Sun and Rain that shape Ana Roš - and shape our lives
It was the worst time to release a book for fine dining restaurant. There were no more fine dining, no more restaurants open, Hiša Franko closed their door just a few days after it reopened and started serving their brand new Spring menu. Menu now gone to waste, with all the hard work and ideas behind it.
Hiša Franko with its entire team of young chefs and front of house staff from all corners of the world went into self-isolation, watching dumbfoundedly the border with Italy, where some of their best customers have been coming from, now getting barricaded with heavy concrete slabs. For the people of Soča Valley where borders moved and changed so much throughout history it was another painful reminder of the turbulent past now creeping up back to life.
More than anything else, historically, this is the area of borders. In the past 500 years, there were ten different national borders here. And with that, ten different regimes, and ten different methods of intimidation and suppression of the local inhabitants. There are still remnants of the great war found throughout the craggy mountains, pieces of grenade shells mixed with the rubble on the foot paths winding through idyllic pastures, grazing ground for cattle Hiša Franko uses in their dishes.
Then there were earthquakes that tore down entire villages. And more hardship. There were lives lost in gorgeous, but often deadly Soča river. Lives lost on the narrow winding road that passes the restaurant and zig-zags up towards the most remote hamlets where part of Hiša Franko team lives. And now - corona.
It comes at the time Soča Valley is bursting with lush, bright green, a sign of life, of new beginnings. Ana Roš loves this color. It's why she picked it for her book cover. "It's that exact green of the forest when the first rays of sun peek through," says Roš. Just 2 weeks of quarantine in and she was already fed up with it, trying to escape it by hiking the snow-capped Matajur mountain to catch a glimpse of the blue of the sea. And the whiteness of snow. A change of perspective, change of color, a new hope.
The green jail, she calls now her valley. Seemingly so perfect, but a jail nevertheless. Locked inside it with her entire team, her partner, her two children, and all of their frustrations, fears, desperation and anxiety to go along.
Sun and Rain. Roš' book title actually couldn't be more fitting for these times - or the content of the book, for that matter. If you expect a glossy take on world's 38th restaurant, a glorified and self-congratulatory tale on how Roš, an overachiever in everything she partook, changed career paths from diplomacy to cooking and made it to the top of the world, you'll be surprised.
There are just hints of the extravagant world of fine dining - mostly through complex "don't try this at home" recipes, Ana's memories of breastfeeding her daughter while having dinner at Heston Blumenthal's and Andrea Petrini's afterword where he describes in detail the first time he tried Ana's lovage tortellini in rabbit stew and immediately knew she was the real deal.
Otherwise, more than anything else, Sun and Rain is an homage to Soča Valley, this lush, wild, untamed, unpredictable area full of dramatic stories, amazing produce and crazy, stubborn people to be found. Even the titles of the chapters read like love poems to this region.
The Land of Living Water. Garden and Forest witches. My Dad is a Hunter. Hotel Moo. Mediterranean Terrace. There's a chapter on Ana's husband Valter Kramar and his passion for natural wines, a chapter on Joško Sirk from Michelin starred La Subida across the border in Italy where Ana and Valter had their first date, a chapter on Ana's travels where she got a taste for exotic spices and spicy flavors and where she learned life is too short to settle for a shitty caipirinha, as she puts it.
It's a lesson she took quite literally, it seems. Roš never settles for mediocracy. Also never tolerates it. Not in her team, not in her plates, not in her career. She is like a powerhorse, constantly striving for more, be it bolder tastes, more umami, more local collaborations, more accolades, more putting Slovenia on the map. The book is a reflection of that, a logical addition to already immensely successful career that stretches from episode on Chef's Table to world's best female chef title.
There's a lot of Ana in this book. All the sides and shades of her. The sunny ones and the rainy ones. The very personal heartaches of miscarriage and battle with anorexia to confident, self-assured Ana who has managed to bring her remote, hidden valley to the world stage. The first thing I asked her when we started working on this book is why Sun and Rain. It feels almost generic in a way. And there's absolutely nothing generic about Roš' food. "Kaja. The lives of people here are defined by sun and rain. Maybe you don't feel it yet, but stay here a while, and you'll notice how the landscape changes with sun and rain, how the atmosphere here changes, how even the mood of people changes."
