I have spent the last 6 days in Slovenia, mostly in the capital Ljubljana, but also a visit to a friends farm and vineyard plus a trip to the mountains. The main reason for my journey, however, was to visit a chilli festival to promote the Slovenian language translations of my books, the most recent of which has just been released.
European chilli festivals are becoming a habit, only two weeks previously I was in Brno, Czech Republic, for a festival which you can read about here. I must say that they were both a real pleasure, and this one in Ljubljana, whilst quite small was a really friendly and laid back day out.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of the chilli industry in Slovenia, I knew there were a few growers, and a few sauce makers, and that they are roughly following along the now established lines of… small greenhouse grower/start at farmer’s markets/get some bigger tunnels/make more sauce/grow hotter chillies/make an extract sauce/put chillies in other stuff… much as we have done in the UK. Rather surprisingly, the wholesale side of growing of fresh chillies & peppers, broadly covered by the word paprika in that part of the world, doesn’t happen much in Slovenia. Maybe this is because a little further south or east in Macedonia and Hungary, they traditionally grow huge amounts, and this is what supplies the shops and veg markets of Slovenia whilst the Slovenians themselves concentrate on crops such as grapes, more grapes, pumpkin, corn and buckwheat.
The artisan side of chilli growing is thriving though, with the well established companies growing the full range of heats and flavours and manufacturing sauces to a highly professional standard. Slovenia has some fairly stringent rules when it comes to food manufacture. You can’t use your home kitchen if you are going to sell stuff. You must have a separate HACCP approved production facility, albeit a basic one. This creates a barrier to entry into the market that we don’t have in the UK where a quick sign off with the health inspector allows us to cook and sell low risk products in our own kitchens with less fuss. So while the number of companies that have taken the plunge is limited, they tend to hit the ground running because they have either made a significant investment, or they are farmers with existing facilities, usually from wine making. Products look good, they all seem to be machine labelled, they are properly blended to give good consistency and with an appealing range of flavours. Maybe the dedication towards creating a desirable flavour appeal has rolled over from the wine industry too.
Chilli companies have attended food markets in Slovenia for years, but I gather that this was the first dedicated chilli festival and it went down really well. It was held at a slightly off-the-wall sports bar/cafe called Lepa Zoga. This was exactly the right kind of place for it; informal, good beer, a great reputation locally for gourmet burgers and hotdogs, and used to organising sports and music events. The venue incorporates the courtyard of something that reminded me of an American style balconied motel, which I think was some kind of barracks at some time or another.
Lepa Zoga loved it, and so did the 500 or so visitors. Unusually things kicked off early, at 9am, with stalls and a chilli cook-off which was judged around midday. This was great as it meant there was not as much competition for peoples time and it attracted not only the real chilli lovers, but lots of casual interest too. It should have finished at noon, but everyone was happy to carry n till about 4pm, and I’m sure there were a few who stayed into the evening.
Another unusual thing was that they didn’t have a chilli eating competition, I’m not a fan of them, although I don’t tire of watching the antics. Without one, this festival took on a more relaxed atmosphere; no anticipation of any macho show of strength, and no peak in expectation either. So often at a chilli festival the eating contest is the highlight, and after that everyone trips off home much like an English pub abruptly shutting its doors at 11pm, where this one casually continued on to reach a natural conclusion, as is traditional in Ljubljana cafes.
There was also a competition for the best sauce, which was won by CiliPipp, the most established grower and sauce maker, seed supplier etc. They have been going for 7 years, and for a while enjoyed all the TV and radio publicity that goes along with being a pioneer, until the competition came along; Tomaz Pipp’s story sounded very familiar to me. Gorki Chili is another established company, and I also met a few others selling chilli chocolate cakes, bread, and most interestingly a really successful and active cooperative group cili.si that not only make sauces but pool their surplus fresh ones to sell for charity.
Ljubljana itself is a bit of a secret destination, recent pedestrianisation of the centre now shows the city at its best, and it is quite stunning.
It is only 2 hours and a few quid away from Luton or Stanstead with cheap airlines, and what you get is Venice without the horrible pigeons and the 8 euro coffee. There is no hassle from street vendors and you don’t have to go to the back streets to eat where the locals do, they eat by the river with lovely views of the castle and all the beautiful bridges and buildings because nobody, and no restaurant will rip you off in Ljubljana. Outside of the city is a mecca for mountain walking, climbing, cycling or just enjoying the great outdoors. This is one of those countries where you can ski in the morning and nip down to the beach for a sunbathe in the afternoon. It won’t stay secret for long so get in quick, in fact there is another chilli festival this weekend.