Slovenia: A Food-Lover's Paradise

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This past weekend my wife and I spent our anniversary in Slovenia. Unromantic? Hardly. True, despite a surging economy and a stable, responsible series of governments that quickly brought it into the fold of the euro, too many people still speak of this tiny country in the same breath as its war-torn former Yugoslav brethren to the south. But Slovenia has everything--alpine villages, beautifully preserved art nouveau and baroque architecture, thermal spas, and wine roads, all at great prices, even with the euro taken into account.

Among many other things, Slovenia is a food-lover's paradise. The country is split between the Julian Alps to the north and the Mediterranean-esque Karst region to the south; in the spring, you can go skiing in the morning and be sunbathing along the Adriatic by early afternoon. The divide is culinary, too: The food to the north is hearty and typical of Central European fare--heavy on kasha, mushrooms, river fish, and beef; to the south it is Italian in character, with pastas and vegetables mixed with ham, veal, and seafood.

The hotel restaurant didn't have Teran in their cellar, so we bought out the local grocery store before our ride home.

Slovenia is also home to a world-class wine culture, focused on three wines native to the country and almost never exported: Zelen, a soft, semi-dry white; Cvicek, a light rose blend; and Teran, a dry, almost sour red made from the refosk grape and produced in the Karst region. Wine is such a large part of Slovene culture that it even shows up in the national anthem: "The harvest is over friends, and the wine clears the eye and the heart, and melts away all our troubles." (Slovenia isn't the only former Yugoslavian country to produce great reds; Montenegro is home to Vranac, a superb, full-bodied wine, while Croatia makes Polozaj.)

I've been visiting Slovenia for a decade now, and I've long loved the taste of Teran. The wine is high in lactic acid and iron, thanks to the Karst's dark red soil. Slovenians have long hailed it for its medicinal properties, and it was once prescribed to treat anemia. It's not for everyone--some bottles will pucker your mouth like a sour drop. But the better Terans use the acidity as a backbone to carry flavors like black pepper, grilled mushrooms, and black cherry. (Being a vegetarian, I'm unable to enjoy Teran as it is meant to be, with a helping of prsut, a kind of ham similar to prosciutto.)

Joanna and I had our first bottle Friday night in Ljubljana; an old friend, Miran, picked us up at our hotel in downtown Ljubljana and drove us to a nondescript suburban office building--behind which spread Gastolina Pr' Noni, or Grandma's Place. Our Teran that night came from Edvin Sirca, a vineyard in Dutovlje, near the slip of coast that connects Trieste to the rest of Italy. The wine was moderately sour, with a strong overtone of raspberries. I grew nostalgic; Joanna, a Teran newbie, fell in love.

The next few nights we stayed at Lake Bled, a postcard-perfect site near the Austrian border. The hotel restaurant didn't have Teran in their cellar, so we bought out the local grocery store before our ride home. We didn't get anything fancy--a blend of Teran grapes bottled under the Vinakras label--but it more than satisfies. Its nose is red berries, while the flavor is redolent of cracked black pepper and smoked meats.

Hopefully our supply will last. Few if any of these can be found in the rest of Europe, let alone in the United States. Of course, when it runs out, that means it's time to visit Slovenia again. I can think of worse excuses to plan a trip to the Balkans.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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