Slovenia: Off The Beaten Track. Uncovering Gems, Tradition, and History

I open the sliding door of my house here at Big Berry and grab the basket sitting on my patio. Filled with fresh eggs, juice, yogurt, cheese, and homemade bread, I prepare a breakfast plate and take a sit on that patio.

It’s early, and a gentle mist hovers above the grass and wafts down the river in slow motion. Behind my house cows move through the fog as they lead them to pasture. It occurs to me as I peel another egg, I’m looking across the river at Croatia.

Today Tjasa and I will wind our way around the hills of Bela Krajina and explore local businesses, culture, and history. Our first stop is a peaceful slice of nature in the small village of Krupa where a karst spring feeds the Krupa River, and a nature trail winds its way to Lebica. It’s a protected nature preserve and is the only known habitat in Slovenia for the allusive cave mollusk. Tjasa and I leave the mollusk alone but walk around the lake formed by the spring and listen to the flower of the river as it drops about one thousand liters per second down a rock wall.

After moments of meditative reflection, Tjasa takes me to Bela Krajina’s top sparkling wine producer Semiška Penina.

Klet Semiška Penine—The Semiska Penina Sparkling Wine Cellar of Bela Krajina

There are dozens of wine producers throughout Bela Krajina. Even thousands if you consider that most people tend to their own vineyards and produce their own house wine. But today, we’re visiting the region’s most recognized producer of sparkling wine — produced in the traditional way or methode champenoise as it is known in France.

Though as Tjasa navigates the small towns of the region, when we arrive at Semiška Penina, we don’t pass by hectares of groomed vineyards, or through an ornate iron gate as one might when visiting a chateau in the Champagne region of France. Instead, we park outside a commercial building housing a convenience store and cafe.

But the real magic happens below this commercial building where we descend a dozen steps beneath this commercial building. We meet Gregor Simonic who guides us into a beautiful tasting room lined with awards and bottles and through a door leading to a damp and dusty cellar lined with more bottles, bins, and barrels.

His father started Semiška Penina some twenty years ago. Today the young, charming and confident Gregor manages the winemaking, marketing, and business. He gives us a quick refresher on the traditional method, which Tjasa, even after visiting the cellar several times admits she now gets it.

Deep in the cellar of Semiška Penine

 

The tasting salon at Semiška Penine

Some of the Semiška Penine sparkling wine ages underwater in these cages deep in the Adriatic Sea

He then lets me open a bottle using a not so traditional method by holding the bottle in one hand and a saber (sword) in the other and then confidently and surely sliding it along the seam of the bottle and with a whack sliding it under the lip at the top of the bottle. I take a few tries, but when I finally hit it right the top of the bottle shears off, and we see a gorgeous fountain of bubbly sparkling wine which we catch in our eagerly awaiting glasses.

Semiška Penina also produces a limited edition sparkling wine that he ages underwater in the Adriatic Sea. He even uses Amphoras—clay or terra-cotta wine vessels with a conical bottom and considered to be one of the oldest methods for fermenting or aging wines.

Tjasa learns about the traditional method used by Klet Semiška Penine as well as classic French champagne—discourging, riddling, and bottle fermentation.

Gregor using a traditional Amphora for the sparkling wine aged underwater in the Adriatic. These conical shaped terracotta vessels have been used for thousands of years.

For me, the highlight of my time deep in the cellar of Semiška Penina is tasting its barrique-aged Zelo Huto Brut, a crisp and clean sparkler revealing notes of green apple, pear, and rich apricot. If I had more room on my bike, I’d strap a few bottles to it and share it with new friends down the road.

Simonič Semiska Penina
Črešnjevec 9
8333 Semič
+386 07 3568 263
+386 041 655 509


Baking Pogaca With Sonya —The Traditional Bread of Bela Krajina

If you visit Bela Krajina and don’t try Pogaca, you will miss out on one of the tastiest bread and oldest culinary traditions of this part of Slovenia. Even better, today Tjasa arranges for me to learn and bake my own.

