In the heart of Europe, the tiny nation of Slovenia shares borders with Italy, Croatia, Hungary and Austria. With a countryside as diverse as its surrounding neighbours, Slovenia has been opening up its farms to tourists the last several years, but is stepping up the effort with a bid to become a serious food and wine destination.
The tiny and ancient village of Padna is set high in the hills above the Istrian coastline. It’s less than two hours from Slovenia’s capital city Ljubljana, and just a few miles from the Italian border.
Ivo Tomsic is a local who recently took charge of Istranova, a tourist farm that produces its own olive oil. “The villagers here say this village grown on the chard because they have so many that they built the church from selling the chard. The fishermen, they give him the chard and he gives him the squid, and they make a recipe the squid and the chard and the polenta.”
And that’s exactly what Ivo has made for my visit. Istranova is one of 850 tourist farms in Slovenia, almost double the number in the last decade. The small country is divided into a food and wine map, based on local specialties.
Tine Murn of the Slovenian Tourism Board says investment is up, and there’s a push to capitalise on the country’s different regions, to make Slovenia a foodie destination.
“The real colour of Slovenia is the countryside, the people. Slovenia is a very small country in size, but the diversity is really extreme. It’s really the whole continent in one small country. You drive for an hour, hour and a half and you can go from the alpine offer like a farm where they produce proper milk and cheese to where we are now, by the sea where they produce their own olive oil, beautiful wine, a lot of fish on offer, proper Mediterranean.”
With 2500 olive trees, Ivo’s farm feels very Mediterranean.
“Our olive trees are down in the valley. You have the Beliza, white Slovenian olive; it’s very spicy and very heavy on the mouth. Then you have the Licino, black olive, it’s more friendly to people. The difficult part of olive oil is to pick them.”
Pretty soon, Ivo and his crew may not need to. Istranova is one of several tourist farms serving food and wine, and teaching visitors about their olive oil production. Later this year, they’ll become a farm stay, providing accommodation. Farm stay experiences vary from helping with daily chores, to cooking classes, wellness programs, and expeditions based around food and wine.
Back inside the cosy, rustic, timbered farmhouse, I meet winemaker Tilen Praprotenik. Like most local winemakers, his is a family affair, with everyone pitching in, working on the estate, harvesting, and going to market.
“Our native varieties are present for thousands of years. A few years ago this region was mainly bulk-producing; we produced a lot of wine in bulk. In the ten to twelve years we started to reduce yields. We did a lot of work in the vineyards, the planting densities, a lot of things to improve the quality of the grapes and then the quality of the wine. We have more and more wine which is of high quality and suitable for bottling. Our region has a few producers which also export wines. We are going from maybe zero to maybe five per cent. Until a few years ago we were not a wine destination because we are not present on the world wine map. But this is a pity because we have really good wine. The Italians, they come to eat in Slovenia.“
The attraction, Ivo explains, is the truffles and the quality of local ingredients. The first course is black winter truffle with cow cheese and home-made fig marmalade; all produced right here.
Another reason the Italians come here is because of all the parallels in their food culture. Until recently, Ivo explains it was illegal to buy or sell truffles in Slovenia.
“This was a little bit funny. Before you find the truffle, you have to go to Italy to sell it and go to Italy to buy it back. The Slovenian truffle from Istria go to Italy and back, but now it’s legal.”
And that’s good, because Tilen says the local conditions are perfect for truffles.
“The valley behind this hill is ideal for truffles. You can find a lot of truffles here because the truffle needs the oak, which goes very good for the truffle. Also the soil is very humid, but not always wet. This is ideal for truffles; also the ph of the soil is very good for truffles.”
Tilen is so convinced he’s just bought a truffle-hunting pedigree dog.
“The parents of my dog were really good truffle hunters. The mother of my dog found 5kg of truffles in the last winter and the grandfather was a national truffle hunting champion. “I ask if the dog’s been successful. “What I put under the ground she finds very fast, but when we go into the woods, it’s a different story, so we must wait. For me it’s enough that she finds some truffles and that’s it.” It’s just for home consumption, he laughs.
Meanwhile, a busload of Italian tourists has arrived to taste Ivo’s truffles.
“They come for the seaside and to enjoy the food and wine. The Italians are good customers but they respect good food but they don’t respect the wine. It’s difficult to give the Italian, its food, food, food, but a bottle of good wine, the wine; they want a bottle of wine for ten euros. It’s hard to sell him for a good price. “
It’s hard to say whether Ivo and Tilen will have better luck training a dog to hunt truffles or teaching Italians to appreciate a good bottle of Slovenian wine but at least they count on getting plenty of both the truffles, and the Italians.