We love surprises. The less we know, the less we expect. And – at the end – if the ordeal is overwhelming – we remember such things for almost all of our lives. The last shock came from Slovenia. To be exact – from the restaurant Pri Lojzetu (it means “chez Louis”) situated at the Zemono castle on a hill in the middle of picturesque vineyards of the Vipava valley. I knew that, I knew what was going to happen, but my guests hadn’t a clue. Pri Lojzetu is one of the most renowned Slovenian restaurants. Located some 30 minutes driving from the Italian/Slovenian border at Gorizia (Friuli), it is basically in the heart of central Europe. From the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, you are there in less than an hour.
Tomaž (Tomi for friends) Kavčič is the fourth generation of a family of restaurateurs. His mother Katja is the living icon of Slovenian gastronomy. She was the one who introduced Slow Food to Slovenian and Italian guests long time before the movement was “invented” in Bra by Carlo Petrini! Her mother (Tomi’s grandmother) followed the family tradition before WW2, by joining the nun’s cooking school in a monastery nearby. Her diploma work was to create a six dish menu which contained local dishes. This kind of culinary experience was strongly represented at restaurant Pri Lojzetu, which until ten years ago was situated at the family house in the village of Dornberk, in the middle of the Vipava valley. Following this heritage Katja began working with fresh local materials and seasonal dishes that she adjusted to modern times. Even during communism (Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia and gained it’s independence in 1991) they were lucky. Tito’s communists were not as harsh as their ideological comrades behind the Iron Curtain, you could have your own company, it was allowed, it had to be small, but it was allowed. And this was crucial for small traditional businesses like restaurateurs, winegrowers… it was the most important thing for the survival of traditional Slovenian cuisine. Therefore it is not surprising that the first official Slow Food dinner in Slovenia was held in December 1995 at the restaurant Pri Lojzetu, it was totally obvious and logical.
Now at the Zemono castle you can taste family tradition and the traditions of the Vipava valley. After a refreshing sparkling wine from the indigenous grape variety Zelen, we started with a small cup of fresh white truffles and mashed potatoes. The second surprise came at the table – a smoky glass with “something” in the bottom. Thin sliced mushrooms, very rare and special – the Slovenians call them “Karzlji”, the Italians call them “ovoli” and the French “oronges”, these are called Caesar’s mushroom in English, they are probably one of the most delicious edible mushrooms, the species is a member of the Amanita family (which also includes the some deadly species like the “death cap”). The Caesar’s mushrooms, seasoned with a drop of olive oil (indigenous; of course – from a typical variety from the coastal region called Belica – the tree itself can survive temperatures 5°C lower than other olive trees in Mediterranean basin) and smoke from the vine wood embers, were more than an appetizer.
Than came the first “official” dish – the traditional appetizer of the Kavčič family – fresh baked bread with cream of horseradish. The family had given this dish an almost biblical value – bread and wine. And yes – the wine: Pinela 2006 by local producer Stekar. Pinela is also an indigenous grape variety found only in Vipava valley. This is a fresh, clear mineral wine with elegant body. As a first wine, it is also very, very drinkable.
On we go, Tomi is on the move! The next wine is called Burja( Bora wind). In winter Burja is a kind of nuisance in the Vipava valley, it can blow at almost 200 km/h! That’s why the roofs are made with strong bricks covered with stones! Primož Lavrenčič from the Sutor winery has made an excellent cuvee, named after this strong wind. The blend of Malvasia, Rebula (local varieties) and Italian (Welsch) Riesling is powerful on the nose (exotic fruits, pears and lemon), fresh and has a nice body. The aftertaste is creamy and long.
Then came the “force majeure”. Sea bass on “grilled salt”. In fact the grilled salt is the invention which catapulted Tomi Kavčič to a reputation comparable with the most influential and popular chefs in Europe! Tomi was always intrigued by clear and natural tastes. He wanted to prepare fish so it was as fresh baked as when it was raw. The idea came from the salt marshes of Piran on the Slovenian coast. They produce excellent fleur de sel (the top thin layer of salt, with bigger crystals and a less aggressive taste). He prepares a “tea” made of herbs and spices and he sprays the salt with this tea while heating it under a grill. The salt becomes firmer and by the time it reaches 180°C it is a block of spiced salt! A chunk of this hot salt “brick” is served on the plate, and pieces of raw cleaned fillet of sea bass are placed on it. After only one minute, the fillets are removed and placed over thin sliced zucchini with a julienne of fennel and apples. The joy of pure taste is in this dish, it is a masterpiece!
