You cannot grow up in an Indian family and not be interested in food. As an integral part of the culture, marriages have been known to end over the thickness of a Chapati. As I grew up though, I realised that there were many other nations all over the world, equally passionate about their food. And yet, it has taken until 2014 for me to discover the concept of food walks – undoubtedly one of the best ways to simultaneously explore and learn about a place whilst discovering its best traditional cuisine. My first experience was at a London Food Tour earlier this year and I am now a total convert to the notion.
The charming side streets of Ljubljana
When I started reading about Slovenia, it didn’t take too much delving to discover that the Slovenes LOVE their food. And perhaps none more so than Iva, the brains behind the Ljubljananjam Food Walk, a fellow foodie, born and bred in Ljubljana and with a background in journalism; but Iva’s most inviting attribute is that long before any of these measurable achievements, she was the go-to person for her friends and family when it came to uncovering Ljiubljana’s food scene. After reading wonderful reviews, I knew she would be my passport into the gastronomic world of Slovenia.
One of the charms of this food tour is that each one is unique and flexible, depending on your tastes, dietary requirements, budgets and time. The details of the walk remain a surprise right until you are on it, (despite the tweets I sent digging for clues!) This retains an air of mystery, which is increasingly challenging in an era, where we turn up to restaurants all too frequently, having already made our menu choices at home. I liked the “not knowing” and it is for that reason, I’ll endeavour to keep the locations a secret. If you are heading to Slovenia and are intrigued by what you see, try it out!
Joining us on the tour was one half of travel blogging duo A Couple Travelers and the founder of Ljubljana by Bike. And so we started – with a dessert?! Iva and I clearly sing from the same hymn sheet. The Torta Ljubljana (a cake made from buckwheat flour, chestnut, almond, honey, fig and chocolate) has both a sweetness afforded by the chocolate and honey and an earthiness carried by the nuts and seeds, giving birth to little cubes of delight in our mouths. I liked it so much that I went back and bought a larger one to take back to England. Predictable much?
We met one of the original founders of the recipe and her welcoming nature and humility was apparent. But their business extends further than cake. The Slovenes love their gelato and here, it is creamy & full of flavour; we tried Kremsnita (a gelato version of the famous Bled cream cake with actual bits of pastry in it), Aztecana (chocolate with a tickle of chilli in the aftertaste) , cinnamon and a dreamy black sesame that you’ll either love or hate. BIG LOVE from me.
Much of Ljubljana’s tourist-heavy restaurants are located at the waterside, where the quality of the food can be mixed and prices inflated but on a nearby side street lies a little Bistro, run by a couple and only serving approximately 30 meals every evening before they move on to drinks and nibbles. This bistro, which is also a performance venue for musicians, has a loyal following and each day’s menu is different and fresh. It was here, where we had one of the best pork belly dishes I have ever eaten, tender and bursting with flavour with a side serving of artichoke with garlic and herbs, barley risotto and potatoes with mustard seeds and pumpkin seed oil. Pumpkin seed oil, I came to learn, is something of a staple ingredient in a Slovenian store cupboard. We washed down our meal with some refreshing, homemade elderflower juice.
Ljubljana’s best coffee?
I think most nations in the world can be divided into tea drinkers or coffee drinkers with perpetually blurry margins. We Brits are mostly still a tea nation but the Slovenes? They swear by coffee all the way. We visited Ljubljana’s only fairtrade coffee shop, where the coffee connoisseur Tine had a boundless passion and wealth of knowledge about both coffee and fairtrade in general, even giving talks to school groups on these topics. His conversation was as engaging as the aroma of the coffee was inviting. Tine is a purist. Purists drink coffee the way God intended; there is no place for milk and sugar, cappuccinos and machiatos. But he was sympathetic to my modernised ways and accommodated my request for a latte. I daren’t ask for the sugar and to be honest, the flavour of the coffee bean was so intense that it wasn’t needed.
The shot of caffeine propelled us back into turbo mode for our next stop, where we were getting down to deli business with traditional meats, cheese and zucchini flowers. The Kajmak, a Serbian soft cheese, was a creamy sponge, soaking up the olive oil from the plate on which it was served. It was so exquisite that the rest of the group could have walked off and left me and I wouldn’t have noticed and in fact, while they made their way to the door, I could still be spotted in the corner, cleaning the plate to pristine perfection. Someone’s got to do it…
I may be a teetotaller but this is no reason for Pumpkin to miss out and he was more than happy to swig my share of Slovenian craft beer including the famous Union beer from a local brewery, which is more than a hundred years old. A little word of advice – according to Slovenian customs, when you lift your glass to say cheers, you must make eye contact to avoid being considered rude!
Wine-tasting in Ljubljana
We ended the night with a wine-tasting session in an offbeat, underground wine cellar, a place which would have completely fallen off the radar had Iva not taken us there. Hosted by a sommelier, the space felt more like someone’s (very plush) apartment with a stylish interior, dim lighting and sociable, square dining table. This was just as well because aside from ourselves, we had picked up a few friends along the way – Iva seems to know just about everyone in Ljubljana and the more the merrier, especially on a Friday night!
Our evening had started as a food walk but by the time it ended, we felt like we had just left a dinner party with friends. But wait – wine tasting is about the wine right? Numerous varieties were offered including Slovenia’s national wine – Cvicek, Teran, which was Pumpkin’s favourite and a unique orange wine. Opinions were divided, each new sip generating its own controversy but the supplies were endless with as many glasses being offered as requested.
By the end of the night, I had forgotten we were even on a food walk. We had talked culture and food, politics and wine, travel and history and we had gelled like old friends. And five hours later, we finally called it a night. I felt a pang of anxiety, wondering where dessert was (had we peaked early with the Ljubljana cake?) But I need not have harboured any doubt because the surprise treat to end the night was a delicious, creamy, white chocolate and raspberry mousse cake. The pace of the tour reflected a perfect equilibrium of fine food, carefully-considered portion sizes, diverse range of dishes and plenty of “rehydration” with local produce.
Iva’s philosophy is that the key tourist places will be sought out without needing her assistance. What she does though, with a deep-rooted affection for Ljubljana’s best eateries, is to take you to those hidden gems, the ones you wouldn’t notice or know about, the ones that use quality ingredients, source ethically and have a story behind them. We meet the faces behind the food and learn about their lives, passions, visions and of course, we sample their divine creations. I dabble in no hyperbole when I say that this was one of the most enjoyable evenings I have experienced on my travels. If you are heading to Slovenia and are interested in food, this is an experience not to be missed.
- Food walk prices start at approximately 35 Euros upwards depending on preferences and duration
- Payment is made in cash at the end of the walk
- Walks usually commence at 5pm but timings may be adjustable if required
- Group sizes are usually restricted to 5 people but private food walks can be arranged
- The walks be customised to include any specific dietary requirements or preferences
- Each walk is individual, exhibiting the best of seasonal ingredients
Have you been on any food walks around the world? Let me know your recommendations!
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Ljubljananjam Food Walks but I am an opinionated, little lady and all views, good or bad, are entirely my own. I would like to thank Iva for such a wonderful evening of fine food, wonderful chefs and great company!