If we had sat across from each other Wednesday morning on the train and if you had asked why I was traveling to Ljubljana, I would have answered for inspiration. Food, books, and people continually inspire me, and my trip itinerary included the central market (Centralna Tržnica), a visit to the English-language bookstore Behemot, and a lunch date.
Travel is a process of discovery. At one level, it is a process of self-discovery, but when approached with a calm and open mind, the discovery of other places, other people, and other ways of living becomes possible. This second kind of discovery is more fleeting and arbitrary; I find it more exciting and ultimately more enriching. We can discover a lot about ourselves simply by sitting at home, but when we come into contact with strangers, we enter briefly into a relationship which has the possibility to change us forever. When we travel, we are often more open to the lessons of chance encounters because it is easier to slip out of our everyday identities and habits. I find that my memories of certain individual trips are more vivid than whole periods of my life which lasted much longer. People I only met once have opened my eyes to new ways of experiencing the world that still influence me today.
A journey by train allows ample time to slow down and to start approaching everything with the eyes of a traveler, eyes which are attuned to newness and difference. The train rolled past fields of corn and hops, cows and sheep, small farmsteads with collapsing roofs and cozy houses with vegetable gardens to covet, and kozolec (a traditional Slovenian hayrack), finally coming to a halt and depositing me at the place called Emona by the ancient Romans and Laibach by the Austrians. First stop: the market!
The central open-air market is located on Pogačarjev Square next to the Ljubljanica River. An indoor market on the ground floor of the Seminary building to the west of the square is full of cheese, beans, grains, honey, and meat. It is easy to start up a conversation with strangers at a market. An older gentleman helped me pick out a jar of fir honey, and we chatted about the World Cup. I spoke with a man who was ardently promoting orange and lemon-flavored Istrian olive oil as well as a bear’s garlic pesto. After a brief conversation with the vendor at an organic vegetable and seed stand, I figured out that ajda is the Slovene word for buckwheat. 8 of the buckwheat seeds I bought from her have already been planted on the balcony.
Though buckwheat is quite common in Slovene cuisine, it is not an ingredient in one of the most famous Slovene dishes, the sweet prekmurska gibanica. I was fortunate enough to have a slice for dessert at lunch. Prekmurska is an adjective meaning “beyond the Mur” and referring to Prekmurje, a small region in the northeast part of Slovenia, a peninsula of land surrounded by Austria, Hungary, and Croatia and cut off from the rest of the country by the Mur River, a river I know quite well because it also flows through Graz. The word gibanica comes from an expression meaning folds. The pastry consists of layers of poppyseeds, walnuts, apples, and skuta, a kind of fresh cheese similar to Topfen, Quark or biały ser. It is often inappropriately translated into English as cottage cheese.
Prekmurska gibanica lands in the top 8 of 176 Slovenian dishes presented in a small book on traditional food in Slovenia that I picked up at a souvenir shop near the market. While I am on a quest to discover the uniqueness of places and am interested in discovering culinary traditions as the purchase of this book indicates, I am nevertheless wary of the construction of a nostalgic culinary identity that can be sold most lucratively to tourists but also with nationalistic undertones to the inhabitants of a place. As I flipped through the book, what struck me is how many dishes are analogous to supposedly traditional Austrian and Italian dishes. In future posts, I will go into more detail about these similarities.
Summer officially starts tomorrow, so I will wish you a happy summer slightly early. I hope you too will be able to travel somewhere that inspires you in the upcoming months! If not, may you make delightful discoveries in your own kitchen.