Caporetto and Hiša Franko: equilibrium found
Borderlands always exert a special charm over the traveller. They pique our curiosity; they make us want to understand the historical reasons behind the present divisions, which are often the concrete results of circumstances very different in colour, but usually all savouring of a similar thing.
Straddling our own borders, in a West-East Berlin kind of way, is Gorizia. There is very little that’s consistent across the urban landscape here, only the names on the street signs and the codes on the numberplates. The road that climbs towards Kobarid follows the course of the river Isonzo, which is Italian only for the final few miles of its flow. Here the administrative boundary is a livewire, buzzing with the current of History: a line that has been moved, violated, erased and redrawn more times than the collective memory of the local people can account for. And so Slovenians and Italians have ebbed and flowed over the centuries, depending on the abstruse legislature of faraway governments, like water lapping against the shore.
A few paragraphs can hardly sum up the vortex of denominations that has swirled around the Isonzo basin, whose geographical compactness and coherence belies the fluidity of the state borders that bisect it. There’s little point in mentioning why Kobarid – or Caporetto, in its Italian form – has entered the language as a synonym for defeat or debacle. At two in the morning on 24 October 1917 the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which comprised what is modern-day Slovenia and which conscripted Slovenians into its service, unleashed a surging counter-offensive on the Kingdom of Italy and drove the Italian army back 150 kilometres to the Piave Line. This capitulation is generally laid at the feet of Italian high command.
We mention this only to contextualize what happened in the following decades. From 1920 to 1947 Kobarid lay within Italian borders, in the large province of Gorizia; but after Italy’s defeat in the Second World War the Isonzo basin went to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Whichever powers happened to be in control were always embarking on radical programs of mononationalism, with all kinds of expulsions, reclamations and imposed linguistic rules. Today, walking the road to Kobarid, traces of Italy are rare and decrepit, and only a tiny minority of the local population speaks Italian as their first language.
On this plain, girdled by peaks and sudden, sheer Alpine slopes, we find the most famous house in all Slovenia, and a place of pilgrimage for all lovers of Italian cuisine, for all foodies in general. This is Hiša Franko - Casa Franko, in Italian – home to the culinary genius of Ana Roš, Slovenia’s leading chef and one of the top cooks in the world. Her personality and profile pulse through her restaurant, distilled in the crystalline torrent that courses past.
Italians flock here – no longer with guns in their hands but with joy in their hearts – to be ravished by the warm, informal atmosphere fostered by Ana’s troops. Here, "fine dining" is not treated as a solemn liturgy but as a joyous dance. Kitchen and dining room are divided, of course, but often the twain do meet, as the cooks – who come from all over the world – cheerily approach the tables to explain the dishes before them. The whole thing is balanced, with the utmost precision and assurance, between an expressiveness with scant regard for rules and an iron rigour in the choice of ingredients: scour the globe but cook in Kobarid, in essence. You will find some of the most popular movements in contemporary cuisine – fermentation, for instance, or experimenting with vegetables – but all done with elegance and in clear honour of where the ingredients come from. You will see kombucha, mochi, and kebab on the menu alongside orzo and trout. Robustly everyday ingredients – egg, carrot, maize – spread their wings on a symphony of coral, before you cross the pond with beef pastrami, then come back home with hay-baked potato.
As the name suggests, this is a true homely house. Hiša Franko stands for coming together in a way that we cannot do without, and which every curious traveller has to put in their diary.
Images by the Author.