As most of you know, I love food and love to cook. But baking? It’s never been one of my strengths. Perhaps this is because baking is more precise, and in the kitchen, I am more like a jazz musician where I improvise and add or change ingredients on a whim.

They identify the traditional bread made in this region as Belokranjska Pogaca. Only those bakers and bakeries who are authorized and have a license or certificate can make, market and sell it. As we park in the driveway of a modest home in a small village, Tjasa explains that Belokranjska Pogaca is a protected food product in Slovenia and the EU. And with each mile I travel through regions famous for unique culinary or beverage producing traditions, the more I hear about “origin” and “protected.” Thanks to the EU Protected Food Name Scheme, products protected include regional and traditional foods they can guarantee both authenticity and origin. These include prosciutto di Parma in Italy, Roquefort cheese and champagne in France, and Tokaj in Hungary—though the latter I consider to be a stretch and controversial.

And here in Bela Krajina, the infamous Belokranjska Pogaca is protected. The circular, fluffy bread topped with salt and caraway seeds, is scored in even squares. This scoring makes it easy to break apart by hand. For many years farmers served it to field workers who would make sure every worker received the same size portion of bread.

We walk inside to a large room where at one end is a large stone oven, at the other is a small table and chairs, and lining the walls on each side are more extended tables with chairs. In another room is a small kitchen equipped with scales, measuring cups, and baking tools. Here I meet Sonja one of just a handful of bakers authorized to make and sell the local bread.

Through Tjasa as my translator, Sonja explains that there are strict rules for baking the traditional bread. If someone does not follow them precisely the resulting bread cannot be identified as Belokranjska Pogaca. Sonja is extremely serious as she explains the rules. She serves as a judge in an annual festival competition held in the capital, Ljubljana. Her bread won top honors In 2014.

While the ingredients are simple, making the bread is not—at least for me.

Ingredients:

500 g soft white flour
3 dl lukewarm water
2 tsp coarse salt
20 g yeast
a pinch of caraway (or cumin)
1 egg
1/2 tsp sugar

Sonja starts with the flour and water. She uses two types of flour, one for the bread and a finer flour for the surface and her hands to keep the dough from sticking. She hands me the dough and shows me how to knead it into shape. Though no matter what I do, I can’t get the gooey mixture off my fingers. She resists taking over for me, though I can tell she’s probably more frustrated than me, telling me I’m too gentle with the dough.

About twenty-five years ago after Sonja lost her job, she began baking bread and other goodies. She would sell them to the local community and markets. Then she organized a community association of local women who all shared recipes and traditions. The idea is to preserve and document cultural rituals and practices including the traditional Slovenian wedding ceremony.

She rolls her eyes when I ask how many pogacas she’s baked over the years. “So many.” She not only bakes fresh every day, but she also uses her home as a school, teaching people how to bake pogaca and other tasty treats.

Sonja eventually takes the reins from me and forms the dough into a round ball. “We must wait for it to rise,” she hands the tray to her husband. While it rises we walk down the street to an old barn and farmhouse that today serves as a World War II museum—the Topolovec Museum, also known as the Partisan Museum.

In years past, the barn housed animals and equipment for working in the fields, including both hand and horse-drawn carts. There were no cars in this part of Slovenia during the war. Villagers used these carts as ambulances for bringing wounded soldiers to the village which at the time served as a pop-up hospital for Tito’s partisan forces who battled German forces nearby.

Villagers would house the wounded and doctors and surgeons treated them. Across the street, the community one-hundred year schoolhouse served as surgical operating room during the war. Today the small two-room house houses a museum with displays of period furniture and original documents including records doctors, nurses and soldiers, and patients treated there.

Vintage photographs line the walls, several are original photographs, and others are copies. There’s a painting of Tito on one wall. Sonja tells me “He was good for us at that time, and it was better for us.” Sonja laughs as she let’s out she liked Tito more than her husband at the time. “He was decisive in winning the war.”

