We have been going on food tours a lot recently, and while it would be a great narrative to say that after seeing multiple iterations of them throughout cities, countries, and continents, we are growing tired of the routine: tasting different dishes and flavors at scattered restaurants or cafes, short to medium walks through foreign streets, small tidbits of history we will most likely not remember, shared tales of food tours from vacations' past, it's simply not the case. We've come to appreciate the food tour as a way to introduce ourselves to both the overall geography and exceptional cuisine that each new city has to offer; Renee is a fan of getting "the lay of the land", and food tours are a tremendous way to do that while simultaneously filling your bellies. I thought that we could not get any fuller than when we were in Marrakech, but I was wrong. Because we may have had our best food tour yet with Top Ljubljana Foods in the capital city of Slovenia.
Ljubljana (Pronounced lyoo-BLYAH-nah and certainly not Luh-JUBE-Luh-JOHN-Ah as we had been calling it for the past six months) has a long and twisting history, as being surrounded by mountains, having both a hill in the middle with a fortress built on it and a river running through you can make you extremely coveted by civilizations throughout Europe. Ljubes (as we like to call it) has been occupied in the past by the Italians, Germans, and Romans to name a few, and since Slovenia declared it's independence in 1991, it has acted simultaneously as the capital of Slovenia and the "Next Big City" of Europe. While everyone from Rick Steves to Nomadic Matt has declared Slovenia one of their favorite destinations, Ljubljana has avoided become the tourist-y madhouses that are now Prague and Bruges. The city center, with it's meandering Ljubljanica River and cafes and restaurants scattered on it's shores have maintained their low price points and traditional cooking styles. It is with this in mind that we can see why the Traditional Food Tour with Top Ljubljana Foods is one of the better food tours we've taken.
Over the course of almost four hours (Yes, that's right, a FOUR HOUR FOOD TOUR), we were led around the city center of Ljubljana by our spectacular guide Eva, who regaled us with anecdotes about why certain trees were planted where they were (the sculpture Preŝeren features a woman with exposed breasts and is in full view of what used to be the main church of Ljubljana. Solution: Plant three trees so you can't see the sculpture from the steps of the church. Slovenians are very smart), how the city of Ljubljana has changed since she began giving tours seven years ago, why the dragon is the symbol of the city, and even had a lively discussion about Slovenian politics once the wine started flowing. Oh, did I forget to mention that there is a glass of wine at almost every stop? Oh, and did I forget to mention that they are basically serving us FULL ENTREES at every stop? Let's start talking about some food, because that's why you came here.
A couple of fun bullet points about Slovenia, and then I promise we'll get to the #foodporn.
- Slovenia has over twenty different culinary regions, all of which have completely different cooking styles and main ingredients. The country also has more than eighty "typical Slovenian dishes"
- Slovenia has three main wine regions, which produce more than fifty different varietals. Haven't heard of Slovenian wine? That's because they don't produce enough to distribute outside their borders, but trust me, it's just as good as anything you can get in France or Italy.
- Slovenia's dialects are so different that Eva told us when there is a press conference of someone from the far Northeast speaking, they need subtitles to understand.
- Remember those facts when you read this one: Slovenia is only slightly larger than the Big Island of Hawaii. About the size of Conneticut. You can drive it tip to tip in about five hours.
We started our tour with a wintry stew of millet (Renee's favorite grain!), chicken, cabbage and onions, served with pumpkin seed oil, the geographically protected specialty product of the "Chicken Head" of Slovenia. Eva told us very early on that a map of Slovenia looks like a chicken, so all regions referenced going forward will utilize their location on the body of a chicken.
Then we had a taste of pumpkin seed oil ice cream, made with the following ingredients: Pumpkin seeds, cream, sugar. It was ridiculously good, similar to pistachio flavor, but with a pumpkin-y aftertaste. A full bowl of stew AND dessert at our first stop? Plus a glass of wine from the "Chicken Head" region? This is my kind of tour.
Next we stopped for another geographically protected item, the Kranjska Klobasa (or Carniolan Sausage) at Klobasarna, which claimed to have "The Best Sausage in Town". Little did we know from the sign that they had actually won the Best Carniolan Sausage Contest of Slovenia the past three years running. Served with mustard and raw horseradish, this sausage from the chicken butt region did not disappoint.
It was on this stop when I realized we were going to get wine at almost every stop. I had to send out a celebratory tweet....
What can I say? I'm a sucker for great food and lots of wine. Even though I turned out to be wrong. There was only wine at five out of six stops. Whoops.
Before we hit our next stop, a beautiful restaurant perched right on the river, we stopped to check out a novelty that is not available in many countries, the Fresh Milk Vending Machine. Early every morning, farmers (from the chicken breast region) come and deposit raw milk into this contraption and it's kept deliciously cold until you come by and pick up a bottle and take it home with you after work. It's located in the central market, where you can also pick up fresh veggies, bread, cheese, meat or fish, but is the only ware that's available 24 hours a day. After little to no cajoling, we had to taste it, and it was absolutely fantastic. Sadly, there was no wine vending machine, but there's always the future, Ljubljana, get on it!
Our next stop was at Most, the restaurant perched right on the river I mentioned earlier, for another full entree (This was sea bass, caught in the lower thigh region) and another glass of wine. What I noticed at this stop was they had prepared steaks for two gals on the tour who did not like seafood. That's right, Top Ljubljana Foods had called the restaurant ahead of time to have them prepare substitute dishes, and the subs were FULL STEAKS. Goodness. I found myself wishing that I had told them I didn't like seafood. I LIKE STEAK BETTER.
I won't reveal the details of all of our stops, we have to keep some mystery, right? But just know that these were not just random shacks on the side of the road. These were fancy hotels and full restaurants. You'll definitely never be able to tell where the next stop was, I won't give any hints......
One stop I will spoil the mystery on was our last stop, the top floor of the "Skyscraper" building, which is only 13 floors high. Built in the 1930s, it was the tallest building in Ljubes by far, and citizens did not want to stand next to it for fear it would fall over. Nowadays, there are many taller buildings in the city, but the name remained, a hilarious reminder of what used to constitute scraping the sky. So here we sat, eating a decadent layer cake at the rooftop restaurant Neboticnik (which we ended up returning to later in our stay to enjoy more wine and more vistas), alternating our gaze between the Ljubljana Castle on the hill and the far off Alps to the North, our bellies full of Slovenian delicacies and our brains full of Ljubljanan trivia.