I’ve just returned from leading what we like to call “The 10 Day Dinner Party” or the Northern Italy and Slovenia tour. In its second year, this tour was a collaboration with my good friend Andrew Villone, who is an expert on all things food and wine.
Our partnership began after a visit to Andrew and his wife Natasha a couple of years ago. He took me around to see some of the cool things he does with his guests when he runs his small, custom tours of Slovenia. We agreed that meeting winemakers, craftspeople, and artisans was the best way to connect with a culture, staying out of the tourism fray in the smaller, less known places.
Andrew has written a few thoughts on his favorite days from last month. If you’d like to join in on the party, we still have room available for next April’s tour, which you can look at here.
Day 5: Goriska Brda, Slovenia
We are on our second day in Slovenia. I’m guessing most folks on this tour are starting to wonder if Slovenia was ever part of Eastern Europe/Yugoslavia with all the cute towns, beautiful terraced vineyards and great wines. Well nothing screams ‘yep, you’re in the Balkans’ like our local tour guide who shows up with disheveled hair (actually a mohawk), wearing para-military clothes and burning through a pack of cigarettes. But this is actually what I want for a tour of some old First World War tunnels and bunkers. Polite, well-mannered, perfect English-speaking millenials needs not apply for this gig!
Guests are wondering what’s more jaw-dropping: the mountain scenery or our guide’s jokes (bet you didn’t know that if Trump and Melania get a divorce that Slovenia gets half of America in the deal). Sarah and I have to agree that this outdoor museum with a relic leading the way is much more memorable than a visit to the proper WWI museum about an hour north of here.
An afternoon of history, nature and one very memorable guide is bookended by visits to two amazing but quite different wineries. I know at least two dozen great wineries in Slovenia but none of them have a tasting room quite like Bjana, the country’s best producer of sparkling wines (and the first one dedicated to making dry sparklings). Elegant would be the optimal word here with a collection of antiques that have been picked up at various Italian antique markets throughout the years. Then there is the view from their patio onto the terraced vineyard, rolling hills of Brda and peaks of the Dolomites in the background. And let’s not forget Otto, the stately beagle and my favorite cellar dog in the country.
But the whole experience is made by our host Petra. Her husband makes the wine and she takes care of the front of the house and all guests. She is, what I dubbed her a few years back, the Baroness of Brda. Here she is explaining what Rebula, the local white varietal of Slovenia’s Brda region, adds to their wines…
One of our highlights is a special winemaker’s dinner.
Dinner at Kabaj winery is the biggest no-brainer in my tour guiding play book. The only real question when I visit is will I be writing the menu or not. It’s nice to have surprises so on this visit I let the Katja and chef put it all together. Anyone who reads my posts on my Savor FB page knows two things about this place: 1) amazing food porn shots are inevitable and 2) they make ‘orange’ wine and most guests have not tried this type of wine yet. Orange wine (or amber wine or skin-contact wine as it is also called) is a blog post for another time (hopefully coming soon), but suffice to say it is not from oranges (hey, more than a few folks ask this) but from white grapes made in the style of a red wine.
All meals here are five courses paired with their own wines. The wine maker is French and his wife, who runs the restaurant, is Slovenian. As a meat lover it’s funny to think that when I come here I’m always more interested in their starters (courses #1-3) than whichever meat dish comes as course #4. Pumpkin flan, barley with mushrooms, celery or leek soup, eggplant lasagne and a myraid of other starters I normally have here were never on a Must-Eat list prior to my Kabaj conversion about a dozen or so years ago. Tonight’s dinner has two winners: the pumpkin flan with olives, radicchio and pancetta and the dessert of creme brulee with meringues. And that dessert was so good I had to double down on it!
Day 10: Lake Bled, Slovenia
It’s great that virtually every guest not only knows about Lake Bled but is excited for the visit there. It is truly the #1 box to check for travelers in Slovenia. As a tour leader, going to places over and over again can the take the shine off them and for me that is no more truer than with Bled. The tiny little island floating on the lake, the beautiful blue of the water and the fairytale like placement of the old castle overlooking all of this Instagramableness is nice but let’s say, a bit boring after 20 years.
Thankfully, I’ve given myself a few really good reasons why I keep coming back. One of those reasons is a bee-keeper, which is quite the noble profession here in Slovenia. You can read more about the importance of beekeeping in Slovenia (and Slovenians in the world of bees) here. When you go back to the same places over and over you realise people are always more interesting than places. Danijela is a lightning bolt of energy, rattling off humorous stories and bizarro facts about all things bees and honey. After 60 minutes with her, you will know a heck of a lot more about all aspects of these important creatures than you thought possible.
This visit brings something new to me – chestnut honey, a variety they normally don’t have here. Along with wild cherry, chestnut honey is a personal favorite of mine with its molasses and bitter notes which is perfect to put in your coffee as a sugar substitute. Sitting outside in a quiet meadow, watching the guests nosh down on honey liqueurs, homemade honey biscuits and tasting all of Danijela’s different honeys makes you forget that you are just 5 minutes from Slovenia’s most touristed attraction.
Spots are still available on the April, 2020 departure for Northern Italy and Slovenia, email Sarah to reserve your spot!