Črno Zrno: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

Č is for Črno Zrno

Today we reach the first exotic letter of the Slovenian alphabet; the letter Č. Pronounced “ch”, like “ch” in “church”, there were a few contenders for Č.

I am a fan of Čevapčiči – the Balkan dish of grilled, minced meat shaped into sausages (but without a sausage skin).

Čebela (bee) would also have been a worthy choice; Slovenia is bee mad, and you see hives (called ‘bee houses’) painted bright colours or with traditional folk art, all over the country. But rather than those more obvious choices, I am instead going for Črno Zrno, Ljubljana’s most interesting coffee bar.

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Črno Zrno (pic: Črno Zrno)

Črno Zrno translates as ‘Black Bean’. I first became aware of Črno Zrno from Noah Charney, an American who has settled here and is a long time Slovenophile and prolific author (check out his excellent book: Slovenology). Situated in the old town, on a cobbled street that curls up and around the castle, Črno Zrno is the creation of the Colombian, Alexander Niño Ruiz.

I describe Alex as a coffee scientist. He carefully weighs out his ingredients using an electronic scale and uses glassware that could come from a lab. He imports beans from his native country, then has them roasted in Slovenia to create his own, unique flavours which he loves to share with his customers.

Alex keeps his menu simple but is constantly experimenting with blends and brews. My personal favourite is his delicious cold brew which he serves in wine glasses, but you can also get ‘pour over’ coffee as well as espressos.

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My personal fave: cold brew (pic: Črno Zrno)

His coffee is okusno (delicious) but it’s not just the beans that keep people coming back to Črno Zrno; it’s Alex himself and the very space he has created. An architect by trade, he has turned what could almost be just a passageway, into a stylish and welcoming place. The vaulted ceiling and colourful tiles draw you in to his stage, where he performs his coffee making ‘displays’.

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Črno Zrno sits on a cobbled street in Ljubljana’s old town

He enthusiastically explains where each coffee is grown, referring to a map of his homeland that sits on the wall, allowing him to educate his customers on the geographical diversity of Colombia and the characteristics each region imparts on the flavour of the beans. Alex has visions of how he will evolve his business; he already sells his own bagged beans and various coffee-making hardware. He’s done coffee pairing with local resturants, and there are more ideas to follow, he says.

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Alexander Niño Ruiz – Colombian coffee scientist and creator of Črno Zrno – Ljubljana’s most interesting coffee bar (pic: Črno Zrno)

There’s something about Alex’s warm personality and Latino cheek that draws a certain patron. A meeting place for both the exotic expats of Ljubljana and homegrown locals alike, it’s so small that you inevitably end up talking to whoever else is there. And this, combined with Alex’s knowledge and passion for the coffee he serves, makes Črno Zrno a very regular stop for me.

When I first arrived in Ljubljana, I was looking for somewhere friendly and homely. A place where I might meet an interesting mix of people and enjoy something delicious and unique. I found all those things at Črno Zrno.

Don’t be fooled by its petite nature. Physically it may be small but Črno Zrno punches well above its weight and is a huge asset to Ljubljana’s coffee and social scene, and somewhere I will keep going back to, again and again.

 

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Cockta: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

C is for Cockta

At first it was somewhat slim pickings for the letter C. Consulting my Slovenian-English dictionary, the C-section was lean.

I shortlisted Cerkev (Church) – as there are many pretty ones atop green hills all over Slovenia, Cesta (Road) – as I do enjoy driving the quiet winding mountain roads here, and Copati (Slippers) – the Japanese-like love of wearing slippers AT ALL TIMES when in your home is quite a lovely quirk; slippers are provided for guests, and you better damn-well wear them or else face Slovenian Slipper Wrath from your host.

Then I remembered Cockta. Invented in the 1950s, it’s a Slovenian brand (though now Croatian owned much to Slovenians’ lament) and since I first visited Slovenia in 2007, Cockta has been a reliable source of schoolboy humour.

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She is certainly enjoying a bit of Cockta here. Billboard circa 2012

Originally deemed ‘Yugoslavian Coke’, it shares the colour of its American rival, though unlike coke it is caffeine-free and its flavour is also quite different “coming from 11 of the finest herbal extracts, which are handpicked, carefully inspected and blended into a unique herb cocktail.”

Above: early TV advert for Cockta

The official Cockta website describes Cockta through the ages, and has some amusing claims:

“From Sputnik to Moon landings, from champions to revolutionaries, from cosy traditions to great changes, Cockta has not just been there – it has made history.”

