A delicious case for visiting a tiny country.
This story originally appeared on Foodandwine.com.
A star of Chef's Table Season 2, Ana Ros runs Hiša Franko in the Slovenian countryside with her wine-focused husband Valter Kramar. She rose to international recognition just a few years after teaching herself how to cook and highlight the land's particular Alpine-Mediterranean traditions. Massimo Bottura recommended her to the Netflix crew and her episode is a must-watch even among the show's many stellar profiles. Ros is currently gearing up to join The Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle, round 2, on November 10, when 40 chefs will swap restaurants around the world and every ticket is a mystery. Fingers crossed she lands near you. Or better yet, plan a trip to Slovenia, the most beautiful tiny country you never knew you should visit. Here, Ros reveals why.
How would you describe Slovenia and its food culture?
Slovenia is a very small country—1.8 million people—so it’s almost exotic to meet a Slovenian. And it’s only 21,000 km² [8,000 mi²], bordering Italy on the West and Austria on the North, and then going towards Balkans… Russia at the South border, and a very tiny border with Hungary. I live in a very specific corner: 3 kilometers from the Italian border and only 2 from the Austrian one. So imagine three cultures mixing up: Austria, Italy and we’re a Slavic nation. The place where I live is also fantastic because it’s a mountain. Look up the Soca Valley. It’s incredible. It’s like New Zealand. They actually filmed Narnia there.
That’s the headline.
You see the deep color of the waters and the forest is really lush green. Slovenia, according to Yale University researchers, is actually the fifth greenest country in the world. The place where I live is mountainous but very close to the sea. So if you climb 3,500 feet it’s high enough to spot the Gulf of Trieste, in the North Adriatic. This is why the food is so interesting; it’s actually Alpine based on local, sometimes forgotten products. Since the area is very difficult to reach, a lot of traditions remained intact.
The water is so blue…
Also the forest, it’s like a jungle, nice and healthy. Slovenia, especially our area, has no industry. People live off of agriculture and tourism. And the beauty is this mix of the two different climates: Alpine mountains overlooking the Mediterranean. It influences the minerality of the soil and the grass, which cows graze from May to September, giving us fantastic cheeses and meat. This is what I think about for the restaurant, using these natural elements and seasoning the meat or land dishes with fish.
What do you mean?
Squid with lamb sweetbreads in a fondue of local cheese aged in our cave. Deer heart dressed with oysters…
So it’s the salinity in the grass and the seafood that links the two?
How did you develop this style of cooking?
It’s specific to me. Sometimes I think I need to stop doing something because the combination looks bizarre, but it’s actually reflective of the place where I live.
What is the setting of Hiša Franko like?
The restaurant has been a family business since the 70’s. The house is from the 19th Century—a huge countryside house—and when we took over [from my husband’s parents], we dug under the hill and did a wine cellar and cheese cellar. We take young local cheeses and age them six years by controlling the temperature and the humidity. Our house is actually the only private cheese cellar aging local cheeses in Slovenia.
Just for the restaurant?
And for resale. In the last 10 years, we’ve formed an economical circle with local farmers/producers. Since we are so remote we sometimes had big trouble with suppliers. So in time we started being more locally dependent. So this is how we help the environment a little bit, and also give farmers a good reason to continue producing things because it’s economically interesting. For us, we have a local, seasonal product that’s never traveled—it's kilometer zero. And very often it is also very traditional, something not found anywhere else.
Fermented cottage cheese, which we buy from an older lady, the last one making it. It’s a tradition from the high mountains. The valleys are very deep so the people who were working in the Alpine meadows didn’t go down every day and they needed to find a way to preserve things.
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How is it made?
They were using huge wooden barrels or pots with holes in the bottom and adding fresh, warm cottage cheese every day. By pressing out the water, and with the time and the right temperature, lactic fermentation started. It has a kefir taste and we traditionally eat it with young boiled potatoes.
What are other traditions from the Soca Valley?
Everyone is foraging. Older ladies before going to the doctors know how to treat themselves with the plants. And my mother-in-law is a fantastic cook. She never buys vegetables. She goes out and picks what she finds in nature or the garden.
What type of products?
Morels, black trumpets. They were giving sunchokes to the pigs, and when people saw us using them they were like, “Can we eat that?” And I said, “Yes, and it’s very healthy.” When local people come to the restaurant and eat the food that they bring, you see how happy they are. And on the back of the house we have our own Alpine spring with two pools of trout families. So when you step out of the kitchen you can take your fishing net.
How did you come to take over from your in-laws?
It’s a little bit of a love story because I studied international science and diplomacy in Italy and I met my husband and moved here while I was still finishing my diploma. As a student, I was helping a little bit in the restaurant and when I was searching for my first job in Brussels after graduating, my husband’s father decided to retire. There were three kids and my husband was the only one who was seriously interested in the restaurant, but his father put the condition that I should stay since someone alone is sooner or later leaving or, having troubles in his life.
And you stayed to manage the existing restaurant.
I took it as a challenge: three years and then let’s see what’s going to happen. So we did a little first investment. And life was quite easy at the beginning, but then, you know, if you’re curious, you want to see what is on the other side of the world. We started traveling for food, discovering places, seeing the philosophy of other chefs, understanding where the world was moving. So you come back home with ideas. You understand you need to focus on local, on seasonal, but you have no one in the kitchen who can follow your ideas, because the team had never traveled. It would have seemed obvious that my husband would take over the kitchen because he is actually a cook by profession, but he had already gone very deeply into the wine business over the last ten years. He actually helped a lot of young Slovenian producers go to market, in the States, and in Paris especially. So there was no one else but me.
What was it like to jump in as a chef with no experience?
And I was four-months pregnant. So I went into the kitchen and closed the door for some years. I needed to work on myself, starting from zero-zero. Never closing the restaurant so the guests were like the experiment sometimes. But it created some very interesting side effects because, of course, if you’re motivated to… it’s not so important that you do a lot of school because you have discipline and you never give up.
What was the reaction?
After two, three years, I had the first little recognitions. I was invited to a conference in France and there were star chefs coming to the restaurant and happy with the food. There were still technical mistakes… I'm still in a learning process as everybody should be, but it created my way of cooking, and maybe some really great dishes are interesting and surprising because they started with a mistake.
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What are some dishes that came out of a mistake?
Well most of them. [Laughs] In school, they teach you what is right and so you, of course, are influenced by that. Mayonnaise is done one way, so you never think about changing the recipe. But I think little mistakes are always beautiful.