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“You are splendid, limpid daughter of the heights”

 

We walk behind Miha; handsome Miha, Ana Roš calls him. “There’s yarrow, over there’s watercress, this is plantain. Here, try it, it tastes like mushrooms,” says the young local and provides their Latin names. He has been delivering practically everything from the forests and meadows that nature has provided in the Posočje region to Hiša Franko in recent years.

Miha knows every inch of the meadows along the Nadiža River, forests in the hinterland of the Drežnica village, marshes on the Kobarid plains and streams murmuring from the mountains that rise above the pink restaurant. Every second day, he brings all sorts of things from beech branches with green buds, wild lilies, elderberries, acacia flowers, and parasol and porcini mushrooms.

What will be on the menu of Hiša Franko, the 38th restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, is not so much up to Roš than it is up to nature. Sometimes moody, other times sleepy, buoyant, generous, at other times meagre. This part of Slovenia is completely under the influence of the weather.

To the Soča River

When the sun shines, this region is heavenly beautiful with the turquoise Soča River, majestic peaks reflected in the river, idyllic high mountain pastures and slopes with lush greenery where so much blood was shed at the time of the Isonzo Front.

Some say that the atrocities of the First World War were already forecast by poet Simon Gregorčič in his poem, “Soči” (To the Soča River), 30 years before the War, stating that transparent depths of the Soča will be tainted with blood. Locals also believe in witches and fortune-tellers. One of them even prepares tea blends for Hiša Franko.

Who knows, but there is certainly something mystical, and also frequently sinister in this region. They say that people’s mood changes with the weather, and when grey rain stays over Posočje for several weeks, the same rain that makes nature so lush and generous, the valley gets wrapped in a thick layer of dreariness.

Hiša Franko
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

From Franko’s sirloin to sashimi of roebuck

Ana Roš in Hiša Franko also deals with all of these forces. The restaurant was initially a simple village inn owned by Jožica and Franko Kramar. It then became a restaurant under their son Valter and his wife Ana, and in recent years, it has grown into a global culinary institution. One of those restaurants visited by foodies from around the World.

Franko’s sirloin was replaced by sashimi of roebuck marinated in umeboshi with a roebuck broth, juniper and chestnuts, venison goulash was replaced with roebuck fillet with horseradish, parsnip, red cabbage jelly and pine cones, trout miller style was replaced with its more sophisticated version in buttermilk with porcini mushrooms and Gorizia radicchio. Jota was replaced by a dish with brown beans from Livek, cabbage, sausage and smoked trout.
Under chef Roš, the most known Kobarid dessert is named “the Revolution of the Kobarid štrukelj” and is, in addition to walnuts, filled with parsnip, apple and pork cracklings, and accompanied with a smoked pork crème brûlée and horseradish.

Hiša Franko
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Sourdough bread, butter with pollen

And then there is bread, the most fundamental food for Roš, food that symbolises family, socialising, nostalgia. In fact, this is not only Roš’s sentiment – this is a very Slovenian sentiment, a remnant of our rural roots. Joži Kramar used to make bread in Hiša Franko that was typical of the region, with fermented apple skins for its basis. Roš has revived this bread, but when Nataša Đurić arrived, perhaps the greatest sourdough expert in Slovenia, the loaves of Hiša Franko experienced a true renaissance. These are now bakery masterpieces of spelt and molasses with a perfectly crunchy crust and intoxicating soft centre served with sour butter with pollen from Vrsno village above Tolmin where Roš’s bee-keeper Darinka lives.

All of the above does not mean that Franko’s sirloin or frika (type of omelette), a popular Posočje dish, once traditionally made by shepherds on Alpine dairy farms from cheese shavings of fresh Tolmin cheese, have completely disappeared.

Frika and beer in Polonka

Together with a handful of other hearty, delicious and simple dishes typical of this region, Valter and Ana moved these classics of old Franko to Hiša Polonka two seasons ago. This is one of those rare inns where the menu strictly focuses on genuine, very local cuisine, and where locals, tourists and adrenaline junkies flooding to Posočje like to sit and enjoy. In addition to the legendary sirloin and frika, you will be served venison goulash, boar steak and lamb bakalca stew, and with these you will be able to sip sustainably produced wines mostly from the Brda Hills or Feo, a home-made craft beer.

Polonka is a younger, more affordable alternative to Hiša Franko, which was much needed in Kobarid to contribute to its catering facilities. This region is remote, and although the valley is packed with tourists, cyclists and rafters in the summer, it is still very difficult to run a business here. Winters are long and Kobarid changes into a town of ghosts. Perhaps great stories are born here because of these constant ups and downs.

Polonka

Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Crab and kid

Each dish in Hiša Franko has a story, which sometimes seems like a fairy tale, yet it somehow makes sense. A hearty soup of Mortadella and scallops – Mortadella as an association of Roš’s childhood spent by the sea, a flavour that we all know is unexpectedly combined with a scallop – a plate that connects the sea.

Then there is crab and kid, another one of Roš’s favourite combinations of sea and mountain flavours, where Marano Lagoon in Italy intertwines with the mountains above Kobarid where goats and sheep graze. The logic behind these combinations lies in the fact that when you stand on Mount Kolovrat and look down towards Italy you will see the blue Adriatic Sea. And when the wind blows from the sea and you close your eyes, you sometimes feel that although you are on the summit of Kolovrat you are actually standing next to the fishermen in the Marano Lagoon.