Pushed against one wall is a display of surgical instruments—they look scary. “There was no anesthesia, so they performed operations when patients were awake—serving alcohol to patients for deadening the pain.”

After doctors treated the soldiers and their conditions stabilized, the horse-drawn carts transported them to a nearby field where planes would fly them to a real military hospital in neighboring Italy.

In one display case is a book written by Edward F. Logan Jr., a United States Air Force B-17 fighter pilot. In a battle over Austria north of here, the Germans decimated his aircraft, and the crew had to bail out over enemy territory. Partisan fighters from this village rescued them and brought them here. The book, “Jump, Damn It, Jump!: Memoir of a Downed B-17 Pilot in World War II,” chronicles the battle, the helpful partisans and people of this village.

Beyond the history, I’m taken back by the effort, and passion Sonja and her husband put into preserving history and opening the doors to visitors who come here not only to savor the flavors of her bread and other goodies but to learn the contribution to history that this little town provided during more trying times.

Back in the baking school, the dough has sufficiently risen, and Sonja places the dough onto a baking tray with parchment paper where together we roll it into a perfect circle. It must be thirty centimeters round, she tells me, and about one to two centimeters thick. When it comes time to score the dough, she hands me a stainless steel cutter and shows me how to score the bread without cutting it—important so the bread will be easily split into perfect sized pieces without a knife. However, when one of my score lines creates uneven squares, Sonja is quick to comment and tease me.

We then coat the top of the bread with an egg wash and sprinkle it with salt and cumin seeds. Sonja is not shy with the salt, either. “Cumin is good for digestions,” she explains.

We place the bread into a small oven in her kitchen. Typically she’ll cook many rounds of bread in the large brick oven, but that oven takes a lot of wood and three hours to heat.

While the bread cooks we stroll outside where in their backyard, they have several pieces of turn of the century farming equipment including gas and manually powered farming tools.

After checking in on the bread a few times, Sonja announces the bread is ready. She pours us all a glass of wine and makes the presentation of my first Belokranjska Pogaca. After a few minutes of my ubiquitous photo session, she tears off a piece. It’s a perfect square. She holds it up and pinches it between her fingers. A real test for perfectly cooked Belokranjska Pogaca is it will pop back into shape after squeezing it. She lifts the bread and shows me the bottom, it’s a golden brown. Sometimes bakers pull the bread out of the oven too soon—it must be brown on the bottom.

Checking the dough, not quite ready.

Now our Pogaca is ready!

Beautiful except for the part where I didn’t score or cut the bread evenly. I don’t think she’ll ever let me forget!

She packs up the bread we don’t finish and places it into a pizza-like box—stamping on it the official designation. She’s only one of about twenty in the country that has the stamp. It’s a pleasure to learn under her passionate and professional tutelage and to taste the fruits of our labor. Yet somehow I don’t think I’ll ever bake a perfectly round, spongy, and brown-bottomed pogaca. But I will try.

If not for Tjasa and the team at Big Berry, I would never discover this gem of a bakery, school, and historical museum. Tucked into a tiny village, the resort concept helps promote local traditions while bringing responsible tourism to an area unquestionably off the beaten track.

And we’re just beginning. For our next stop, I’m told I’ll meet another passionate local inspired by a little berry, a raspberry.

Sonja Skof, the master.

PEKA PECIVA IN KRUHA >>ŠRAJF<
Sonja Skof
Cresnjevac 21b
8333 Semic
+386 40 691 612

 


Kmetija Pavlovič — Giving Raspberries A Love Story Through Wine

My next stop in Bela Krajina is Kmetija Pavlovič, a vegetable and fruit farm in Metlika where I meet owner and manager Danilo Pavlovic. Danilo’s father started the family farm many years ago, but with Danilo taking over the business, he has brought many new ideas in marketing and new products. Most interestingly is a wine made from Raspberries—yes, raspberry wine and sparkling raspberry wine.

