Over the river and through the woods—Kocejve Forest, southern Slovenia

Last Fall I attended a family reunion in Slovenia, which was actually a two-week extravaganza of food and wine with my father and his many cousins. They were returning to the old country (a 100 years later) to meet their long lost Slavic relatives, whom I tracked down in 2001 (but that’s another story).

On the trip we spent a few days in the capital city of Ljubljana with its charming river running through Old Town and its many romantic bridges. My Slovenian musician friends (see the Perfect Meal post for history) all live there, so luckily I have an established social circle.

Ljubljana Castle on Hill

One night after a simple, yet extraordinary meal of salt encrusted sea bass and octopus salad, I asked my fellow diners, all well traveled culinary enthusiasts, what they considered the best restaurant in the country. Everyone had exactly the same answer, “You have to go to the Novak Lodge and eat with Boris and Miriam. “They advised me, however, not to drop by unannounced, but to secure an invitation. Ales, a musician-flautist to be exact- friend of mine, quickly pulled out his cell phone and called Boris (who of course was on speed dial). I was immediately intrigued, especially when I realized that lunch the next day would include a road trip through the green forested hills of southern Slovenia. I was an insider now, a favored foreigner, who held a trusted secret.

Ljubljana Riverside Cafe

The next morning, on a cold, cloudy day, I drove off into the lush countryside, scattered with humble farmhouses, with only a map drawn on the back of a crumpled napkin (I secretly love to be lost in foreign countries and think I’d be the perfect contestant for the Amazing Race, so these basic directions were more than sufficient). Less than an hour later, I arrived in a tiny, picturesque village, along the Krka River and ate one of the best meals of my life. My friends were right, I would discover something incredibly special here.

Seated next to the large tiled furnace, which doubles as a bread oven, in the homey lodge dining room, I slowly devoured six courses and drank my share of local wine. From the smoked trout with fresh horseradish, to the faro and mushroom risotto and grilled beef filet with porcini mushrooms, every dish was simple, yet perfectly executed. Dessert, which of course I would never turn down, no matter how much I had already eaten, was an heirloom pear poached in red wine. It had just been picked from a tree in the Novak’s back yard—an ancient species, long forgotten, since it doesn’t hold up to the standards of the modern world where mass production and shelf life call the shots.

Smoked Trout with Fresh Horseradish

The Novak’s restaurant showcases the freshest ingredients possible, from the forest, the nearby river, their garden and their neighbors’ farms. The ingredients are seasonal and usually procured on the day that they are consumed.

Before heading back to the city, I had one request for my hosts. Could I come back and work with them?? “For free”, Boris said with a large grin, “sure. We think you are crazy, but that’s ok.” Little did they know that I was completely serious and it would only take eight months to arrange my return to their lodge over the river and through the woods from Ljubljana.

Returning on a warm June day, I park my rental car next to the old wooden A-framed barn and step into the Slovenian countryside and my new, temporary life along the Krka River.

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