Today is Statehood Day in Slovenia, marking the date in 1991 when the country declared formal independence from Yugoslavia. Prior to that moment in history Slovenia had been a state (occasionally with a degree of autonomy) within a succession of empires – Roman Empire, Holy Roman Empire, and Austro Hungarian Empire – briefly part of the State (later Kingdom) of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs from 1918 (much of which was soon controlled by Italy) – annexed by Axis powers during WW II – and folded into the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia post war until 1991. Complete independence as a nation is, therefore, a new and valued status for Slovenes after two thousand years of domination by outside powers.
Slovenia is best described as a country of diversity. Geographically it sits on the crossroads of four major European regions: the Alps, the Dinaric Mountains, the Pannonian Plain, and the Mediterranean, with a small portion of coastline along the Adriatic Sea. The territory has a mosaic structure with a predominantly high landscape, about 50% of which is forested. Climate also varies considerably from the Alpine regions to the Adriatic coast. As such Slovenia is home to a rich bio-diversity, home to several unique species including the cave dwelling Olm (human fish), a blind, unpigmented, four-legged, amphibian that lives its entire life cycle in subterranean water systems (pictured). The Lipizzan (or Lipizzaner) horse closely associated with the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, was first bred in Slovenia on stud farms located near the village of Lipica (spelled “Lipizza” in Italian).
Slovenia is also on an ethnic crossroads where Slavic, Germanic, Romance and Finno-Ugric linguistic and cultural groups meet. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the population, though not culturally homogeneous by any means, identify as culturally Slovenian, and Slovenian is the only official language. Italian and Hungarian are the most significant minority languages spoken in small pockets of the country.
My two favorite Slovenes, both of whom have achieved a degree of international recognition, are Slavoj Žižek and Martin Strel. Žižek is best described as an eccentric and excitable philosopher and social theorist, once labeled “the Elvis of cultural theory.” His frequent op-ed pieces and public lectures are thought provoking, if, at times, theoretically inconsistent. In 2003, Žižek wrote text to accompany Bruce Weber photos in a catalog for Abercrombie & Fitch. Questioned as to the seemliness of a major intellectual writing ad copy, Žižek told the Boston Globe: “If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!” My kinda guy. Martin Strel is a Slovenian long-distance swimmer, best known for swimming the entire length of various rivers. Strel holds successive Guinness World Records for swimming the Danube, the Mississippi River, the Yangtze River, and the Amazon River. His motto is “swimming for peace, friendship and clean waters.”
It should come as no surprise that Slovenia’s cuisine is extremely diverse. For people who actually care about such things Slovenia is semi-officially divided into 23 distinct gastronomic regions (not to mention the 6 divisions based on class and occupation), and there are 13 indigenous foods and food products protected by the European Union, including Ko?evje forest honey produced by a unique sub-species of bee. Slovenia is also the only country I know of where you can be served wild edible dormouse. So . . . what to pick? what to pick? what to pick? Here is a recipe for Prekmurska gibanica, a now widespread dessert originating from Prekmurje. It is a pie stuffed with poppy seeds, cottage cheese, walnuts, and apples. It is trademarked as a foodstuff which by European law cannot be called Prekmurska gibanica unless the protected recipe is followed to the letter. So here it is (although I will admit to correcting a few slips in the original English translation – I thought you might prefer “ground” poppy seeds to “grounded” ones, for example).
100 g sharp wheat flour
100 g fine wheat flour
100 g fat or butter or margarine
a pinch of salt or sugar
milk, water or sour cream for kneading
Sift the flour on a wooden board, add salt or sugar, and add also crushed fat. Knead the even dough while adding liquid. Leave it to rest for half an hour in a cold place.
600 g fine wheat flour
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
a pinch of salt
lukewarm water for kneading
Make a hole in the sifted flour in the wooden board, add fat, salt, egg if desired and knead the ingredients while adding liquid. Knead for as long as the dough is even and stretchy. Make a loaf, oil the surface and let it rest for 30 minutes.
Poppy seed filling
200 g fine ground poppy seeds
80 g sugar
1 bag of vanilla sugar
Add sugar and vanilla sugar to the ground poppy seeds and stir the mixture well. All the fillings are used in two parts.
Cottage Cheese Filling
1000 g full fat cottage cheese
100 g sugar
1 bag of vanilla sugar
a pinch of salt
Crush the cottage cheese with the forks; add eggs, vanilla sugar, sugar and a pinch of salt. Stir the mixture well until it is even and easily spread.
300 g ground walnuts
100 g sugar
1 bag of vanilla sugar
Mix ground walnuts with sugar and vanilla sugar.
1500 g apples (use the sour types)
120 g sugar
Peel the apples, grate them, add sugar and cinnamon and stir the mixture gently.
60 dl thick sour cream
Slowly whisk the eggs with the sour cream.
150 g fat or butter or 200 g margarine
Prepare a clay mould “tepsija” (very often round mould, 32-35 cm wide and 7-8 cm high). Cover well the mould with butter and put in a thin layer of the basic dough – named “podplat”, which should cover also the edge of the mould. Stick it with a fork. Roll the rested stretched dough and cover it with oil. Lift the dough and stretch it over the mould so the thicker edge of the dough hangs down. Cut into 8 equal parts in the shape of a mould. On the bottom that is already covered with the basic dough and the layer of stretched dough, spread the first layer of the poppy seed filling, sprinkle with melted margarine and cream topping. Put the second layer of the stretched dough and spread over the cottage cheese filling and sprinkle it with margarine. The third layer follows. Spread it with the walnut filling and sprinkle it with margarine. The fourth layer follows then. Spread it with the apple filling and sprinkle it with margarine. Gibanica is so half way made. Repeat all the fillings again to get 8 uniform layers. Cover the top with the cream topping and margarine. Cut off the thick edges of the stretched dough that are hanging over the mould and form the Gibanica. Stick it with a thin long needle. Bake in the baker’s oven or in the electric oven approx 75 minutes at 175° C. When baked spread the cream on top and leave it to rest a little while. Then cut it into triangles and sprinkle with sugar, if desired.