We sit on the porch of the family home and chat about their business. The family has eight hectares planted, two hectares of greenhouses, the remaining six outdoors. Soon, Danilo’s youngest daughter shows up on the porch carrying a cut young bunny rabbit. It’s soft and fluffy, but is timid and shaking. I soon realize the rabbit isn’t a pet, at some point, it will be food.

“We don’t want to eat industrial food at home,” Danilo discloses. “We try to grow and raise everything we eat,” he explains. “We have chickens, ducks, and rabbits. And we buy from our neighbors maybe meat from pig and cow. Everything is local not from a supermarket.”

As for the farm, today they grow mostly berries, including strawberries, red currants, blackberries, and aronia, a blueberry-like fruit. While they still grow some vegetables like cucumbers, the focus is on berries—little berries.

This focus, however, presents a challenge to Danilo.

With so many raspberry plants, he finds it difficult to sell everything they grow. “Every year we harvest two tons of raspberries,” he says. “We must pick twenty or thirty kilos every day. But this I cannot sell here. I must drive three hours to sell these.” He also makes jams and marmalades from the berries but admits he still can’t sell all he grows.

So he experimented with making wine from the fruit. But instead of making typical fruit wine that is sweet sugar and alcohol, he sought to make it in the same manner his neighbors made wine from grapes.

He admits that the first one hundred liters he made several years ago were okay, but not great. So each year he works harder to make better wine—sharing with his sommelier friend for expert criticism.

“I can never get a medal and notoriety for making wine,” he explains, “this is not wine from grapes, so it’s not recognized as wine.”

Danilo explains that these wine provide specific health benefits as they are high in antioxidants and vitamins. We know raspberries lower blood sugar and fight viruses. He admits that by using traditional methods to make the wine is demanding and requires many months for the flavors and structure to develop.

To make the wine, he must first freeze the berries. “Besides,” he reveals, “we cannot make just fifty liters at a time.” By freezing the berries, he kills off the bacteria generated by the natural yeast—getting rid of the bad yeast. He says temperature control is critical to making the wine.

He brings the temperature down to a cold four degrees Celsius for pressing the berries. Once pressed it brings the temperature up to fifteen degrees to add yeast and sugar to trigger fermentation. “Raspberry doesn’t have sugar, so I add sugar concentrated from wine grapes—not refined sugar—to begin fermentation.” He ferments the wine for 14-20 days maintaining the temperature at fifteen degrees. He has discovered that longer fermentation times results in better wine.

 

Have you ever tried sparkling raspberry wine? It’s unique, it’s special, and it’s only found (I think) in Bela Krajina at Kmetija Pavlovič in Slovenia.

Next, he must precisely calculate sugar levels to get the optimum alcohol percentage, using a German EU measurement of sugar, he brings the alcohol to about 12.5%—if it’s any hotter it will lack flavor and only deliver alcohol—this is what happens with juice fermented from fruit. For the sparkling wine, the alcohol is slightly lower at about twelve percent.

He pours me a glass of the raspberry wine. On the nose, it smells of natural raspberry. I swirl and taste. It has acidity, but no tannins and is fruity on the mid-palate, but not too sweet. It doesn’t have a strong flavor of raspberry and delivers a long finish with a hint of structure and complexity. Next, I sample a glass of sparkling wine. It’s fruity, but remarkably well balanced with small bubbles delivering a gentle spritz. For me, I prefer the sparkling wine, as the still wine isn’t something I would often drink, though I see the appeal for others.

This is the fifth year of making the raspberry wine, but the first year he’s made the sparkler. Production is twelve-hundred bottles of still and one hundred bottles of sparkling wine. He will increase sparkling wine production to 250 bottles and 2,000 bottles of still. His goal is an annual production of 10,000 bottles.

The packaging and marketing behind Kmetija Pavlovič‘s line of raspberry products is cleaver and distinct. Everyone loves a good story—especially a love story.

