This article is dedicated to my Dad, who made Slovenian soups, stews and one-pots meals come alive for me in our Pennsylvania home. He always included a good number of meat bones in his stocks, the goodness of which cannot be duplicated. The special ingredient was Slovenian love. He learned to cook from his mom and his older sister. Did he love to eat soup! I remember how, after he removed the bones from the soup pot, he relished eating a sampling of the bone marrow. He also valued liver, and other organ meats, which were served often in our home. Blood sausage was a special treat in the fall. His jota (a sauerkraut and bean stew described below) was a delicious improvisation on the original Slovenian recipe.
Slovenians in America
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, Slovenian immigrants left Europe to find a new life in America. Many emigrated to Pennsylvania, to the coal and steel-producing regions. The immigrants brought with them their foodways and knowledge about food from Slovenia.
Slovenia is a beautiful country in Central Europe, tucked between the foothills of the Alps, the coast of the Adriatic Sea and the beginning of the Pannonian Plains which extend to the East. At the crossroads of Europe, Slovenia is bordered by Italy, Croatia, Hungary and Austria. A scenic and mountainous country, with manicured farms, pastures, vineyards, and orchards, Slovenia is among the most biologically diverse countries in the world and the third most forested country in Europe. Slovenia is rich in subterranean waters and numerous mineral and thermal springs, twenty-seven thousand kilometers of rivers and other watercourses (Hlad &Skoberne, 2001). For a quick peek at this country, see: Slovenia: A Diversity to Discover at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ui0FZm3Ib60.
Geographic location and early affiliation with the Holy Roman Empire gave the Slovenes a combination of Western culture, folklore, education, and cuisine (Barer- Stein,1999).
Slovenia has three distinct climates: the Alpine North has cold winters and warm summers; the Eastern plans bordering Hungary have freezing winters and hot dry summers; and the Western coastal area on the border with Italy has warmer temperatures with cool winters and hot summers, similar to Northern Italy (Bogataj, 2007). These diverse weather patterns affect agriculture, forestry and animal husbandry, and of course cuisine and local foodways.
The lower slopes of mountain ranges in the north grow apples, pears and plums, and support animals, such as cattle, sheep and pigs for meat and dairy. Low-lying land is covered with forests full of game, lakes and streams with freshwater fish, fields of cereal crops and grass for pasture. In the warmer western part of the country, olives, figs, and grapes are grown, and ocean life abounds. In the northeast, farmers cultivate large fields of grain, pumpkins for oil and animals.
Gastronomic Regions of Slovenia
Slovenia is divided into five basic geographic regions: Primorska, by the sea; Prekmurje, bordering Hungary; Gorenjska, the northern Alpine regions; Dolenjska, middle Slovenia; and Notranjska, in the Karst region and southern Slovenia. Each region is known for its characteristic soups, stews, breads, noodles, dumplings, casseroles, fats and oils, cheeses, honeys and desserts made with local ingredients.
Slovenian traditional foods and cuisine are a meat-and-dairy-based diet, incorporating seasonal fruits and vegetables, using lard, butter, olive oil and pumpkin seed oil as fats, depending on location. Poultry is well liked and served often. The regional dishes are mainly influenced by the surrounding geography, topography, weather and local tastes. Experts say that within these areas there are actually twenty-four distinct culinary regions in Slovenia today, each characterized by specific traditional foods and ingredients (Bogataj, 2008).
All cuisines, except those of America and the Arctic, have flavorings that account for the distinctiveness and characteristic taste of foods. “A characteristic combination of flavorings is added to most foods of the world’s cuisines, a ‘flavor principle,’ distinct from other cuisines,” says psychologist Paul Rozin, who focuses on food as a system for studying how humans deal with the world. These flavor principles are the main carriers of the identity of the cuisines which gives one the ability to identify that cuisine in the future. Human have a strong attachment to distinct flavor principles (Rozin, 1997).
The main “flavor principles” in Slovenian cuisine are salt, tarragon, thyme, rosemary, caraway seed, lovage, marjoram, parsley, garlic, onions, cracklings, bacon, paprika, poppy seed, horseradish, fruits, vinegar, wine, sour cream, clabbered milk, sauerkraut and lacto-fermented turnips (Milhench, 2007).
