Top Slovenia Interview: Valter Kramar

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Let us start this interview off with congratulating you and your team for receiving two Michelin stars! How did it feel to be honored and moreover recognized by the famous red French guide Michelin? Did you expect Hiša Franko will receive a Michelin Star?

With Michelin guide you never know what they think and what opinion do the inspectors have about your restaurant. We were maybe expecting a star, even if some people said the food is sure for 2. But the truth is, you never know. Before seeing the guide, you cannot be sure. So these 2 stars for us were a surprise but also a confirmation of the quality of our work.

Our readers know you best in association with Hiša Franko, but not everyone knows that you have another restaurant which is Hiša Polonka. Could you please tell us more about the inspiration and motivation behind it? How is Hiša Polonka different from Hiša Franko?

Hiša Polonka is completely different from Hiša Franko. Hiša Franko is a restaurant while Hiša Polonka is a bistro. We wanted to make a place more like trattoria or gostilna style. A cozy place for locals but also for tourists. Actually, a lot of people also travel to Kobarid because they know the food is traditional, tasty and not so expensive. With Hiša Franko growing up and Ana’s cuisine becoming more and more sophisticated, even complicated sometimes, Hiša Polonka took some old recipes from Hiša Franko, added a couple of new ones and built the menu in this way. My wish was not to lose those old school recipes, to not forget them. And the guests pretty much appreciate the move since in all the area it was not possible to find simple traditional food as now served in Hiša Polonka.

We recently visited Hiša Franko where you were kind enough to host us What would you recommend our readers to try from Hiša Franko’s menu? Which one from Hiša Polonka?

The answer is very simple since Hiša Franko has only one menu. It is a tasting menu, proposed by us. We do correct it when there are special dietary restrictions like allergies, but the base remains the same. The menu studied by Ana is very complex from the start till the end and it is a story she wants to explain, an amazing story. So, it only makes sense to have the whole menu. The dishes change quite fast, according to the season, and it would be difficult for me to point out only one dish.

In Hiša Polonka on the other hand we change some dishes, but the 70% of the menu remains the same all the time. You can always find Franko’s roast beef. It is English-style roast beef, served as cold dish. You can have it as a starter or as a main course. My parents started to make this dish in Hiša Franko 47 years ago and it was always one of the hits on the menu. Hiša Polonka is famous also for Frika, but in a special version of it, my version. It is made from a mix of local Tolminc cheese and potatoes and baked in a pan long enough that starts to be crispy. In the end we put some fresh herbs on the top of it. The dish is very nutritious and it is perfect for sport people to regains some power after biking or hiking in the mountains. The third dish that I would absolutely recommend is Kobariški štruklji, also a very local traditional dish. The recipe we use in Hiša Polonka is my mother’s. She was making this dish in the kitchen for 35 years and she continue to make it for the family now in her home kitchen.

For the dish that you just recommend us with, which wine would go the best with?

In Hiša Franko where we have this spectacular menu with many complex flavors and combinations it is difficult to choose one wine fort he whole menu so we normally do the selection of different wines in a proposed wine pairing. From this year on we are also offering the non-alcoholic pairing made from fermented drinks as water kefirs, kombuchas and infusions. But regarding Hiša Polonka’s dishes I am happy to give my recommendations. For the roast beef that is not a heavy dish, it is meat, but it is raw. Before we slice the whole peace, we roast it a bit so it has this bacon like flavor and after we finish it with some lemon juice and olive oil, pepper and salt. Our local Sauvignonasse also known as Tokai Friulano, maybe macerated a bit for a night or two days would go best. In any case I would recommend some natural not filtered wines. With Frika we need a little stronger wine. Could be a light red or a little bit stronger, few days macerated white or maybe some barrique style with alcohol level close to 13%. The perfect combination for me is Malvasia from Carst region or Vipava Valley. In Hiša Polonka we also use a lot of beers since we brew our own under the name Feo. With Frika I use to pair a nice elegant Pale ale or Indian pale. With Štruklji you can drink some nice light sweet wine. It can be a local one like Malvasia from Reia wine producer from Goriška Brda region.

How does one even pair food with wine? Could you walk us through the decision-making process perhaps?

