The taste of tradition

Slovenian potica

Potica with tarragon tops Slovenia's gastronomic pyramid as the most distinctly Slovenian specialty. Slovenia is one of the few culinary environments in Europe and worldwide where tarragon is used in sweet pastry dishes.

My first and earliest memory of holidays is associated with potica. As a child, I watched my mother carefully knead the dough, make the filling, and peacefully wait for the cake to rise, and I patiently waited until it was baked. Potica has always been some kind of a prize. It has always been a synonym for festive events, and this certainly still holds true today. Generations of Slovenians have grown up experiencing the exciting festive expectation of potica, which is undoubtedly Slovenia's most festive dish.

There is something festively natural and traditional enshrined in the conscience of the Slovenian people. Now a new monograph Potice iz Slovenije (Poticas of Slovenia) has been published on this sweet (or salty) specialty, as the only in-depth monograph on this subject to date. Its author, the distinguished Slovenian ethnologist Dr. Janez Bogataj, has spent many years studying potica varieties. Potica is the second Slovenian national dish to have been studied so extensively, following the publication of the monograph Mojstrovine s kranjsko klobaso (Mastering the Art of Preparing Carniolan Sausage-Based Dishes) two years ago. Both monographs were published by Rokus Klett.

The book Potice iz Slovenije provides information on everything one wants to know about potica: from interesting facts about its origin and evolution, different potica varieties by gastronomic regions, details about potica made in Slovenia's various gastronomic regions and the significance of potica in everyday life, since its earliest mention in the works of Slovenian writers of the 18th century.

The book also offers practical advice and recipes for making both sweet and salty potica varieties. Cake baking has always presented a challenge for housewives, as traditional recipes did not specify exact quantities, but only ingredients. Housewives were forced to use their own creativity, which resulted in a wide variety of culinary delights in all areas of Slovenia. Potica baking is associated with a series of minor yet very important details, including the obligatory preparation of the dish in a specially designed baking mould. Or, using the words of Valentin Vodnik, the author of the first cook book in the Slovenian language, "experience is the best teacher".

Janez Bogataj, the author and conceptual designer of this monograph, and the distinguished photographer Edi Berk have created a truly exceptional presentation of potica in Slovenia. Janez Bogataj spent years studying comprehensive archival materials and combined them with other pictorial sources to create a book that will be read with interest by many amateur bakers of potica, either sweet or salty, and by all connoisseurs and amateurs of Slovenian culinary heritage.

Potica with tarragon tops Slovenia's gastronomic pyramid as the most distinctly Slovenian specialty. Slovenia is one of the few culinary environments in Europe and worldwide where tarragon is used in sweet pastry dishes.

Ingredients for the dough for the sweet, white flour variety: 3 tablespoons lukewarm milk, 1 tablespoon sugar, 2 dag yeast, 0.5 litre warm milk, 10 dag fresh butter, 2-3 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 75 dag fine flour, 2 egg yolks.

Potica dough can also be made with buckwheat, corn, rye or wholemeal flour. The most frequently used is buckwheat flour, whereas corn flour is used primarily to make the dough for špehovka or ocvirkovka (the bacon or crackling variety).

Potica is baked in clay or metal baking moulds. They are round with a cylindrical protrusion in the middle.

Dr. Janez Bogataj

To mark the book's publication, we conducted an interview with its author, the distinguished Slovenian ethnologist Dr. Janez Bogataj.

What is the status of potica today? Does it have the EU protected food product status like several other typical Slovenian culinary products?

No one has yet embarked on a project to protect the geographical origins of potica, which I think is a great pity. The situation is perfectly clear, and the structure of this book also answers how and why it is important to gain protected status for potica. The subject of protection should be potica's basic recipe, with a selection of 40 typical and primary fillings, subdivided into sweet and salty varieties. This is the whole, but quite simple story. Essential for obtaining protected status are historical sources, which we certainly have. Potica was first mentioned by Primož Trubar, and a recipe for its preparation can also be found in the works of Valvasor. We already have experience in seeking protected status for food products on the basis of historical sources: in the case of Carniolan mead our application was based on Valvasor's records. I see less difficulty in protecting potica than other food products.

Since cakes similar to potica can also be found in some neighbouring countries, could you please explain what makes the Slovenian variety so special?

One should take into account that we once lived in the same country with neighbouring peoples. There is a thin line between what customs we took from them and vice versa. It is more important that the cuisine of Danube basin area saw the development of a certain type of flat cakes that eventually evolved into regional variants. This was the case with potica. The region with the highest concentration of a particular food variety is also important, and in the case of potica, this is undoubtedly Slovenia.

The book also gives an account of some very atypical potica varieties, such as the vegan and the uncooked vegetarian potica. Does this mean that tradition is giving way to modern trends?

