I should come clean. I like Ana Roš. Her kids, too. Calling them friends might be presumptuous, but I’d happily fix on odd uncle or English nanny, like a modern male Mary Poppins. Davey Droppins! The idea has legs if you’re reading this Disney or Pixar. Let the bidding wars begin.
Brexit stopped any dreamy fantasy of setting up a life there. And don’t get me started on that
Ana and I first met in Bangkok, or was it Moscow? I don’t think it was Slovenia, but it might have been. I wrote an article in 2013 for The Huffington Post entitled Slovenia Might Be the New Tuscany, Just Don’t Tell the British, and readers obeyed. The small jigsaw-shaped country is still relatively Britless, despite an English pub in Ljubljana. Even if some vagrant Brits did have an eye on emigrating, Brexit stopped any dreamy fantasy of setting up a life there. And don’t get me started on that. I might have met Ana in 2013, but I was more interested then in the wine and eating pork lung on bread, called mežerli, and all of the artisan cheese and sloppy bowls of polenta to remember the name of any budding chef.
I did babysit her kids for the day in Moscow. We spent the morning on a guided tour of the Kremlin and the afternoon enjoying the fairground winter brilliance of Red Square. Another time we were in the Emirati desert, dancing to Liwa music and doing backflips off sandy mounds. Well, Svit and Eva Klara were. They’re bendy, flexy teeny athletes, and I’m a pro-eater and twice their age.
Look, what I’m trying to tell you is that I know the family. Therefore, it’s impossible for me to make an assessment of Hiša Franko impartially. Whether you believe me or not, I sit down at every dining table open-minded and without prejudice. Usually, if a meal is that bad, I won’t write about it at all, doing all parties a favour. Who needs to read that? Well, unless you’re one of those sadists who enjoy such brutal takedowns and are looking for a giggle. Anyway, my last visit to Hiša Franko was in the spring of 2019. Yikes, remember those pre-pandemic days when the idea of sticking a plastic stick up your nose and down your throat seemed crazily dystopian? Before long, we were all doing it, repeatedly. More than three years later, I was back in Kobarid, the rain hammering the windscreen and my tummy groaning.
This is a family-run restaurant where generations live and serve, and the ingredients are rigorously, obsessively local, with everything homemade and hand-reared. The word “Hiša” translates as house. During the First World War, the innkeeper served English roast beef to injured soldiers (as a courtesy, not as a punishment). You can still find the recipe down the road at Hiša Polonka. There’s a rumour that Ernest Hemingway stayed at the house while volunteering to drive ambulances on the Italian front and may have written A Farewell to Arms there. True or not, I like to believe that it is.
Hiša Franko employs a forager, works with a herbalist, and the local hunter delivers bear salami to the back door. Bear, beef and dairy products come from high mountain pastures above the valley, and they use the protected Slovenian species of marble trout from deep in the gorges of the Soča River. The wine, mostly Slovenian, comes from fields outside the window and across the way. It’s almost all natural plonk. A lot of it smells of fields. Some of the others like a marathon runners’ socks. Natural wine is having a time right now, and the Slovenian offering is well up there, blessed and lauded by hipster lumberjacks and Hiša Franko’s cookbook co-author and local inebriant Kaja Sajovic.
Beautiful, delicate, earthy. We’re off to a good start
From the 2022 “Reincarnation” menu, I started with two tiny morsels of folded beef tongue pastrami on a golden seaweed crystal with prickly jalapeño for an unexpected, creeping heat; and lacto-fermented tomato water with elderflower, blackcurrant and tarragon. This was served with a glass of Fino Eléctrico Bombilla, a fortified wine from Pedro Ximénez grapes, for an acidic, saline tang. Then a beautiful circular assembly of shaved truffle and celeriac was placed around the circumference of a fragile sun-like cookie made from milk skin and buttermilk powder. Beautiful, delicate, earthy. We’re off to a good start; the autumnal taste of garden husbandry with Ana’s international influences peppered throughout.
Inspired by a young Indian chef in the kitchen, carrot kebab arrives on a Linden Tree leaf, thin and dotted with grapefruit and Panch Phoron spicing, translating as “five spices”, and then a corn beignet which always makes me laugh. In France, they are usually made from yeast dough or pâte à choux and called pets-de-nonne, “nun’s fart”. Don’t ask me why. In New Orleans, they fry them and serve with powdered sugar for breakfast. Here, the beignet is doughy and hot, filled with fermented cottage cheese, smoked trout roe and wild chives. It’s doughnut-like, with a sweet but thoroughly fishy core.
A small potato baked in August hay crust is one of the courses I remember from 2019. It has been served here, in some form, since 2018. The idea is to break the casing to reveal the steamed potato within, then remove and apply lashings of butter, a smooth, melty mix of lovage and horseradish. I won’t go on; all this ballyhoo over a spud sounds silly, but what a spud. There’s a bowl of lake trout in roasted yeast water with apple, radish and sour cabbage. On the side, an elegant and smooshy trout belly praline that is unlike anything I’ve tasted before, fully-fishy flavoured and unmistakably piscine. I contemplate asking for another but fear messing with the rhythm and order of lunch.
Almond, fig leaf and watermelon is prettily plated and clearly time-consuming in its construction but a little disappointing in overall flavour, perhaps too much style over substance, while subsequent courses of pumpkin, chestnut milk and “old apples” – clearly a better option over young apples, but I couldn’t tell you why – and barely in a pork broth with apricots expanded the boundaries of sweet-savoury juxtaposition, the latter faintly umami while delivering a lifting sweetness without ever being explosive or dominating. An extraordinary corn tortilla with Drežnica lamb and red bell pepper sauce comes loaded with greenery and meadow petals, impossible to fold, but I had fun trying. Ana follows the century-old method of nixtamalization to process the corn, cooking and steeping the kernels in a water and lime solution before milling, thereby raising the nutritional value.
Nearing the end, a cheese water mochi further confirms the influence of Ana’s boundless globe-trotting. The Japanese-style rice ball, traditionally made by steaming white rice, was instead stuffed with Slovenian apple, blackcurrant and gooseberries and rolled in puff grains for a bipartite taste of toasted nuttiness and fruit acidity. Despite or because of spontaneous fermentation, a fruity companion of Utopia Lidmila pét-nat 2020, a sparkling Czech natural cider, is a marvellous pairing this late on during lunch.
The output was finer, more evolved, more celebratory. This is a restaurant with home at the heart
To get the wording right, Hemingway famously said that he rewrote the ending to ‘A Farewell to Arms‘ 39 times. This review similarly took longer than usual before eventually settling on what you’re reading now. Each revisit to the novel reads better and better, although ‘The Sun Also Rises‘ remains my favourite. A third visit to Hiša Franko, and I felt a similar, burgeoning appreciation. The output was finer, more evolved, more celebratory. This is a restaurant with home at the heart.
Ana has opened her home and enlarged her working family, welcoming young, smiley front-of-house staff and an increase in the international kitchen brigade, who are playing a more pivotal role in the direction of the recipe output. She turns 50 on New Year’s Eve and is hitting the top of her profession while plenty of her contemporaries are counting coins with their feet up. I visited the kitchen after lunch, and there’s a noticeable vim about this season’s menu, a bubbling energy that things are just getting started and the best is yet to come. I asked a member of the team, who I won’t embarrass and name, what keeps them in a Kobarid kitchen over the likes of say Melbourne or Bangkok. “Ana”, they replied, “the freedom she gives us… and look out of the window!” Yeah, I get it. I would want to stay here, too. Hiša is home. C
Hiša Franko, Staro selo 1, 5222 Kobarid, Slovenia