The tradition of cheese making in Slovenia dates back to the sixth century AD. Dairy products are used in many Slovenian recipes, especially sour cream, which is added to soups and stews just before serving.
The Cooking Pot : Soup , Stews and Casseroles
From the time that man captured fire and tamed it for cooking, soups have been part of man’s diet. Physical anthropologist Lorin Brace says that people were cooking about two hundred thousand years ago. In his book Catching Fire, Wrangham makes a convincing argument that is was cooking that made us human and developed our brains by allowing for more complete digestion of meats and higher intake of calories (Wrangham, 2009). These first soups put man on the path to larger brain development and higher achievement.
Rock-lined pits and natural cooking vessels like turtle shells gave way to the proverbial cooking pot, a universal symbol of hearth and home all over the world. Into the universal soup pot are ingredients found from many parts of the globe, melding flavors and tastes unique to culture. Soups are an appreciated commonality in all cultures (Rumble, 2009).
Slovenia had a peasant economy and was ruled by foreign nobility until World War II. Soups and stews played a more important part than bread in the peasant diet (Montanari, 1996). However, cereals were widely used to make soups and porridges. Buckwheat, millet, rice, barley and rye were the main cereal grains in common use.
Buckwheat came to Slovenia in the fifteenth century and today is a major grain for pancakes, dumplings, polenta, porridge and casseroles (Bogataj, 2008). It is often paired with mushrooms and sour cream. Buckwheat grows well in very poor soil where the yield of wheat would be low. Pure buckwheat can be used to make gruel, porridge, pancakes and polenta.
In order to make bread, buckwheat must be mixed with other grains. Buckwheat polenta came to rival the yellow polenta traditionally made with millet in Italy and Slovenia (Flandrin & Montanari, 1996). Millet was a native grain and is a very important ingredient in specific sausages, soups and stews, while wheat was difficult to grow in Alpine regions and thus a limited ingredient in everyday and traditional dishes. Wheat was highly prized and usually reserved for holidays.
Potatoes from South America, another New World food, like peppers, tomatoes and maize, found their way to Slovenia at the end of the eighteenth century but it was not until the nineteenth century that they were accepted as human food (Bogataj, 2008, Zuckerman, 1998). Today potatoes are a common ingredient in many culinary dishes, including soups and stews. Čompe, a dish made with potatoes and cottage cheese, is celebrated with its own holiday in the Alpine areas.
Maize (corn) was imported to Europe by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and reached Slovenia in the 16th century. Impressed with its high yields, eighty bushels to one acre, compared to six to one for rye, and less for wheat, landlords compelled peasants to eat greater and greater amounts. Because the corn was not properly prepared, epidemics of pellagra, a consequence of niacin deficiency, were common. Pellagra causes skin eruptions, nervous disorders, insanity and even death (Flandrin et al, 1996).
Famines, caused by climatic changes throughout the Little Ice Age from 1300 to 1850 caused grain failures, which were especially severe in the 19th century (Fagin, 2000). Because of food shortages in these periods of famine, New World crops were more accepted (Fernando- Armesto, 2002).
The pig has been the mainstay of Slovenian cuisine for centuries and plays a star role in preparation of soups, stews and one-pot meals. “Despite changing eating habits in modern times, the pig is still the biggest Slovenian friend of man. As with many other nations and in our country, the breeding, slaughtering and processing of these animals into a range of fresh, semi-durable and durable meat products has been developed for centuries” (Bogataj, 2008).
Soup was one of the most frequently served and most varied of all dishes, which was enjoyed every day for breakfast or dinner. Bone broth was a main type of liquid base used for various soups. Among the most common ingredients used for soups are beef, pork, prosciutto, pig head, tripe, lung, fish, potato, pea, bean, egg, cottage cheese. Soups are routinely thickened with brown roux.
Meat soup was required at Sunday lunch and was made mostly from pork or sometimes only from bones. Glavinova zupa was made from the pig head. For holidays and for the sick, the housewife cooked chicken soup, which was considered the tastiest and most healthy soup of all. With the holiday soup, rice or homemade noodles were served, along with cut up chicken or egg (as in egg drop soup).