The wind brings iodine to Posočje, seasoning the pastures with a special saltiness and minerals, which can supposedly be tasted in the meat of local goats and sheep. Therefore, the sweet meat of crab and kid, bound together in a hearty umami lamb broth with an egg yolk and Jerusalem artichoke, are actually an unimagined ideal combination.

A menu dependent on nature

There is no signature dish here that stays on the menu more than a season or two: once the acacia is out of bloom in the valley, the dish including acacia tempura is temporarily transformed into a plate with elderflower tempura, or it leaves the menu mercilessly.

It is difficult to describe the cuisine of Ana Roš, a woman who left her career in diplomacy for love and her husband’s family inn, which ironically made her an international gastronomy ambassador. Since she never attended catering school or did an internship in a restaurant, but merely relied on her own instinct and experience gathered by travelling and tasting various cuisines, she gradually developed as a cook.

Initially with mistakes and slips, before she developed into one of the most interesting top chefs known today. Her dishes are bold, full of intensive flavours, influences from her travels and international cooking team, dishes with big characters. But Posočje nevertheless remains a common threat on the menu of Hiša Franko and a strong link with the terroir. There is no caviar here, but Soča trout roe. There is no lobster, but crab. There is no salmon, but pilchard. There are no grand commercial wines, but sustainably made wines of small boutique Slovenian wine producers.

Foto: Suzan Gabrijan

Between Drežnica village and the lagoon

Roš never ventures too far away with her ingredients: she goes furthest to the Prekmurje region to collect pumpkin seed oil and down to Istria where she spent her summers and where her father and uncles still make tomato pulp for Hiša Franko every year.

Kids are from Drežnica, where they breed the only Slovenian indigenous breed of goats, while venison and soft fruit are supplied by her father, a hunter from Livek. Vegetables are delivered by local farmers and some of them are produced in the garden behind Hiša Franko where they also grow herbs, rhubarb, raspberries, chilli peppers and everything else that grows in a current year.

And then, there is the mandatory Tolmin cheese. In all forms. Buttermilk, shavings, ricotta or albumin cheese as it is called here, fermented curd, fresh, matured … so indispensable in Roš’s cuisine. There is probably no other ingredient that would be more typical of Posočje than Tolminc cheese. And although times have changed and the majority of cheese makers have found jobs in the valley, there is no fear that cheese making in this part of Slovenia will die out. As Anka Lipušček Miklavič, Director of Mlekarna Planika, who is also a stockbreeder, says, “Cheese and cottage cheese are our strengths. We are born cheese makers. And that’s what we will remain. And are proud of it.”

Among shepherds on mountain pastures

Every May, local farmers take their cattle to mountain pastures above Tolmin where they graze on pristine green high-mountain grass until October. It seems as if time has stopped when still in twilight you make your way uphill with the shepherds equipped with crooks and impatient, mooing cattle ahead. The valley is wrapped in a thick white layer of morning mist as you ascend higher until you reach the first stop around 8 o’clock where the shepherds prepare a pot of strong coffee in an old copper pot at an open fireplace kitchen and prior to that toast with a shot of brandy or two.

Grazing and cheese making on these pastures take place in an old brotherly, socialist sharing system. Every week a new family comes to the dairy farm and takes care of the cattle. They milk the cows before dawn and then make cheese and albumin curd from the milk. After a month or so, the first batch of cheese is taken into the valley and distributed according to the number of cows owned by each family. Valter Kramar purchases the largest amount and then matures fresh Tolmin cheese in the cheese cellar of Hiša Franko for up to four years.

One of the families that stay in the Tolmin mountains is the Bončina family: mother Marija and her sons Erik and Aljoša from the village of Čadrg above Tolmin Gorges. Čadrg lies on the edge of Triglav National Park and is accessed by a narrow, steep and winding road over the sinister Devil’s Bridge. The village has always lived from livestock farming and has been so remote (and still remains so) that the population dropped to 22 people in the 1970s.

Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Shift to organic farming

In recent years, the village has been experiencing a revival with a shift towards organic farming and production, whereby Marija Bončina and her Pri Lovrču Organic Farm is at the forefront of this renaissance. The village does not consist of more than five extended families, a total of 45 people, who live from farming, cheese making and hospitality. Nothing new is being invented at Pri Lovrču, but they stick to tradition: a full shot-glass of home-made fruit brandy for a welcome, followed by a plate of cottage cheese, Tolminc cheese and home-made salami, hearty jota for the main course and a leavened variant of Kobarid štruklji dumplings with puffy pork cracklings for a sweet grand finale.

A gaggle of lined-up geese pass by, headed to the coop under the old walnut tree. Green slopes with old, barely standing shepherd’s cottages rise above the farmhouse. On the other side of the village is a kiosk where they sell albumin and fermented curd, wheels of Tolminc cheese, eggs and apple vinegar.

“You’ll have another, won’t you?” says Marija, not waiting for the visitors’ reply and pouring another generous shot so that the hot drink burns your throat as it goes down and warms you up nicely. On days like these, it is difficult to image that this region is anything but paradise.

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