“Foodie-ism” comes with a generation gap — just like the Charleston or the Beatles. And when I mention Foodie-ism to Baby Boomers, many seem to think “foodie” means “expensive.” But it doesn’t have to: It’s about the quality of the ingredients, the care of the preparation, and a knack for merging innovation with a healthy respect for tradition.
Slovenia — for my money, the most underrated country in Europe — embraces tradition and lives close to nature, but also has an un-snooty sense of style and sophistication. That’s an ideal mix for foodies on a budget. On my September trip to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, I had one of my best “eating days” of the year. I’d categorize each place I went as “foodie.” And I spent a grand total of €25.
I was staying at a perfectly located rental apartment (Meščanka, overlooking the most colorful stretch of Ljubljana’s riverfront), so I was on my own for breakfast. They steered me to a fine little café in the mellow pedestrian zone under the town hall’s bell tower. I ordered a bela kava (like a latte), a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a crispy croissant. Total cost for breakfast: €6.
For lunch, I stopped by a hole-in-the-wall called Klobasarna. They specialize in doing one thing, and doing it very well: rustic sausages from the region of Cariniola. I got mine cut up into a bowl of jota — a traditional Slovenian soup made with marinated turnip. (Last summer, I got some heat on my blog for saying “cassoulet” must be French for “bowl of farts.” My hunch is that jota carries the same meaning in Slovene.) Klobasarna recently added one more traditional Slovenian item to the menu: štruklji, boiled dumplings stuffed with various fillings. One had tarragon, another had cottage cheese, and the last one — essentially a dessert — had walnuts and cinnamon. Sprinkled with coarse, buttery, sauteed breadcrumbs to complement the smoothness of the dough, they were both flavorful and a textural treat.
I washed the meal down with Cockta, one of those soft drinks that’s fiercely beloved in its homeland but utterly unknown everywhere else. (Cockta comes with its own epic origin story — how it was originally called “Cockta-Cockta,” and designed as an ersatz Coca-Cola during the austere Yugoslav period — but you’ll have to pick up my Rick Steves’ Croatia & Slovenia guidebook for that.) I took my order out to a tipsy table on the cobblestones, in the heart of one of Ljubljana’s most delightful pedestrian zones. Watching the tour groups follow their guides and the bikes whiz past, I had a delicious and filling meal. Grand total for sausages, jota, štruklji, and Cockta: €8.
For a midafternoon snack, I stopped by a buzzy new gelateria called Romantica. Behind the glass counter, tidy silver-lidded containers held an array of deliriously creative flavors: chocolate-rosemary, pear with hemp microgreens, melon-arugula, line-basil, and so on. They also had some distinctly Slovenian flavors: pumpkin oil (a local favorite for salad dressings) and the national dessert, potica — a hearty nut layer cake with cinnamon and a drizzle of chocolate. Because Romantica doesn’t use artificial colors, everything’s white (except the chocolate). The clerk told me that he was in the middle of making that afternoon’s batch. He showed me a tub of fresh nectarines, just sliced and ready to toss into the blender. He was also preparing their chocolate and chili flavor, and explained that they’ve been experimenting to find just the right kind of chili powder to finish a pop of chocolate with that satisfying back-of-throat tingle. Total for ice cream: €2.
For dinner, some local friends took me to one of the hot new places in town, which prides itself on putting substance over style: Hood Burger. Taking “unpretentious” to extremes, it’s a glassed-in kiosk on the grassy fringe of the parking lot of the Interspar supermarket.
I’m skeptical of burgers in Europe, where they usually taste…off. The wrong mix of meat. The wrong spices. But the owners of Hood Burger, Til Pleterski and Klemen Ptičak, did their homework. Every bit up to speed with the hipster foodies in Portland or Brooklyn, Til and Klemen pride themselves on using locally sourced ingredients (“100% Slovenian beef!”), and cultivate a personal relationship with their producers. And the results speak for themselves: the best burger I’ve had in Europe. Hood Burger also has three house microbrews on tap. And on each table is a bottle of Čili Pipp sauce, the award-winning local answer to Tabasco started by a Slovene who simply enjoyed planting chilies in his backyard. Total cost for burger, fries, and mint lemonade: €9.
Slovenia — and Ljubljana in particular — is an ideal place for an affordable foodie experience. Sure, you could splurge on an upscale feast here. But sometimes the best meals are eaten outside, with plastic utensils.