For Easter the typical soup, called fuj (pronounced fuee) is made from the prosciutto bones. Fish soup is usually made from trout cooked in water, to which is added onion, garlic, parsley, marjoram and pepper. The onions and garlic are sautéed in olive oil or lard and added to the fish and vegetables. This soup is usually served with homemade noodles. Fish stew (brodet) is made from sea fish and local vegetables and herbs.
Cookbooks at the beginning of the twentieth century offered two categories of soup: soups for non-fast days and soups for fast days (Kalinsek, 1912, Turk, 1922).
To give an idea of how intimately the Church was involved in everyday life, consider the “fast days.” Fast days were associated with the Church which dictated the foods that could and could not be eaten on Fridays, during the Advent time preceding Christmas, and the Lenten time preceding Easter. These fast days were strictly enforced by Church authorities and serious sanctions were imposed upon those who did not conform. Avoiding meat and some meat products was considered a sacrifice, although the Pope allowed butter only by dispensation early on to specific towns rather than be subject to the angry congregations. Vegetable oils (sunflower, olive, rape seed and nut oils) were allowed on meatless days (Montanari, 1994), and the fasting soups were made only with oil. Lard was an indulgence and thus forbidden at this time, much like it is today by the “diet dictocrats.”
Soups for Fasting Days
A standard winter soup and soup for fasting days was prezganka, which was served almost every day, mostly for breakfast, and on days with bad weather.
A brown roux is made from browned flour and fat, usually lard or butter (or oil during fasting soup), and then added to boiling salted water. Caraway seed is added and possibly eggs and chervil at the end (Adamlje, 1997). Cooking experts of the times believed that the best brown roux was made with wheat. The dish was often also on tables of the poor or in lean times. The term prezganka in dialect was ajmoht, which indicated a soup with brown roux, usually made with veal or chicken. This term traveled to America and appeared in Slovenian American cookbooks (Slovenska Druzba, 1995). The brown roux is used in many soups and stews. This soup is still popular and a regular feature in modern cookbooks.
Fasting soups were also made with milk and rice. Other fasting soups contained a variety of vegetables, or one vegetable, such as potato, in a meat broth. Sometimes they were based only on a broth to which chopped garlic was added. There are also recipes for beer or wine soups. Fasting soups could be made from fruits, such as apples, plums, and strawberries (Turk, 1922; Kalinsek, 1912).
Soups for Non-Fasting Days
The Slovenian Cookbook (Kalinsek, 1912) lists the most commonly served soups as beef stock made with bones and liver, boiled chicken soup, liver soup, brain soup, tripe soup, bone broth from veal or chicken bones, minestrone, veal sour soup, and soup with pig’s head. All of these are still popular today. Pig’s heads can be purchased at farmers markets. Modern Slovenian cookbooks provide recipes for mushroom soup, bean soup, barley soup, chicken soup with liver dumplings and beef soup.
A special soup, Styrian sour soup, made from the organ meats, legs, tail, and ears of the pig, and soured with vinegar or white wine, is the most popular dish for after-party nights, New Year’s Eve parties and wedding receptions. People believe it provides renewed health and energy. A special accompaniment to soups, liver dumplings are a great way to use organ meats (see recipes below).
Koline is a special holiday ritual that usually takes place from November through January. During Koline, the pig was slaughtered and all parts were made into many kinds of charcuterie products. These included many kinds of sausages, such as klobasa, made with pork, fat, garlic and seasonings; blood (or black) pudding, made from a mixture of blood, intestines, millet or buckwheat porridge and seasonings; prosciutto; and zelodec (filled pork stomach). Every part of the pig was preserved for future use. Traditionally, neighbors worked together at Koline and exchanged sausages, because each farm family had its own unique recipe (Bogataj, J., personal communication). At Koline many products are made which are later used in soups, stews and casseroles.
Specific regions of the country made slightly different pork products during Koline, such as in the Prekmurja region, near Hungary (Minnich, 1979) (Bogataj, 2008). Those parts not made into a specific products were preserved, sometimes potted in pork fat, and used sparingly to flavor soups and stews. In fact, entire hams were preserved in pork fat. This specialty is called prleška tunka (Bogataj, 2008).
