This is one of the hardest posts yet. I’ve procrastinated so much in the writing of it, I’ve managed to apply for four jobs, order five colours of sharpies online and bake two loaves of sourdough whilst having this tab open. The problem is… I want to write about a person and a restaurant that I admire so much and I’m not sure I’ll do it justice.
When I heard the news the other day that Ana Ros had been voted ‘Best Female Chef in the Whole Wide World‘, I thought it was about time I finished the post and got it out into the world. My husband and I visited ‘her restaurant ‘Hisa Franko‘ last August after watching an episode about Ana on Chef’s Table. What inspired me about her was how determined she was without being ruthless. When she and her husband inherited a restaurant, she reluctantly abandoned her dreams of working in international relations (to the disgust of her parents) and taught herself to cook. Using rare visits to fancy restaurants and cookbooks borrowed from local libraries, she formulated her incredible, creative cuisine using food plucked from the remote valley around her. Her absolute devotion to the ingredients and produce she uses is clear, and she is unfailingly loyal to the Soca valley, using local products in new and exciting ways, without a trace of pretension.
It’s not very easy to get to Hisa Franko which adds to its air of mystery. It is nestled in a picturesque valley high up in the Slovenian Alps. The closest town (Kobarid) was bustling with hikers, bikers and campers when we visited in the summer, but I can imagine it can be pretty dead out of season. We drove to the restaurant from Ljubliana, and although we only had to cover a distance of 120km, it took well over two hours. Most of the drive is spent traversing up and down the sides of mountains as the road snakes it’s way through the mountain peaks. It’s incredibly atmospheric, and you can’t help but notice the turquoise blue of the river flowing alongside.
‘Hisa’ is Slovenian for ‘home or house’, and that’s exactly the feeling we got as we entered for the first time (not least because we were spending the night there). I was majorly starstruck to see Ana standing at reception with a big smile on her face, and managed to stutter out my name, before looking at my feet. I’m sure I made a great impression there. Dejan, who showed us to our room, was a delight, as was every other staff member working there. Ana and her husband Valter really seem to have created an enthusuastic team that feels valued, which is also abundantly clear when you read and see interviews with them.
If you do make it to Hisa Franko, make sure you give yourself time to explore the valley. It is absolutely stunning, and it gives you a special appreciation for the food that follows. We went on a fabulous ‘historical hike’, which follows the Soca River up to some gorgeous waterfalls. Along the way, you encounter many places where fierce battles were fought between the Italians and the Austro-Hungarian army in World War 1 (Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms‘ was set there). Kobarid is fascinating from a historical perspective, having been part of Austro-Hungary, Italy, Nazi Germany and Yugoslavia over the years. The role agriculture plays in the area is also very clear. There are gorgeous herds of native cows on the slopes of many a hill, and on our walk through the forest we encountered some beehives. Taking note of the address, we popped to the home of the producers and bought a few jars of unprocessed syrupy honey to take away with us.
Back to the hisa we went to relax before dinner. We were lucky enough to have a room with a door directly onto the sun-drenched terrace. After our energetic afternoon, we bought beers at the bar downstairs and lay prostrate on the deck chairs looking up at the giant peaks before us and trying to convince the resident kittens to play with us. This is another thing this place has going for it… You can really switch off. There’s no pressure to be down for dinner at a specific time, you’re surrounded by beautiful gardens and scenery, the rooms are serene and comfortable, and you just have to roll down the stairs for the best meal ever…
Ana is the queen of the kitchen here, but her husband (Valter) takes charge of the wine and cheese. Slovenian wines are a massive, hidden secret. When we asked the sommelier why more people aren’t talking about how great they are he said “Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone”. One beautiful thing that Valter and the other sommeliers do in the restaurant is they adapt the wines to the food and the customers. They don’t have a specific ‘wine tasting’ to accompany the set menu. Instead, they offer to choose specific wines for you and your tastes, which they adapt as the meal goes on. If you particularly like one, they may suggest having it again for the next course, or they may suggest something similar. My husband and I have very strong (and divergent) opinions on dessert wine, and they loved adapting to that. I also asked them about orange wine, which is very popular and Slovenia, so they reccommended a glass for one course, and explained the process by which it’s made. Most of the wines are biodynamic or organic and Slovenian, and are extremely reasonably priced (so no nasty surprises when the bill comes).
As for the food… I think I’m going to chicken out and let the pictures speak for themselves. Needless to say, it was all stunningly beautiful and the flavours were exquisite but, like Ana herself, it was still refined and modest. My only regrets on the visit were a) that we didn’t stay two nights and b) that we didn’t order the cheese plate (“too full” is never a legitimate excuse). If you are anywhere near Hisa Franko in the future (or even if you’re miles away), take the detour and experience this beautiful, welcoming, delicious home.