A small road sign on the way to L’Argine a Venco leads you to a small country road which takes you to Antonia Klugmann’s restaurant. Opposite is a sign saying Slovenia is just two kilometres away. A further 36 kilometres or just over a half hour drive is Hisa Franko, the restaurant of Ana Ros and Valter Kramer which has put Slovenia on the culinary map.
This is Mitteleuropa or the German term for Middle or Central Europe. And here is home to two of Europe’s leading female chefs, both valid reasons for a gastronomic trip but also exceptionally close to each other to be worth combining them.
There are similarities between the two chefs who find themselves working so close to each other on either side of the Italian and Slovenian border. They both have a very deep connection to their region and their territory and they both have rose to fame thanks to their cooking and television.
Ana Ros was well known in gastronomic circles before Chef’s Table on Netflix but the episode in that series led to her change of forces as she herself admits. On the other hand, Antonia Klugmann, originally from Trieste has been making a name for herself for her cooking but became well known in Italy for her appearance as judge of Masterchef Italy. She closed the restaurant for three months to be able to do this, an experience she says led her to discover the power of communication.
I’m able to visit the two restaurants thanks to the European Food Summit that is being held in Ljubljana. A day before the event, we are invited to get a glimpse of the new spring menu at Hisa Franko.
It has been a frantic last few days for Ana Ros and Valter Kramer who were in the process of refurbishing and modernising the main dining room and the last few hours before service are also problematic.
On the welcome menu there is a short text with a conversation.
Ana: Frying time, guys! Start with the dandelion.
Leo: Well chef, only when Miha comes.
Ana: Where the fuck is Miha?
Miha: Still in the forest.
An hour ago, some chairs were still missing, curtains are missing, Miha is missing and we still have not tasted the food.
There is some stress because Ana is welcoming speakers, journalists and guests for the European Food Summit that will be held the following day.
She serves the bites and then we move to the tables.
Preparing a lunch like this is a tall order. Among the guests are Jordan Khan of Vespertine, Andreas Caminada and Andoni Aduriz.
But Ana serves a succession of dishes that are excellent with some memorable ones including a splendid silver sardine, the cuttlefish lard, a baby veal consomme, lamb and crab and her signature two times trout. The trout bely is served glazed with pear and tonic butter, rosa di Gorizia and pumpkin oil, the group is served with whey, poppy seeds. beetroot, salad of Fallopia Japonica and sorrel.
I’ve tried Ana’s dishes before though not at her restaurant Hisa Franko. She has a bold and distinct style and this was very evident in the menu she served. All this is matched by some spectacular wines that come from Walter’s cellar. Here, you will find a treasure trove of exceptional natural wines.
It is obvious that Ana loves the region and the territory she works in. She works a lot with foraged ingredients and with ingredients and produce that comes from the idyllic Soca valley.
To head to Antonia Klugmann, I’m driven to Trieste airport where I pick up a car after the European Food Summit. I head to the centre of Trieste for a quick lunch with a colleague and friend Georges Desrues who lives in this border city. We walk the old city centre and then head to Osteria Salvagente, a name to remember if you are in this Italian city. You can easily bump into Ana, Valter or even Antonia Klugmann or her sister Victoria here. As Joe Warwick would probably tell you, it is where the chefs eat.
From here I drive towards the Slovenia border towards Venco in Dolegna Del Collio, province of Gorizia. On the way there I stop for a short walk in Cormons before I lose myself in the vineyards that surround the area. The drive up Ruttars Cavezzo just a stone throw’s away from Venco is nothing short of spectacular.
It is here that Antonia has settled down after having worked in Venice and in Udine. Here, she has been able to create a distinct approach to cooking which is based on the territory and the terroir but is also extremely personal. At 40, she is not yet willing to let go of the kitchen. When she is not around, either because she has to be on TV (like for Masterchef) or for events, she closes the restaurant. But the reason for this as she tells us in an interview to be published in the coming days on Food and Wine Gazette, is that she is hands on. “The team is small, I cook together with my team and if I am not here, guests will notice through the window in the dining room that overlooks the kitchen.
Everything works in harmony here. Together with her partner Romano who is the sommelier in charge of the wines, she serves a splendid dinner that is focused on the terroir. The dishes are surprising in that they are light but there is also exceptional balance and harmony. Many of the ingredients that Ana and Antonia use are similar, after all they come from a similar terroir but the approach to them is completely different.
She serves a succession of exceptional dishes from the calamaro with chestnuts, gnocchi with beetroot, prunes and roses, ravioli with a red wine and chocolate sauce stuffed with braised cheeks and topped with rosa di Gorizia and an excellent risotto that blended fresh and dried peas among others.
And the wine pairing is also surprising. Just like Antonia, Romano uses the terroir to scout for the best wines.
This is personal cooking at its best. A visit to this region in the middle of Europe is a must. When I met Antonia and Ana in Austria for Gelinaz! in 2017 and took a train to Vienna early in the morning they told me that I should visit them both. Two years later, I left the region wondering why I had not gone earlier.