Tradition at a Slovenian Farm

I recently returned from one of my two ancestral homelands, Slovenia. My mother's family comes from this small Eastern European country, so I have spent a bit of time experiencing the culture and traditions. It was such a pleasure to take guests there and surprise them with all the country has to offer.A little background on my interest in Slovenia...I can tell you about my family traditions, but as it turns out, what I thought was Slovenian is actually Slovenian-American. I grew up in what seemed like a very ethnic way,  going to the Slovenian lodge on the weekends and dancing at concerts by my grandfather's polka band. Ed Tomazin was called the "Polka King of Southern California" in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. He played Slovenian polka, and his four children were part of the band, including my mom as singer. She has a beautiful voice.I grew up immersed in a bi-cultural world, hearing the music and language of my ancestors and eating traditional food.In retrospect, it is a funny thing being raised in a ethnic way. I knew my family was Slovenian, but that was a country that didn't exist when I was a kid. I remember having a fierce debate with a high school teacher who told me I was Yugoslavian. I said no, I am SLOVENIAN. It would be another couple of years before Slovenia split from Yugoslavia but that didn't matter. Slovenia was important and unique.At my grandparent's house, we usually ate pasta, Klobase sausages, streudel, and the famous walnut cake, Potica. That cake is pronounced "Pah-TEE-tsa" and is a typical treat. My grandma used to make it. I asked her to teach me and she tried, with instructions like "put some sugar in and a few eggs". She had never measured a thing and it was almost impossible to follow her logic and technique. I guess I don't have that grandma magic. I've been searching for a good recipe ever since.When I first went to Slovenia in my college days, I assumed everyone there would be eating Potica and dancing the Polka. I was schooled pretty quickly by the locals, told that I was living in the past, that everything I knew about my family's land was old and outdated. "Polka? Only old people listen to that!" My vision was blown and I needed to get to know the country for what it actually is, not the vision of a place that my great grandparents brought over on a boat.My investigations into Slovenia have taught me about a culture trapped between east and west, an intersection of an Alpine country with an Italian soul, with traces of Austro-Hungarian domination. It's a gorgeous and fascinating place.These days, more people are appreciating what the older generations cherished. Cultural traditions like the Potica cake are making a comeback. Maybe not the Polka but I'm still hopeful.I visited Slovenia with my son a few summers ago, as you may remember. I went to show him our ancestral home, but also to visit a longtime friend that fell in love with the country and moved there.I've known Andrew Villone for 20 years, we used to hang out in that post-college phase, having dinner parties, going to see art movies...all of that stuff people with kids don't do. Good times. These days, Andrew owns and operates his own tour company, Savour the Experience tours, which specializes in small group tours of Slovenia and Eastern Europe. He focuses on food, wine and local experiences that would be impossible to have on your own.His Russian wife, Natasha, is a talented artist and his most lovely souvenir from his travels. ;) They live with their two children in Istria, an Italian speaking seaside province that feels more Venetian than Slovenian.I've been so impressed with how he and his family have acclimated, his kids now speak four languages!Slovenia is a small country of barely 2 million people and about the size of West Virginia. Strangely enough, it has nearly 50 different dialects which puts a big importance on regionalism. That might explain why Slovenia doesn’t suffer the affects of nationalism that its neighbors in the Balkans more frequently deal with. So traditions here vary more from family to family and region to region.On our visit during our Veneto to Slovenia tour, Andrew and I wanted to take our guests to a place they'd never find on their own, and to have an authentic experience of traditional life. We went to visit his friend Monica, who lives near Lake Bled at the base of the Julian Alps.Monica invited us into her home like family. We toured her "black kitchen" which was built along with their house almost 800 years ago. The black is for the soot, never removed, that coats the walls. They use this kitchen for smoking meats and baking big, gorgeous loaves of bread. Here the meats are always smoked (not air dried like the prosciutto found near the coast) and they also produce schnapps and brandies instead of wines. The oven for this kitchen heats the rest of the house with big tile heating units.In their "white kitchen" she cooks on more modern appliances, but always with traditional recipes and methods.We were visiting just as she and her family had been out picking apples and pressing the juice. For lunch, she prepared a platter of cold cuts and offered us the fresh apple juice, along with their homemade schnapps and hard cider.She had several types of schnapps, I opted for "Mother-in-Law" schnapps which had a decent kick to it!For dessert, the tradition is to eat the most common item on a Slovenian menu, the beloved potica cake I mentioned earlier.Potica can be filled with tarragon, dried plums or poppy seeds to name just a few. But it’s the classic walnut potica that is revered and has an almost mythical sentiment in my family.Monika and I had a lively conversation about Potica and its many versions. In the entryway to the house, she keeps a rack of potica molds, used for generations. She pulled out a cookbook to show me how many variations you can try, but I asked for her recipe, the most traditional walnut filled one.Dough3 tablespoons lukewarm milk1 teaspoon sugar20 grams yeast (1/4 cup)1/2 liter warm milk (2 1/4 cups)100 grams raw butter (1 1/4 cups)2-3 tablespoons sugar1 teaspoon saltsome rumgrated lemon zestvanilla sugar750 grams sifted white flour (3 1/3 cups)2 egg yolks1. Mix three spoons of lukewarm milk with one teaspoon of sugar and yeast in pot.2. Mix warm milk, raw butter, sugar, a tablespoon of salt and warmed flour in large bowl. Stir well. Add leavened yeast and 2 yolks. Use ladle to batter mixture thoroughly for 20 to 30 minutes.3. Dust dough with flour, cover it with a bowl. Place somewhere warm to rise.4. When dough rises, sprinkle board with flour, roll out dough to about 1cm thick (4th of an inch) and cut off corners to make a rectangle. Continue to the instructions for adding your selected filling.IngredientsPotica Dough (already made)1 kg shelled walnuts (2.2 lbs)2,5 dl scalded milk (1 cup)150 grams raw butter (2/3 cup)grated lemon zest250 grams sour cream (1 cup)2 vanilla sugar bags (10g each)2 tablespoons sugar2 egg yolksstiff foam of 2 egg whites1/2 dl rum (1.75 oz)1. Grind walnuts well and save 2-3 handfuls for sprinking. Pour scalding milk on walnuts and let cool.2. When cooled, stir in lemon zest, sugar and two vanilla sugar bags.3. Spread filling on dough. Sprinkle 2-3 handfuls ground walnuts on top.4. Roll into a compact roll and place into a greased round potica baking tin. Roll ends must converge well. If the roll is too long, cut to get the right size. Don’t throw away the cut-off sections; bake them in separate smaller rectangular baking tins.5. Cover potica with tablecloth and put somewhere warm to rise.6. Brush potica with beaten egg before baking. Bake at 180 C (350 F) for about 45 minutes. Then lower the temperature and another 25 minutes.7. Turn potica upside down and let it cool. Top with powdered sugar and serve wedge slices.Andrew and I always have a blast together, eating and laughing. We'd love for you to join the party next October, dates and details coming soon!