Tomi Kavčič didn’t study to be a chef. He is a mechanical engineer and a former rally driver! Later he switched from the smell of gasoline to the aromas of truffles and wine. Even now, gaining so many medals and honors and serving prestigious guests, he doesn‘t consider himself a chef. “I am a restaurateur, a communicator. I have to be outside the kitchen to connect with guests, to talk to them, to explain my culinary philosophy.” But he is also a great researcher, he’s been all around the world and many renowned chefs are his good friends. “I don’t copy. I just go look for ideas that I can reinterpret with dishes from the Vipava valley, that ‘s all.” A few years ago he was “suckered” into molecular cuisine. But he came back very quickly, he’d experiences top cuisine, the Everest of gastronomy, and after learning almost all the tricks and techniques he went back to his valley very calmly.
One trick that he learned from Ferran Adrià surfaced in the next dish – “Diet foie gras”. Usually this dish is heavy and if the portion is large one can feel full right at the start of a classic French lunch or dinner. But here Tomi had “washed” the foie gras in sparkling wine, removing the fat and adding dry fruit instead.
No great meal is complete without soup. We had a creamy mouthwatering bean soup with the last of the season’s fresh tomatoes and soft octopus. The elegance and softness was overwhelming.
Aleš Kristančič is the “star” of Slovenian winemaking. His Movia estate is highly acclaimed and the most influential people in the wine business know him. He has a charismatic personality, he’s an excellent speaker and a master in discussing wine. Of course he knows what he’s talking about, because his cellar produces excellent products. One of his top wines is Veliko Belo (Great white), a cuvee of Rebula, Sauvignon and Pinot Gris matured in new oak barrels for four years (!). Vintage 2002 was voted by US magazine Wine and Spirits one of the 50 top white wines in the world! Tomi poured us this delicacy from a double magnum. The complex nose (melon, peppers, tropical fruits, grass and vanilla) leads to a balanced harmony in the mouth,with elegance and fresh minerality. By the way – Ales Movia is a star in the US, especially in NY (top Manhattan restaurants) and California!
My favorite dish was the carbonara, not an ordinary one, this is another of Tomi’s limitless ideas, with scampi in a heavenly sauce whose main ingredients are the crushed shells of tiny crabs and scampi. Of course, the basis is home made spaghetti with a gentle touch of fresh crunchy zucchini.
Just as we thought that things couldn’t get any better, the progression continued. One of Slovenia‘s best Pinot Noir by Marjan Simčič had been served. The 2005 vintage has the typical burgundy red onion color and nose is very rich: forest fruits, intense cassis with the aroma of black pepper. It has full and strong body. Great wine!
The next dish was basic and simple – duck baked in its sauce on slice of baked white polenta. The charm of this dish is the softness of the meat, the crunchiness of polenta and freshness from a sauce of berries and peppers!
And last but not at least – three desserts, presented in make-up cases. Vanilla ice with sage was the absolute winner between three strong players. None of us had ever imagined eating something like this. It was like entering a new world. Chestnut cream with persimmon is a typical autumn dish of this region which is usually accompanied by fresh grape must. And pumpkin cream with liquid black chocolate was the last one.
In order to taste so many excellent dishes and wines you have to be prepared. But even so – in the end our senses were tired. Tomi knew that, that’s why he saved Puro 2000 for the end. Puro (pure…) is one of Movia’s masterpieces, a méthode traditionnelle sparkler (only Pinot Noir) that has never been disgorged. This means all the sediments are still under the cork. Movia invented a special system to open the bottle and keep the wine clear of the lees… The bottle must be kept at all times upside-down, even in transport, so that the lees accumulate in the neck near the cork. Tomi sticks the bottle upside down in a big wine bucket full of water. He opens the cork under water and quickly pulls the bottle out and straightens it. All the sediment and some wine has been ejected into the bucket, while the clear wine is poured into the glasses. This is the final revelation – the pure taste of wine without any additives or expedition liqueurs. It refreshes, clears the mouth and it has the power of a young elegant athlete. We are now all awake again, full of energy and ready to go home.
Wine and culinary writer from Slovenia, sommelier and Slow Food convivium leader