Pig fat was the staple for eating and preserving other foods. A highfat diet was considered a sign of wealth. Peasants consumed little fat. In 1884, rural Hungarians ate an average of forty-four pounds of pork fat per year while city dwellers consumed an average of fifty-six pounds. Cooking with melted fat, rather than preserved pieces, was an eighteenth-century innovation, a refinement for the upper classes. The thick outer layer of pig fat was preserved with salt, then smoked or air dried (Kurlansky, 2002).
Golaž (goulash) could be made from sausages, salami, prosciutto, liver, lungs, sheep, wild game, and rabbits. Most golaž was prepared according to a general recipe; it contained meat (usually pork), lard, onion, garlic, sweet and hot paprika, wine, flour, salt and cumin seed (Bogataj, 2008). Bograč, a variation of Golaž, is a stew using beef, pork, bacon with potatoes, onions and garlic, flavored with caraway and sweet paprika, and comes from the Prekmurje region of Slovenia, bordering on Hungary. It is similar to the universally known dish variety of goulash. Toči (tochee) is a type of goulash from western Slovenia, into which diners dip polenta or bread. Toči was a staple diet for breakfast or dinner.
Minestre (minestrone) is a one-pot dish and basic staple of the Primorska region near the seaside. It is cooked every day or at least once a week. In the past it was served often for breakfast. Differences in the ingredients manifest themselves during the seasons. In the spring and summer seasons, the dish was made with squash, corn, beans, pears, vegetables and barley, all cooked outside in a special black kettle. Therefore the traditional minestra is called a crni lonec (black pot). In fall and winter it was cooked with turnips, barley, corn, chestnuts and beans, and served with bread or polenta (Reja & Sirk, 1997).
Pork bones, ribs, sausage, bacon and cut up meat (pork, beef or mutton), sautéed in lard and onions, make up the stock. All minestres are seasoned with chopped bacon, which gives “power” to the dish. In the Slovenian culinary language zabeliti means “to lard, butter, put drippings into.” An expression, ne zabeljen ne soljen translates as “without fat and salt, food is flat and tasteless” (Reja & Sirk, 1997).
The pear minestre, not often made today, consisted of ripe, peeled and cut-up pears, which are cooked with potatoes, to which marjoram and lard were added, and a little wheat flour for thickening.
One of the most beloved dishes from the western part of Slovenia and the Karst region is jota ( yota), a “ thick, s moky-flavored, s weet and sour hotpot,” made with sauerkraut (or sour turnips), bacon, kidney beans, onion, garlic and potatoes (Bogataj, 2008). A brown roux can be added to the pot at the end of cooking. My dad had his own version of jota which I really love to make. He cooked a cut of pork with bone in to make a broth, then used this broth as the basis for the jota, adding mashed potatoes, cooked beans and sauerkraut, with lots of garlic and bay laurel. The meat was removed from the bone and shredded into the broth.
Chef Emeril LaGasse has a version of jota which calls for olive oil, pork chops or smoked ham hock, pancetta, prosciutto and sauerkraut, but no potatoes or roux, and this is similar to our recipe. Jota is popular in the region of Italy called Fruili near the Slovenian border (Food Network, 2012).
A favorite product made from the broth from soup bones for Christmas and Easter was žolce (meat jelly, or aspic). It was made from prosciutto and beef or pork bones, to which was added some meat, garlic and bay laurel leaves. The mixture was cooked eight to nine hours and after cooling, the gelatin thickened into a mixture which could be cut into servings. The žolce is served with vinegar. Žolce was believed to have special curative properties for the sick and to be good food for pregnant and nursing mothers (Reja &Sirk, 1997).
The cuisine of Slovenia is based on a tradition of hearty and nutritious broths, using bones and organ meats. Soups and stews are the heart of Slovenian traditional foods, which live on in kitchens in Slovenia and in the U.S., especially around holiday time. Many childhood memories were formed around meals at home begun with hot, filling soups. As an old saying goes, “Love, it’s in every Slovenian” (Onusic, 2011).
Special thanks to Janez Bogataj, PhD, for his assistance in writing this article.
