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Janez Bogataj's The Food and Cooking of Slovenia has the look and feel of a fairytale book and, looking at the beautiful photographs and reading the names of some of the dishes, you might be forgiven for thinking there's something almost other worldly here. Famed for its beautiful mountain scenery, myriad castles and picturesque medieval towns rather than its cuisine, Slovenia is not a country that springs to mind when talking about the great culinary traditions of Europe. It does borrow fairly heavily from its neighbours - in the western part of the country in particular pizza is very good, while most restaurants in the east will rustle up a hearty gulasch - but there is a strong gastronomic tradition if you know where to go and seek it out.
Casual tourists - those on a day trip from the Croatian coast, or spending a weekend in the capital, Ljubljana - are unlikely to get a chance to sample authentic Slovene dishes and it's really only by venturing further afield or from eating with Slovenians at home that you can really find out what Slovene food is all about. Even though I live part of the year in Slovenia, it still requires a concerted effort to get out and track down those wonderful dishes that typify the real Slovenia.
Janez Bogataj's handsome book collects classic recipes (over 60 of them if the publisher is to be believed) and presents them in an attractive way, with well explained instructions and excellent photographs, not just of the finished dishes but of some of the stages in the preparation.
Like so many regional cookbooks, this one starts with an overview of the country, comprising an introduction to the geography and landscape, Slovene culture including festivals and other celebrations and finished by a look at the cuisine of the country and some of the ingredients most commonly used. This is interesting if you don't know much about Slovenia but really, if you've made the effort to get hold of this book, you are very likely to know this much already because it does repeat much of the cultural information you tend to find in guidebooks.
The recipes are organised rather conventionally into Appetizers and soups, One-pot meals, Vegetables and Dumplings, Meat Dishes, Fish Dishes and, finally, Desserts and breads. There is, arguably, some cross-over between the soups and the one-pot meals because of the hearty stew-like nature of some of the soups. The Slovene name of each dish is given under the English version and it would have been useful to have cross-referenced the index so that you could look up the Slovene name if desired; some dishes have Slovene names that don't have obvious translations and there have been several times in restaurants when neither myself not the waiter has had the necessary language skills to explain what a particular dish is, so it would be good to be able to find the dishes by their Slovene names rather than plough through the book on the off chance a certain dish is included.
A short text of just a couple of lines introduces each recipe, explaining which region it comes from or outlining a tradition associated with it, and often includes a recommendation for side dishes or how the dish should be served. All recipes give imperial, American and metric measures. Steps are well explained and easy for a moderately skilled cook to follow. Some recipes have additional Cooks Tips to do with the preparation of specific ingredients, while others have short notes on variations, for example for hard to obtain ingredients, or suggestions for creating a lighter dish. Although it's at the very bottom of the page and is in miniscule print, the nutritional information is given for every recipe.
Generally the ingredients used are easy to source but health food stores may be the best places to acquire some of the grains used (for example buckwheat flour or millet). Slovenes are experts in eating according to the seasons, and even if your local market or supermarket is stocking certain vegetables year round, I would strongly recommend eating these foods in the right season to ensure the very tastiest ingredients.
All the recipes I have tried so far have worked pretty well although the very first for 'jota', a bean and sauerkraut stew originating from the Primorska region (that on and around Slovenia's tiny coastline on the Adriatic), did require some adjustment to get the liquid volume closer to the versions I have sampled in Slovenia and to prevent it from drying up in the saucepan. Likewise the millet-stuffed turnips (loska smokja) required an extension of the cooking time (I know, only a dedicated aficionado of Slovene cuisine would eat stuffed turnips - boy, was that one windy night!).
'Ljubljanska jajcna jed' (which translates simply as 'Ljubljana Egg Dish') was one of the recipes included in the first Slovene cookbook back in 1868 and it's a dish I've never seen listed on any menus in restaurants in Ljubljana, or any other part of the country, which is a shame because it's a really delicious and easy to make dish which makes a nice brunch or would impress as a dinner party starter. 'Goriski radic' (Gorica chicory) is another simple but tasty dish and it comes from the town of Nova Gorica which is right on the Italian border; chicory is grown in abundance in this part of the country. In this dish it is cooked first by boiling then it is added to fried strips of smoky bacon before having stock added and simmered until the liquid reduces. We often omit the bacon and have this as a lunch or as a side dish.
All the classic dishes are included - 'Idrijski zlikrofi' (translated as Idrija potato pockets but better explained as similar to ravioli; they come from the town of Idrija in the south east of the country and were originally eaten by miners in the mercury mines in that region); 'vampi' (a tripe stew seen on menus in restaurants all over the country in both the town and countyside); and 'Bleijska kremna rezina'(Bled Cream Slices, a popular sweet treat invented at the Park Hotel at Lake Bled) are just a couple of them.
The most recent recipe I followed was the one for 'krofi; there's not really a translation for krofi but they are deep-fried, usually sweet, treat and similar to dough-nuts though they taste quite different because the dough is flavoured with lemon zest. They are usually jam-filled and plum or apricot jam is the most authentically Slovene, though the great thing is you can use what you have to hand. This Shrove Tuesday we followed the Slovene tradition and made them for Lent, instead of pancakes; the idea is the same - you are using up your flour and eggs before Lent begins.
The photographs are taken by Martin Brigdale and they elevate this from a simple collection of recipes to something quite lovely. The styling is well considered and the ceramics and linens used make the food look very appealing (to make stuffed turnips look desirable is surely an achievement). Every dish has a finished photograph and many have additional photographs showing key stages in the preparation of the dish; the latter are useful because they mean the amount of text can be reduced, making it easier to refer to the recipe while you have pans bubbling and food sizzling. Another practical point in its favour is that with just 128 pages, this book is not too cumbersome to take into the kitchen and the weight of the hardback and the pages, does not cause the book to close every time you turn your back.
A couple of pages at the back of the book listing Slovenian restaurants outside Slovenia (lucky gastronomes in the US have seven to choose from though, admittedly most are in and around Chicago where there is a significant Slovenian community) and stockists of ingredients which makes for interesting reading because I had no idea there were so many stockists of Slovenian ingredients in the UK (in truth there are few but still more than I would have imagined).
Janez Bogataj's lovely collection of recipes is a lovely book to own in its own right but this nicely presented book is practical and well written. Recipes have clearly been tried and tested and are largely simple to follow. I would have liked to have had an indication as to preparation times as well as cooking times as the prep for some dishes is rather time consuming. At times when I have been sorely homesick for my little apartment in western Slovenia I have found this book a real comfort, either to inspire me to re-create the flavours of my adopted home country, or just to recall memories of favourite meals and happy occasions.
The cover price is £15.99 but this book can be bought from just over a tenner via Amazon (correct in March 2011)