True enough. Soča valley, when sunlit, is heaven on Earth. There's the utterly surreal turquoise river where Ana gets her marble trout from, the green meadows where the shepherds are making big reels of Tolmin cheese that are then aged in Valter's cellar, the fairytale village of Drežnica where the restaurant gets their goat kid from. The wind swept Kolovrat mountain where you can catch a glimpse of Italian lagoon where Ana gets her seafood from. But with rain and the dark clouds comes the doom and gloom that can hunker down for days, even weeks and wrap the valley in a thick cape of depression.
But eventually, even the darkest of clouds disperse and in comes the sun again. When we were writing the book there was no sign of this modern-era plague that hit the industry so hard that some, even the biggest names, will never recover. Ana was on top of the world, Hiša Franko was climbing the ranks, Slovenia on its way to getting its first Michelin guide and slowly being recognized as an emerging gastronomic destination. At the time I'm writing this there are no stars - just fears who exactly will come out of this alive, in terms of business vitality.
But Hiša Franko is not laying low and letting the green jail get the best of them. They are using it to their advantage, foraging, pickling, fermenting, crushing the high mountain nettles into pesto together with funky fermented ricotta, making ice cream from pine cones, bee pollen and raw milk that's going to waste, lamb pastrami and spicy buckwheat pop-corn with forest honey. It's not for making any real money, really, it's to stay active, to not let that rain part take over and obscure the mind.
"After every rain comes the sun", writes Ana in the dedications that she sends out with Hiša Franko corona survival packages, together with jars of pesto, spelt sourdough bread from her in-house baker, wraps of pasta with mountain herbs, recipes for frika (shepherds' take on fast food), bottles of wine from Valter's cellar, pieces of aged cheese and - her book. Surviving corona. It can be turned into an art form.
Frika - shepherds' favorite
It's not pizza, it's frika! This is a shepherds' dish that is shared throughout the alpine world of Slovenia, Italy and Austria. Valter is a frika king and a true ambassador of it. He was the first to propose it at popular events and people fell in love with it again. It is a part of Polonka's menu today.
300 g potatoes
200 g 1-year-old Tolminc, grated
200 g 2-year-old Tolminc, grated
120 g Zemljanka cheese (Valter's pit cheese), grated
100 g mixed herbs, chives, tarragon, lovage
Peel the potatoes, grate them and steam for 10 minutes at 200ºC. Dry them. Heat a non-stick pan to very hot and roast the potatoes in it. Cover with 1/3 of the cheese and let it melt. Turn the frika around and cover with another 1/3 of the cheese. When melted, turn it around again and start roasting by slowly adding half of the rest of the cheese. Turn it around for the last time and slowly add the rest of cheese and chopped herbs. Serve very hot!
The iconic Franko's English roastbeef
Franko's roastbeef is one of those things that define Hiša Franko. It is the taste of the past, and is also the taste of the future. Most regular diners would usually never leave the house without having a bite of it. Today it's on the menu at Polonka, our little tavern in the centre of Kobarid. When I was a child, my father used to bring the whole family for Sunday dinner to eat Franko's roastbeef and štruklji. We were not the only ones. There was always a long line of people waiting for a table. We serve it with Franko's bread.
1 kg upper part of beef
100 g chopped fresh garlic
65 g rosemary
200 ml olive oil, plus extra for dressing
150 g mustard
Clean the meat and spread it with a mix of chopped garlic, rosemary, olive oil and mustard. Massage it for 20 minutes and let rest in the refrigerator overnight. Heat a cast iron pan to maximum heat and roast the meat from all sides, 3½ minutes on each. Change the pan, heat again and roast the meat for another 7 minutes. Let it set until cold at room temperature and refrigerate for 12 hours before cutting. Cut into thin slices and dress with salt, pepper, lemon and olive oil (in this precise order).
SUN AND RAIN
Written by Ana Roš and Kaja Sajovic
Photography by Suzan Gabrijan
Out March 2020 for Phaidon
Available on Phaidon, Amazon and Hiša Franko websites