Our Advent calendar takes us to 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.
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 polk, 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.
The other thing that strikes me as strange is that my Slovenian heritage goes back to my great grandparents who emigrated to the US. Pretty distant. My father, on the other hand, is an immigrant himself coming from Ireland but we haven’t followed Irish traditions in my family home in the way we have the Slovenian ones.
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 Christmas 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quickly by the locals, told that I was living in the past, that everything I knew about my family’s land was old and outdated.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 this summer, as you may remember. I went to show him the country, 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 a village called Kranj, a sweet place that seemed to be out of a fairy tale. (As an aside, Andrew and I will be visiting his village and Natasha’s studio on our tour of the Veneto and Slovenia next October.)
Because Andrew is in the midst of becoming a Slovenian, I asked him to tell us about a real Slovenian Christmas.
Advent in Slovenia
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, which 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.
I live in the Gorenjska region, home to the beautiful (and quite famous) Lake Bled and the jagged peaks of the Julian Alps. Here the meats are always smoked (not air dried like the prosciutto found near the coast) and folks produce schnapps and brandies instead of wines. People from Gorenjska, known as Gorenjci, have the reputation of being the most well off in the country but at the same time very frugal.
I recently visited with my friend Monika, who lives in a small countryside village just a few minutes from beautiful Lake Bled. In addition to serving up home-made schnapps, craft beers and traditional cakes for guests at her farmhouse, she also has a unique collection of Christmas cribs (nativity scenes) that she’s collected and created with over 120 different exhibits.
We sat down to discuss what makes up a typical holiday meal for Gorenjci. Locals used to always have pork here for Christmas and New Years. December is normally the time for pig slaughter but there was another reason too. People here looked at the pig with its nose sniffing along as always moving forward (towards the future). But chicken was not popular for this time of year, as these creatures were looked at always going backwards on their walking. Even now Monika told me “no chicken, never” for a Christmas meal.
Nowadays, pork or veal would be typically the main dish accompanied by one of a few different Slovene specialities. Žlikrofi is a potato dumpling similar to gnocchi and can be fried, perhaps with Emmentaler cheese. Or one can choose the ubiquitous štruklji, in its savory incarnation, which is filled with cottage cheese.
For dessert, the tradition is to eat the most common item on a Slovenian menu, potica cake. 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 served up for the holidays.
If you are wondering about duck or goose that many associate with a special Christmas dinner in the US, this has a different time and place here in Slovenia. All over the country, goose is served with red cabbage for Saint Martin’s day which falls in the first half of November. This holiday celebrates the patron saint of wine and is when the fruit juice officially becomes wine.–
I asked Andrew to find a good Potica recipe to share. His friend Monika was kind enough to send this along for me, and for you.
3 tablespoons lukewarm milk
1 teaspoon sugar
20 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 sugar
1 teaspoon salt
750 grams sifted white flour (3 1/3 cups)
2 egg yolks
1. 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
Potica 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 zest
250 grams sour cream (1 cup)
2 vanilla sugar bags (10g each)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 egg yolks
stiff foam of 2 egg whites
1/2 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, either in Slovenia or the Adriatics. Spaces still available, makes a fantastic Christmas surprise!