In Ana’s cuisine some dishes are made with many different techniques and flavor combinations. Sometimes she uses ferments, citrus fruits, horseradish, ginger in general very strong flavors and to pair wine with her food you have to have a lot of experience. You need to know many different wines from Slovenia and from all over the world. If you do not have very special wines in the cellar that can be paired with the food, you do not have a chance to build a good wine pairing. Ana’s kitchen is extreme but elegant at the same time (it was even more extreme and wild in the past), every dish it has something particular, a twist. And that twist makes it quite difficult to find a perfect wine to pair. When you make the combination with food and wine you always have to taste the food first, have it in the mouth for 15-20 seconds, try to turn it around so every corner of your mouth gets every element of the dish and then you take a sip of wine and see how the combination is working. When both, food and wine come together in perfect harmony and nothing goes over, then the combination works. Sometimes it is important to choose a different wine for every dish, but sometimes you can use one wine for two dishes. Sometimes we change the positions of the dishes in the menu so we can use the same wine for two dishes. But since Ana’s food is already very complex and has so many specters, I have to be careful to choose the proper wine not to make a big confusion in guests head also with the complexity of the wine pairing. With the wines we try to be close to the food philosophy, to make a little provocation, but we seek to create elegance.

We heard you are intrigued by orange wines, which have become popular in the world during the last couple of years. Could you tell us more about orange wine? How are they different from other wines?

I believe that nowadays the majority of the wines are good. There is only the question of your taste and philosophy, what you believe in. I noticed that our guest, a little bit older ones, that they start drinking wines in the period when mostly industrial wines were popular and they used to drink these wines all their lives (it is difficult to change the mentality of a wine drinker that drinks a certain type of wines for 35 years or more) and that they’ve never experienced orange and no filtered wines that they had some difficulties to accept my philosophy. I was lucky because I had the right people around me like Stanko Radikon, Joško Gravner and Valter Mlečnik already 25 years ago. These guys tried to make natural wines already back then. And I was very happy when I was listening to their stories on how important it is to be on the side of the nature, to listen to the nature and not to poison everything. That is why I’ve started to follow this philosophy. Hiša Franko is maybe one of the first restaurants in Slovenia and in the region that started using mostly natural wines. I am completely in love with these wines. It is true on the other hand that not all of them are good, because maybe a winemaker is on the beginning of his path. I also do not like the ones that are faking this philosophy. If you want to make the natural wine you have to start from the roots, in the vineyard. You shouldn’t use chemical products just because you want to keep the product on the vine. Sometimes to keep your philosophy you have to risk and sacrifice a lot. But the beautiful experience of not using the chemical products is that the plant has to suffer before start fighting all the thing that can occur to it, like draught or too much rain. But when it creates a very strong body it is capable to resolve many problems by its self. Of course you have to take care of it, to clean it all the time, to notice the problems very fast. So for me a very good wine producer is the one who is every day in the vineyard and he checks daily what is happening with their vines and grape.

Perhaps a difficult question, but could you tell us which is your all-time favorite wine?

I live very close to our wine regions Goriška Brda and Vipava Valley. Since I was a kid I had the contact with some amazing wine producers and the possibility to drink local white grape wines like Rebula, Malvasia and Tokai Friulano. Tokai Friluano known also as Sauvignonasse or Green Sauvignon on my opinion has the most perfect taste of the grape. Rebula is also nice, a little lighter and it doesn’t have this specter of flavors. Malvasia is a little more complex. These 3 whites are my favorite. From the reds I would chose Merlot, since we most have it in our area and I saw how good can a Merlot become if you know how to make it. 

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but we also know wine is good for the body. What do you think?

I completely agree. The problem starts when someone drinks a bit too much of it. My father always said drink a bit and drink good. From my own experience I can say that 2-3 glasses of natural wine per day can only make you feel good. It doesn’t only make the atmosphere good but it helps also with the digestion and I am sure it has many more positive effects on our bodies. I don’t know how to explain it but to me natural wine did only good. So, drink, but not too much.

How do you perceive Slovenian wine-drinking culture?  In your opinion, do Slovenian know their wine? Can you tell us which wine do they order the most while dining at Hiša Franko or Hiša Polonka?

