Slovenia’s foodie oasis is set to grow and grow
Chalkmarks Prekmurje

Published in the Sunday Mirror

EAT this, they say. Taste the wine…come try gibanica.

I’m at a food festival in Slovenia, which is like being surrounded by all the winners of Master Chef.

Making my way around the tables, I nibble and sip everything. This is my dream life.

There are barrels of craft beer and ice buckets filled with sparkling wine. The cooks are busy carving and grilling meat, stirring cauldrons, dribbling sauces and then topping their dishes with a sprinkling of herbs.

Mmmm, is this prosciutto? No, it’s šunka, says the chef. It looks like the Italian ham but the bone has been removed from the pork leg, it’s then been smoked and spices added.

Slovenes are Europe’s secret gourmets!

What do you reckon, he asks.

I quickly finish my two chunks. Oh heck, it’s very good.

Having stuffed my face for three hours, there was one last thing I wanted to try, a dessert called gibanica. It means moving cake but sadly it doesn’t really dance around. It wobbles on the plate a bit because it’s built up of layers like a gateaux but with pastry, cottage cheese, apples, walnuts and raisins.

It’s great to find a new country with food you’ve never tried and the Gourmet Over Mura event in Murska Sorbota is a great place to sample everything.

The Slovenes have done a very good job of hiding this region in the northeast of the country.

In fact, I hadn’t even heard of Pomurje, a corner very close to the borders of Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy.

I’d been to the capital Ljubljana and visited Lake Bled before, but not to eat and drink. Not like this.

Here they take huge pride in their ingredients, traditions and culinary skills. When I ordered steak at top restaurant Jezeršek, out came the finest cut of mature tender meat. It was served alone, with no vegetables or potatoes, only a piece of bread to soak up the juices. It was unbeatable. I don’t think I looked up for 10minutes.

Over breakfast at the Pannonian Village where I’d stayed in a straw roofed cottage, the owner talked a little about which local dishes to look out for.

They’ve huge pumpkin crops, wild mushrooms, buckwheat, the list goes on. Everything they need, they grow right here which is seen in farms such as Firbas where you can stay and help with the animals or simply eat soup, cheese, bread and jam all day long.

There’s also vineyards and cellars, which means they’ve a big wine culture. At Puklavec winery they are winning medals for their Pinot Grigio and best of all you can pick up a bottle at Waitrose, so buy it until it runs out. I have already, of course.

He also explained how this part of Europe was once covered by the ancient Pannonian Sea – around 20million years ago – and that included Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. Now trapped deep underground, this water is warm, rich in minerals makes the land an agricultural haven.

I was almost wondering if this Pannonian Sea was a myth to bring in the tourists but later at Ocean Orchids, I hear the same story. They are using the geothermal water to grow two-million orchids every year. This has been the life work of owner Tomaž Jevšnik to transform farmland into an impressive indoor tropical rainforest complete with banana trees and coffee plants.

Again, at nearby Lust farm it’s the same thing, the hidden water is being used to grow 50 types of tomatoes.

It makes me want to eat more and more and thankfully you’re never far from a good meal.

The next day, I try the handmade chocolates at Passero farm. For lunch I tuck into bograč at Zvezda hotel. It’s a rich stew made with three types or meat, onions, potatoes and wine and and almost every family in the area is said to have their own recipe.

I later head to the best restaurant in town, Rajh where I taste the local pumpkin seed oil on every dish from appetiser and soups, to the main dish and desserts. The thing to try here is langos, which is a fried dough covered in yogurt, radishes, šunka, seeds and horseradish.

To end my foodie road trip, I roll into Hotel Livada Prestige Terme 3000 not too far away.

To heal my belly and soul, I spend the afternoon in the spa and open air pool to experience the black thermal mineral water, said to be found nowhere else on earth.

Known as black gold, the story goes that in that 1960s, Slovenes were drilling for oil and were disappointed to discover the black water instead. Sometime later people started to bathe in it and reported their skin ailments started to clear up. It’s said to be beneficial for joint problems and soothing skin conditions such as psoriasis.

Again this is phenomena is thanks to the ancient Pannonian Sea. I had to jump in to experience this for myself. But first, I hesitate. It smells. It’s something like petrol or tar but happily the spring water is warm so I lower myself in for 15minutes, which is the recommended amount of time to soak.

I didn’t see any immediate effects but perhaps now I will live to be one hundred.

This has to be one of the most surprising places I have ever visited. The very earth itself is said to have healing properties. Around the region ‘energy points’ are marked out by plaques – some are found in the woods and others in car parks such as in Lovenjakov Dvor, which has been run by the same family for three generations.

You stand on the markers and allow the supernatural power to flow through you. It’s extraordinary but I came here for a different reason. For my last meal I ate a traditional five-course lunch including mushroom soup, pork and speciality ocvirkovka – a flat cake topped with crackling. They even have their own distillery making visky, very much like whisky.

The Pannonian geological quirk means this is no ordinary food region. This won’t go unnoticed for too long. Already Slovenia has been named the European Region of Gastronomy 2021.

At less than a two hour flight from the UK, it’s as clear as a glass of rakia, Pomurje is starting to elbow its way on to the menu.

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