In the 1960s, Cockta apparently was “the official beverage of the sixties”. I’m unsure which official body made this so, but it’s quite possible that the Yugoslavian government did actually make Cockta its official drink during this decade.

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Vintage Cockta poster from Yugoslav era

The 1970s was apparently the decade of “Cockta-ing the world”:

“The Beatles disbanded, the Moon was conquered, the rock hardened, the world toughened. The seventies were strange times, and Cockta was both nostalgic, contemporary and futuristic.”

The 1980s was apparently the decade of “Cockta mania”:

“In the decade of one-hit wonders, Cockta was the classic, in the midst of bizarre clothes and hairstyles, Cockta was the ultimate cool, and on the dancefloor Cockta had the best moves.”

I must point out that if a bottle of soft drink had the best moves on the dancefloor, it does not say much for Yugoslavians’ abilities to shake their booties in the night party discotheque clubs of the ‘80s.

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Be careful how you hold your Cock(ta).

Perhaps realising that dancing was not its forte, Cockta got serious in the 1990s, getting involved in politics and apparently playing some sort of role in the dissolution of the Former Yugoslavia:

“Tear down this wall and get me a Cockta! Everything changed in the nineties, from the basic economy to maps. It was a time of exhilaration, and we had our own Ode to Joy in our hands: a cold, perfect Cockta.”

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A Cockta Calendar

Moving into the millennium, Cockta became “a tasteful guide to the things to come, a fizzy reassurance of our choices. The future is cool, and so is Cockta.”

And finally, bringing us to the year 2018, the big news for Cockta lovers is the release of ‘Cockta Original’ along with a label re-design.

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2018:  Cockta Original on the shelves

So there you have it; Slovenia’s answer to Coca-Cola seems to have become a notable part of Slovenian identity, having played a role in Yugoslavian dance culture, geo-politics and youth fashion.

Cockta must also be credited with providing English-speaking visitors with a wealth of crude punning material, the likes of which we have not seen since the Americans invented ‘fanny packs’.

And it tastes pretty good too.

Read more: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

Burek: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

B is for Burek

It would have been a more obvious choice to have chosen Bled, Bohinj or perhaps Bovec for letter B of our A-Ž of Reasons I live in Slovenia. But though I do love all those B locations (Bohinj especially), I have already showcased some of their beauty in the A is for Akvarel entry. And as Slovenia’s poster boys, pictures of both are already widespread, to the point of cliché.

So instead, I choose burek. Though not exclusively a Slovene food (it’s popular all over ex-YU and beyond), it’s a tasty snack, available in every supermarket and bakery in the country. A simple food, it is made from layers of thin, flaky pastry that contain a filling, normally rolled into a sausage shape (and then often curled up like a nautilus) and then baked.

It comes in both sweet (apple, sweet cheese) and savoury varieties. I used to love burek mesni (minced meat) but now I’m really into burek špinačni, a mix of spinach and cheese. There are even some newer varieties such as pizza burek.

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The standard variations of burek

Whilst living in other countries and I have often discovered snack foods that I think would sell well in the UK. Whilst living in rural Japan I came to know and love little steamed buns with different fillings – called man. I suspect burek would also find a market in the UK as a quick, tasty, snack food, likely to be especially popular with the post-boozing crowd.

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snail-style burek

One thing I would like to see is the further innovation of burek fillings. Almost every burek vendor I have ever seen sells the same four or five varieties. Sometimes I think Slovenia is too rooted in ‘tradition’, too set in its ways to try something new and I think the burek industry could benefit from experimenting with new varieties. You can put almost any filling in to burek – so why not try some new things?

If I owned a burek bakery, I would test the following burek varieties:

  • Pesto chicken burek
  • Spicy beef burek
  • Feta and olive burek
  • Caramelised onion and goats’ cheese burek

So the question for burek lovers is: would you like to see new burek varieties or do you think any recipes that veer from the traditional would just be bastardising burek?

Akvarel: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

A is for Akvarel: Watercolour

I’ve been visiting Slovenia for over a decade, but the dashing splendor is yet to wear off. I’ve decided to compile a series of A to Ž posts that share some of the reasons that I now live in Slovenia.

We shall commence our Slovenian alphabet aerobics, with the word Akvarel. The literal translation is ‘watercolour’ as in the type of painting, however, I’m taking some artistic license of my own and using it to mean ‘the colour of the water’. Because the colour of the lakes and rivers here never gets old. Here are some pictures I’ve taken of The Slovenian Blues (and greens, and aquamarines) over the years.