the story of her wares: “mali kruhek” (honey bread). This Slovene tradition goes back almost 400 years to the nuns of St. Clara, who made the bread mainly for church officials and nobility. The simple ingredients of this unleven bread (rye and/or wheat flour, honey, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and potash) maximize the bread’s keeping qualities and discourage the attraction of insects (plus it is absoultely delicious). Tina said the bread would be edible for up to a year of its baking, after which it would become a beautiful decoration. The decorating of the bread could remain simple for everyday use, or incredibly ornate; some designs taking a dozen hours of painstaking work. The bread is surprisingly light, and the flavor reminiscent of a subtle spice cookie. It is slightly chewy and perfectly accompanied by tea or coffee.
From the nuns, the tradition of making honey bread (and many other foods) was taught to local girls, who passed the lessons on to their daughters. Those who lacked daughters taught the wives of their sons. Tina learned to make this bread from her mother-in-law, who learned from her mother, whose lessons came from the generations of women in her family all the way back to the nuns at St. Clara.