You can tell a lot about a country — and especially, its people — through food.
My family and I just returned from an epic two-week vacation in Europe, where we swam in the Adriatic Sea, boated on pristine lakes flanked by snow-capped mountains, zip-lined off towers, visited (and slept in!) castles, toured historic sites, strolled city streets and biked through some of the most lush countryside you can imagine.
Yet, it was still the food and dining experiences we had that will provide some of this trip’s most lasting, and enlightening, memories.
We enjoyed a bounty of fresh seafood, often paired with handmade pasta, in the seaside town of Grado, Italy, on the country’s northern Adriatic coast. Most of this seafood was quickly and simply prepared — sometimes cooked, often not — and usually with only a few fresh herbs or other ingredients.
Why? Because many Italians enjoy the simple flavors plucked from the sea and garden. And, as I quickly learned, they’d prefer to spend less time in the kitchen and more time socializing and relaxing in the countless cafés you find in every town. Places where people just sit and talk and drink for hours — but oh, so, slowly — as they watch the world go by.
The allure of this “café culture” is intoxicating, and something I missed instantly when I returned to our “hurry up” society back home.
In southern Austria and Slovenia, two of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen with my own eyes, we treated ourselves to luxurious meals at splurge-worthy restaurants. Places offering some of the Bavarian-style food this part of the world is known for (sausages and sauerkraut and pretzels, oh my!) but also platters overflowing with fresh seafood and bowls heaping with the hearty “comfort food” you’d find served in local homes.
The pillowy cheese-pocket kasenoodles were ridiculously good, and the things these people can do with simple pork and potatoes will blow your mind. And the breads, cakes and pastries? Best anywhere in the world.
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We dined at several amazing restaurants during our trip, but none more magical than the mountaintop spot we picked for the European family reunion that brought us there in the first place.
At Dom na Jostu in Kranj — towering so high above the surrounding Slovenian mountains that you can only get there via a daunting one-lane, switchback-happy road — masterful Chef Matjaz and his staff prepared an incredible spread of fresh seafood, meats, pastas, salads, vegetables and desserts enjoyed with sweeping views in casually elegant surroundings.
The food, service and atmosphere all combined to create one of the most memorable dining experiences of my (as of yesterday) 48-year-old life.
Still, it was the meal we enjoyed on our last day in Europe that topped them all.
That day, relatives invited nearly 20 of us to their beautiful home in Kranj for a home-cooked afternoon feast on the porch. With local wine and beer flowing, Cousin Borut grilled local chevapchichi (an Eastern European sausage of ground lamb, beef and Mediterranean/Italian herbs and spices) and the most flavorful chicken that we later learned had cooked for hours over low heat with occasional basting to keep it moist and delicious.
Alongside those meats was a dizzying array of accompaniments: herb-roasted potatoes, potato salad, egg salad, marinated tomatoes, rice pilaf, avocado hummus, grilled garlic bread and the list went on and on.
I enjoyed it all, way too much, yet that didn’t stop me from piling on the two desserts to follow. The mixed berry trifle dome cake and authentic Bled Cream Cake were worthy endings to an incomparable, authentic traditional Slovenian meal.
A meal that tasted even better prepared by — and enjoyed with — family.
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So what is this Bled Cream Cake of which I speak?
Also known as kremna rezina, or kremsnita, it is a cake so revered that it has been called the “national taste” of Slovenia. A cake so honored that it is protected by its own “designation of origin” statute. And a cake so popular that it has its own Facebook page.
Created by a pastry chef in Bled, Slovenia, move than 60 years ago, this light and legendary delicacy is a layered cream cake in which puff pastry is folded seven times and left to sit overnight, so it is even lighter when baked in the morning.
The next day, a light egg custard is then boiled for seven minutes before stiffly beaten egg whites are added to the mixture, which is poured over the first layer of pastry. That cream is then topped with another layer of fresh whipped cream and the second layer of pastry, which is dusted with sugar.
The cake is still strictly made using that exact recipe today. And for many Slovenian travelers, enjoying a slice (in a café with coffee, of course) is a must-do and often the first stop on any visit to the country.
It was for us!
And as my oldest son told me, if you stacked every slice of Bled Cream Cake ever made around Lake Bled, where it originated, they would form a wall more than 7 miles high — taller than Mount Everest.
Now THAT’S a popular cake.
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All of that delicious European food must have made quite an impression, because where did we enjoy our first meal out less than 24 hours after returning back to the states?
None other than Bahnhof, a hot new German “wursthause and biergarten” in Huntington. I kid you not.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for my review of Bahnhof, along with these new (or still yet-to-be-reviewed) restaurants around town:
n Chow Thai, a new joint on Shrewsbury Street
n Caffe Romeo, a new coffee and gelato spot on Bridge Road
n Sumthin’ Good Soul Food, drawing fans to South Charleston
n The Barge, with fine-dining opening soon
n Bellissimo Pizza, getting rave reviews in Belle
n Genesis Café, a breakfast and lunch spot on Virginia Street
n Rock City Bakery, pleasing sweet-tooths on Capitol Street
n WV Brick Oven Bistro, doing the pizzeria thing in Cross Lanes
And at least 20 other restaurant suggestions sent in by readers in recent weeks
Looks like I’ll be making the restaurant rounds all summer long. Not that I’m complaining one bit.
Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and an occasional food blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/foodguy. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Facebook as “WV Food Guy” and on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as “WVFoodGuy.”