The DVD “Slovenija Gastronomija (Slovenian Gastronomy)” in English is available by contacting Sylvia Onusic at email@example.com. For more information about Slovenian food and the DVD visit the website “Taste of Slovenia:” www.foodtourslovenia.wordpress.com.
LIVER DUMPLINGS (Beef or Veal)
1/2 pound liver
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 egg yolks
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon melted fat
1 cup bread crumbs
2 egg whites, beaten stiff
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Grind liver or put through food chopper. It should be the consistency
of pulp. Add beaten egg yolks and fat and mix well. Add bread
crumbs, parsley and seasoning. Fold in egg whites and mix. Drop in
boiling soup or stew with a teaspoon. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
CHICKEN LIVER DUMPLINGS
2 chicken livers
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon grated onion
1 1/2 cup flour, or more if needed
2 tablespoons bread crumbs
Grind livers; add egg, bread crumbs, parsley, onion
and flour. Blend well; add more flour, if needed, so
mixture is firm. Shape into small balls and drop into
boiling soup. Boil 15 to 20 minutes.
Recipes from Kuharice iz Willarda, (Cookbook from Willard), pg. 35
2-3 pig’s feet
bay laurel leaf
1/2 pound dried cranberry beans
1 onion chopped
1 tablespoon tomato purée, optional
1 1/2 pounds sauerkraut, drained and rinsed in cold water
Roux: 4 tablespoons lard, olive oil or butter and 4 tablespoons wheat flour
enough spring water to cover bones, about 7-8 cups
1/2 pound sauerkraut or pickled turnips
3 1/2 ounces rindless smoked streaky bacon, diced*
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 pound potatoes, diced
Soak the cranberry beans overnight in cold water. Drain and place in pan with plenty of cold water. Bring to a boil and cook rapidly for ten minutes. Reduce heat and cook until tender.
Peel potatoes, cut into pieces and cook separately. Mash potatoes.
Cook chopped onion and garlic in fat.
Cook the sauerkraut with the pig’s feet and water for two hours. Remove the bones. Into the sauerkraut mixture put sautéed onions and garlic, cooked chopped sausage (klobasa), cooked cranberry beans with some mashed beans for thickening, as well as mashed potatoes and tomato purée.
Prepare the roux by heating the olive oil, butter or lard, adding wheat flour, and cooking until slightly thickened. The roux is added to the jota and the stew is cooked an additional 1/2 hour. Season to taste. The jota is much better the second day.
*Variations: some recipes call for bacon, which is fried with the onions and garlic and added to the stock. Pickled turnips can be used in place of sauerkraut.
Recipe courtesy of Chef Tomaž Kavčič of Gostilno pri Ložetu (Inn at Louis’s) at the Dvorec Zemono in Vipavska Dolina. http://www.prilojzetu.com/index.php Many consider his restaurant the finest for ‘slow food’ and traditional food. (Digital Studio Slak, 2007).
THE STEWS OF SLOVENIA
Polšja Obara , or dormouse stew, from the Notranjska region is still popular. Yes, this stew is made from the dormouse,
which was a popular figure in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Romans considered it a delicacy. It can grow up to
eight inches long and weigh ten ounces. They are also valued for the fur and the fat is used for medicine.
Šara a pork and vegetable stew, is made from pigs’ feet, tail and ear, along with root vegetables and herbs.
Ričet is cooked on top of the stove using barley (the whole grain), pigs’ feet, garlic, bay leaf, fava beans, carrots and cider
Piščančja obara is a chicken stew with chicken, onion, white wine, carrots, garlic, parsley, thyme, marjoram, lemon
juice and brown roux, cooked slowly on top of the stove.
Pohorje pisker is a meat and vegetable stew made of pork, beef and lamb with the addition of buckwheat and mushrooms
Butje repa is a one-pot dish of Prekmurja made in the winter season, cooked with pickled turnips, pig’s head, neck and
skin, along with millet. A roux is used, as well as herbs, onion, bay leaf, pepper, garlic, and paprika. Butja repa can be
served as an entrée or side dish with buckwheat and millet sausages (Bogataj, 2007).
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This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2012.