I do not think so; it is merely an expansion of the range of potica varieties. Man's knowledge of healthy food has changed and it is quite normal that his diet has been adapted to new findings. However, we should be careful here. We need to ask ourselves whether some innovations of the original potica, can still be called potica. It should not be the subject of some vague innovation without limits, as potica also has its own identity. Potica is genuine only in so far as it can be referred to as a roll of dough baked in a round, grooved or smooth baking mould, with a hole in the middle. This is still potica. The basic recipe for the dough is clear, while the filling can be either sweet or salty. Anything that does not fit this pattern is not potica. Even a cake baked according to this recipe in a flat baking tray cannot be called potica, but is referred to as baked štrukelj (rolled dumpling). It is true, however, that it is also referred to as potica in various regional dialects. A general feature of Slovenian cuisine is that there are different names for the same dishes and different dishes with the same name.

The baking of potica has always required specific skills, and today housewives seem to avoid learning them. Do you agree?

Making a good dough, not the filling, has always been the most important and the most difficult part of the process. The thickness and the quantity of the filling should always be taken into account when making the dough. But, I should stress that it is the dough that is essential. However, there has been an advance in technology in this area, as well, and there are now two basic methods used to bake potica: warm and cold. In the warm method, the dough is left to rise in a warm environment and is then rolled out, spread with the filling, left to rise again and finally baked. The use of the cold method means that all ingredients are prepared cold. Yeast is added to the dough without allowing it to rise. It is then rolled out, spread with the filling, rolled up and left to rise slowly in the refrigerator overnight and not baked until the following day. Advances in cooking technology have also been made in potica baking. However, potica continues to be based on the same dough recipe and has the same flavour; only the preparation technique is different.
In my opinion, more apparent than the knowledge of how to bake potica is some kind of fear of its complex preparation. The way recipes are written has also contributed to dispelling such fears. Modern recipes are very detailed, which is good. But, as a result, much of the charm of creativity has been lost. The first cook book in the Slovenian language by Valentin Vodnik (1799) only specified the ingredients and rarely the quantities. Nowadays, all recipes include detailed ingredient information with precisely measured quantities. Older cook books left such things open, meaning that cooks were more creative. They were compelled to gain some experience themselves and use their own creativity. These are also the reasons why Slovenian regional cuisine is so varied: Slovenian cook books never offered final recipes, but always left room for creativity by indicating, for the most part, only ingredients and not quantities.

One should also mention here the socio-economic aspect.

That's true. The nutrition of families varied depending on their financial standing. Thus we find differences between potica varieties. Potica has always been a festive cake that is not eaten every day. Our ancestors wanted to celebrate festive occasions with an abundance of food, but in line with their financial circumstances. In wealthier families, potica was filled with walnuts, cream and a variety of other ingredients. At any rate, people tried to create or imitate the atmosphere of festive abundance. In these circumstances, pisani kruh, marbled mixed-grain bread, which is typical of poorer areas (Dolenjsko), was invented when trying to imitate the various fillings by mixing different types of flour. Or, what is particularly interesting today, is potica with dried fruit, such as dried plums. There are also potica varieties with herb filling, such as chives, lovage, etc. They used to be typical of the poor, but today are served at the most distinguished social events, as they are in line with modern trends in nutrition.

So, potica is an important part of the Slovenian national heritage and identity. It has actually become a symbol of Slovenia.

Precisely so. I find it unfortunate that Slovenians are not sufficiently aware of its importance. A genuinely euphoric attitude towards potica is most frequently encountered outside of Slovenia's borders or in foreign tourists visiting our country. We take it so much for granted that we are unable to comprehend the constants of our visibility and recognise the tangible components of our identity. And potica certainly is one such component. That is also why I decided to write this book, because I feel we lack education in self-awareness. I firmly believe that potica is one important component of self-awareness.

And what about consumerism? Does tradition give way to consumerism in Slovenia, as well?

Potica can be found in any shopping centre, but it is the way it is served that is important. Consumerism is a very aggressive phenomenon. It is a pity that we do not follow the example of some other region or country and its method of marketing local and regional traditional specialties. I find it regrettable that potica is somehow pushed into the background in the shops, and that supermarket shelves stacked with potica sometimes have a gritty appearance. It is therefore no wonder in this world of consumerism that we prefer buying products that are not typical of our local environment. We should ask ourselves whether we want to give precedence to foreign brands or do something to preserve and enhance our own traditions. I have also noticed that potica has not been advertised at all so far during this holiday season. Do we really have no idea about traditional giving and how to celebrate in a different, specific way of our own? We could do more to promote potica. And it doesn't require much work. Small steps can lead to big changes. And, remaining faithful to our tradition will improve our international visibility.

Walnut potica.

Text by Polona Prešeren
Photo by Tomo Jeseničnik / Rokus Klett