He shows me new packaging where he’ll sell two bottles in a laser-etched wooden box—one bottle each of the wine and sparkler. Everything is very classy, and I sense Danilo has an excellent eye for marketing—and story. He attributes to each wine a gender, feminine — for the sparkling wine and masculine for the other.

The wines tell a story of love between Malino, the wine, a charming and handsome yet arrogant and sweet masculine man. And Malina, the sparkling wine, seduces and teases men, preferring the company of her giggly friends. They meet and fall in love but do not admit it — they are stubborn and don’t show their feelings or soft side. They are at once cliche, and then they are not.

It’s cute and clever. I’m sure this marketing will appeal to those Slovenians who prefer a semi-sweet wine. Tjasa says many of her friends would like it. And with Danilo’s passion for quality and a knack for marketing, the wine will sell.

Before we leave, he hands me a bottle of each and a couple of jars of marmalade so that down the road I can contemplate love and remember this sweet part of Slovenia.

Kmetija Pavlovič

Križevska vas 42
8330 Metlika, Slovenija
+386 (0)40 722 000

 


Oil Mill Pečarič—Where Good Oils of Slovenia and Around The World Can Cure Most Anything—And They’re Good For Cooking Too!

My Bela Krajina indoctrination continues as we roll into our next stop, the Pecaric Oil Mill. Here tucked away on a farm off a winding country road, three generations of the Pečarič family have been making cold pressed oils from walnuts, hazelnuts, and more. Today they press twenty-two different organic and ECO oils.

Each oil provides a unique health benefit or remedy. The business dates back to 1937 and started with walnut oil which they used as fuel for lamps. Today the oil made from the family’s 350 acres of walnut and hazelnut orchards, is fully organic and ECO-rated and with its high concentration of Omega-3 lowers cholesterol and promotes healthy skin, nails, and hair. Plus, when applied to the skin, it offers natural protection from the sun. Hazelnut oil is good for the liver and skin and aids in digestion.

Since its early days making walnut oil, the Pecaric family continues to experiment by making oils from nuts and different seeds from a myriad of vegetables, trees, and flowers.

The sprawling property includes a 130-year-old cottage that once served as a homestead for the patriarch and grandfather of the Pecaric family. They updated and modernized the cottage and offer accommodation for up to eight guests. Nearby are a new shop and tasting room showcasing the Pecaric oil offerings and other natural products.

It all started with walnuts, the oil was used for lighting lamps in the old days. Today? It’s used for most everything!

I climb the stair to the second story tasting room where I run through the entire portfolio of twenty-two oils from a wide gamut of seeds and nuts including peach, grapeseed, poppy, linseed, both black and white sesame seeds, sunflower, hemp, academia, cumin and more. It’s overwhelming tasting so many different oils, but I’m drawn to the almond oil which they explain includes vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, and E and is superb for treating dry skin and rashes and can be used for aromatherapy too. I decide that I can find a place on my bike to stash just one small bottle of almond oil.

With so many choices, I could see myself stocking up and experimenting not only with the health and beauty benefits of the Pecaric oils but also with the culinary possibilities. They tell me that the family will continue to experiment and release new oils. They also provide shipping to almost anywhere in the world.

 

Pečarič Oil Mill
Draљiči 33
8330 Metlika, Slovenija
+386 (0)7 305 80 93


Domacija Kuzma—Centuries old flour and corn mill in Bela Krajina

Before calling it a day, Tjasa takes me to yet another historical gem hidden in Bela Krajina —Domacija Kuzma a four-hundred-year-old flour mill. Sitting precariously at a big bend in the Kolpa River in Pobrezje, where Tjasa and I wander the old mill where for hundreds of years they milled flour and cornmeal. We walk across the river over slippery rocks and for a moment put our feet in Croatia.

Domacija Kuzma
Pobrežje 4
Adlešiči, Črnomelj,
Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Call +386 51 235 128

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