Words by David J Constable
Photos by Suzan Gabrijan
An exploration of the Soča Valley – a place of sleepy villages, dairy farms and rolling fields – proves a happy hunting ground for Ana Roš’ new cheese-centric menu.
Just as you can’t choose your family, you can’t choose your neighbours either. Bad neighbours can lead to Shakespearean dramas, dissent going back decades. But, if you’re fortunate enough to have good neighbours, then your life can be positively rosy and both sides of the fence benefit. Take Slovenia. The tiny speck of a country in Central Europe, entangled by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, sees neighbours positioned often miles apart. It is a place of sleepy villages and dairy farms, of spring-sprung meadows, dense forestry and crystalline rivers. Communities are made up of half-timbered houses and family-run operations. Slovenians produce an impressive amount of victuals: stockpiling mulberries, collecting pollen, turning over gallons of homemade beer and buckling cellar shelves under the weight of Alpine cheese. There’s a robust agrarian mentality, an understanding that the land is part of nature, a slice of everyone’s life.
For Ana Roš, everything is here. She draws the bedroom curtains to reveal a bulging allotment, spilling over with produce. It’s this that influences her and what will play a pivotal role in the new cheese-centric menu at Hiša Franko. The current menu consists of around 70% cheese already, but she has plans to up this percentage to create a 100% cheese and vegetable menu. “It’s a natural move,” Ana tells me during a visit in April, “this garden-to-table approach is what Slovenian people do, it’s not a gimmick or a trend. This isn’t new for us. It’s our life story”.
The cheese story begins in Slovenia’s villages, where families breed dairy cows – predominately the Braunvieh breed – and pass cheesemaking habits down the generations. “I know all of our suppliers personally,” Ana says. “If I need some of this stuff or extra of that, then I’ll speak to them directly. It’s a community of fisherman, butchers and cheesemakers. Dairy is so important in this part of the country, and the quality of the cheese is so high because the landscape is so green and healthy. We have products you can’t find anywhere else in the world, and that is something to be celebrated. My kitchen team knows how to stretch an ingredient and use it to its maximum, and cheese is so versatile. We use Bovec sheep cheese, produce fermented cottage cheese and house-smoked our own salami cream.”
Such was their interest with cheese, that Ana and husband, Valter Kramer, rechristened the honour at home, which just so happens to be Hiša Franko. They buy around a ton of local cheese and age it in their cellar for up to five years. As well as Tolminc and ricotta, the cellar features formaggio di fossa, a pit fermented cheese Valter is taking to Emilia Romagna, where he ages it for four months in underground pits with the assistance of Joško Sirk – a Slovenian restaurateur at the helm of the Michelin-starred La Subida trattoria in Friuli, near the Italian border with Slovenia – then brings it back to Hiša Franko. “It was always a dream of mine to have a cheese cellar,” says Valter, who also ages meats and salamis. “I can have fun down here in the cellar and experiment. Fun, food and family, right? That feels like a pretty good life to me”. The restaurant’s website posits that the cheese in Valter’s cellar is “Not only the most important part of our local diet” but “the GIFT for all the people of the Soča Valley.” It’s no surprise that along with vegetables, the cheese will play such an important role in the Hiša Franko menu because it plays such an important role in the day-to-day life of each and every Slovenian. “It’s about infrastructure and knowing your strengths” Ana tells me. “We struggled to survive, but it was about education and perseverance. This teaches you to be humble. Application is key, knowing what you have around you and how to apply it means we can use a product to its full”.
Using a product to its full potential is how Ana builds her menus. In this mountain region, nothing is sown before May 1st when the threat of snow is finally over. By June, it is hot and humid. The farmers will then move their cattle into fresh pasture where they make cheese. Ana’s food is heavily influenced by the seasons and is flavoured by the wild; from summer flowers and pollen to garden vegetables from her backyard plot. In fact, more than 90% of the Hiša Franko menu uses garden ingredients, pushing Ana to the fore of the Slovenian culinary movement in which she is almost solely responsible for elevating the country as a gastronomic destination. “We have the Alps, Mediterranean and the lowlands,” says Ana. “Some of the most beautiful and unique ingredients come from my backyard, so why not use it! If you take all of that away from me, you take away my expression, my voice”. The creation of a purely cheese and vegetable offering to diners, however, is a brave one.
That said, she also produces fermented cheese lollipops. It’s fair to say that those who know Ana, know that she’s not a person to shy away from a challenge. Moving to a solely cheese and vegetable menu could be her biggest challenge. But name a great chef who never took a risk. I’ll wait… “Creativity is finding your way out,” said Ferran Adrià. For Ana, she has all of the tools of her trade around her. Cheese is a high value product in Slovenia and along with her neighbours and local farmers, she and Walter have their own stock too! Indeed, you could say that Hiša Franko is built on cheese, a castle of dairy, a restavracija of deliciousness. It seems only right that the menu pushes and promotes homespun cheese. When it’s this damn good, why keep it for yourself?
Staro selo 1
5222 Kobarid – Slovenia