Easter dishes

The žegen - Easter basket. Photo: Primož Hieng

Some parts of Slovenia and the neighbouring regions are known for their great variety of Easter dishes, many of which are common to all these regions, but some are special, typical for a particular region and its cultural features, or even of a particular town or village.

No other holiday boasts such a variety of popular traditional dishes, including dishes covered by the famous žegen (the blessing of Easter baskets – a custom that differs slightly from one place to another), various Easter buns, potica (rolled yeast dough with filling), flat cakes, štruklji (rolled dumplings), Easter eggs, meat dishes and the like, and dishes served for Easter Sunday lunch, traditionally enriched with interesting and unique Easter specialities.

The length of the Easter holiday period, the upcoming spring season, and the first crops that come with it all add to the abundance of Easter dishes. Lent dishes, which differ according to the region and to different dates – from Ash Wednesday, Lent Sundays, Good Friday to Holy Saturday, the last day of Lent –, are another subject. These dishes are less common and less popular among people. But let's talk about them some other time. In recent years, there has been a Slovenia-wide campaign starting every year at the beginning of the 40-day Lent period, calling for 40 days without alcohol.

Slovenian žegen

Potica. Photo: Primož Hieng

On Holy Saturday afternoon, the blessing of Easter dishes, which are called žegen almost everywhere, takes place in most Slovenian towns.  This custom has not changed since the 16th century. In the second half of the 17th century, the polyhistor Baron Janez Vajkard Valvasor described žegen in his famous book Slava vojvodine Kranjske (‘The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola’): ‘Smoked pork, salted beef, hard-boiled eggs (painted Easter eggs) and a cake, always made of fine white flour, with a special filling of grated cheese, milk, eggs, cream, wine, sugar and raisins. It would be rolled (like potica), weighing over 10, sometimes also up to 17 kilograms. People also provided themselves with lamb, and even the poorest brought it to the church to be blessed.’

Dishes (žegen) were brought to church in huge baskets with two handles (jerbas) and later also in more typical baskets and straw bags with different names (korbla, protzajna, pletenica, korpača, cekar, plenir).

Rich Slovenian tradition

Painted eggs from Bela Krajina. Photo: Tomo Jeseničnik

Nowadays, dishes put in Easter baskets (žegen) include pastry and various cakes (kolač, potica, šartel, and white spicy butter bread), meat (usually only pork – smoked ham, smoked pork thigh, shoulder, and sausages), painted Easter eggs and horseradish. But there are also other dishes. The Prlekija region is known for dishes like boneless meat, zviti zavec (stomach meat), roast loin, bosman (special richly decorated bread), povitice and remenice (painted Easter eggs), and different flowers seeds, most often cloves or even potatoes. Haloze is well-known for bidrih (a special cake). In the area around the village of Fram, dishes brought to be blessed would also include a part of a pig’s head with ears. In the Prekmurje region, these dishes would include meat, počervina (bacon with meat), baba (potica made of rolled yeast dough), with vrtanek (potica made of stretched dough), a traditional dish of the region, on the top.

In some places in the Štajerska region, a large round loaf of milk bread (bresmec, presmec, presnec), from which a slice had been cut off, would be put on the top of Easter baskets. In these places, bresmec was also the name for žegen. Pumpkin and corn seeds would be added to the bread, symbolising chicken feed, to prevent a fox from stealing hens.  In Lemberg pri Šmarju, žegen dishes would also include glavnata klobasa (a large sausage) and mlinčevka (a special potica).

A stuffed stomach is a dish typical of the Dolenjska and Notranjska regions, although today, the stuffing is usually put inside a bladder, not a stomach. When you cut it, it should have a nice reddish colour and smell of ‘a carnation’.   In Babno Polje, people put budel in Easter baskets to be blessed. In a bowl, they combine beaten eggs (sometimes even up to 50 eggs), cubed white bread, a small onion, cubed ham, salt and pepper.   They put the stuffing into intestines and cook them. Budel is eaten cold. They would also put large bread wafers (similar to communion wafers) in baskets.

In the Primorska region, dishes put in Easter baskets include famous pršut (air-dried ham), pinca (milk bread with cinnamon, topped with egg yolk to give it a golden, shiny appearance), in some places also presmec (a flat cake with cebib (raisins), pine nuts and different spices), pastry birds, made for children, and a speciality menihi (braided bread made of similar dough as pinca and topped with Easter eggs).  Different cakes (e.g. šišare, kite), oranges, sometimes onions, a bottle of wine, and even a wooden rattle are also put in baskets, which are nicely covered with embroidered cloths. In the past, baskets were fairly large because the loaves of bread, cakes and potica were large as well. Their size and shape changed when large brick ovens became very rare. Now they are sized to fit in modern ovens, and are brought to church in smaller baskets and bags.

Easter symbols

Dishes put in Easter baskets have a symbolic importance. There are more than forty such symbols. For instance, Easter eggs represent the blood of Christ, his tears or five wounds, meat symbolises his body, a cake his crown, sausages the ropes with which Christ was tied, headcheese the earthquake felt by those guarding Christ on the cross, horseradish the nails with which Christ was crucified, vinegar and wormwood liqueur his suffering, etc.

Text by Damjan J. Ovsec