I think Slovenians know their wines. I have noticed that also young generations are crazy for the wines. I think the time of Coca cola is over. The youngsters are very open for natural wines, fermented drinks, different beers. Can you imagine how many craft breweries grew in Slovenia recently? And I think the same story is with wine. I remember when I’ve started, 20 years ago and wanted to propose organic, biodynamic and skin contact wines in Hiša Franko, there were not many wine producers. Today they are really a lot and you can find them in every Slovenian wine region. I do think Slovenians are wine drinkers, I think we export only 20% of the wines, so we drink the majority of the wines made in Slovenia, in Slovenia.  In Hiša Franko most of the guests and a lot of them are coming from all over the world usually decide to take the wine pairing where we propose mostly Slovenian wines. To build it we choose best of the best from all Slovenian wine regions. I believe that everybody should taste our typical wines like Zelen from Vipava Valley, Malvasia from Carst or Primorska region, Sauvignonasse and Rebula from Goriška Brda etc. I really like also the wines from Štajerska region, Posavje and Podravje where some regions have perfect land for Rieslings.

Another passion of yours is cheese. How did you start to build up your very own cheese cellar? Which cheese do you like the most?

All my travels were also connected to my passion to taste different cheeses around the world. But I know that in Soča valley we have really good, high quality cheese. The farmers are producing cheese mostly in the summer, rarely in winter. So, it was our family tradition going with my father in the mountains to taste and buy cheese for the restaurant. This was my first contact with cheese and cottage cheese. Already my father started to age cheese and so I decided to do it as well. But I started to age it for a little longer. Actually, years ago for mistake I forgot a shape of cheese for 3-4 years in the cellar where it was very humid. And that cheese was amazing. For me Tolmin cheese made in the mountains with the milk from the cows eating this summer high mountain feed and the fatness of the cheese make perfect conditions to age it for 2-3 years and the results are amazing. 4 years aged is good too, but it’s drier with stronger taste. I also like fresh goat cheese and I adore cheeses from different parts for the world. Italy has some crazy regions like Sardinia or Provence in France. You can find beautiful sheep cheeses too. But for aging for me the best is Tolmin cheese.

A hard question, but have you counted the number of wine bottles and cheeses in your cellars?

Well the bottles come and go so the number is changing constantly. But we know when we do the inventory how much wine stays in the cellar. For the cheeses I can tell you, because I have counted them just 2 weeks ago and it was 355 shapes, without counting the Zemljanka pit cheese. But the shapes are different, from 3kg to 10kg.

Which customers at Hiša Franko or Hiša Polonka are more demanding when it comes to picking wines to go with Ana Roš’s dishes?

Because of the fame of Hiša Franko more and more demanding guests are coming every year, a lot of them are also people from our sector, sommeliers, wine producers, wine lovers, so people who really know what they drink and what they want. We are lucky because we always have in the cellar a beautiful selection of the craziest wines from Slovenia. We also have older labels so the guest can really choose what he wants. But this doesn’t mean that as a sommelier you have an easier job. You really have to listen to the guest, otherwise they will reject the bottle and you can then open 5 bottles before finding the one the guest wants. If you understand the guest’s needs and wishes and if you know what you have in the cellar, then you can make a perfect choice for him. This is of course for the ones who do not choose the wine pairing.

Running two restaurants and other ventures, what do you like doing when you have a day off?

Sometimes I do not have a day off more months since there are so many things to do. But when I do I love to take time off with my kids and friends. This year my favourite thing to do was high mountain biking in the trails we have here around. Years ago, my absolute passion was kayaking, but now I have some more respect for the wild waters than I had it 15 or 20 years ago. I also have my beautiful BMW motorcycle and when I want to go to have a ride in the mountains in Austria or in the Dolomites I usually take 2 days off and I do these trips.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you over the years?

Some years ago, a friend of mine, also a restaurant owner told me: “Valter, how long do you think you will resist with this rhythm?” And then he continued: “You only have one life, and it shouldn’t be just your job”.

What is your personal motto or philosophy in life?

For sure is to keep the beautiful energies close to you and to have a clear mind for all the people around you. Love the people who surrounds you, have enough time for fun, parents, friends, but also for your passions and hobbies, for the sports. And pass all the lessons you’ve learned from the experiences in your life to the younger generation.