Potica cake - as Slovenian as it gets

Ljubljana, 31 May - Food is a lynchpin national and ethnic identity. There are many dishes that Slovenians consider as being central to their heritage and culture, but none quite as much as potica. It is to Slovenians what apple pie is to Americans.

Potica, the traditional Slovenian pastry.
Photo: Daniel Novakovič/STA

Photo: Tamino Petelinšek/STA

It is a simple dish, really. A variety of sweet or, rarely, savoury fillings, most commonly walnuts, hazelnuts or poppy seeds, is spread on a sheet of rich dough and rolled into a roll, then baked either as a straight roll or in a round pan with a hole in the middle to create a wreath-like appearance.

But the simplicity belies its complexity, in terms of culinary skill required as well as its centrality in the pantheon of Slovenian culture.

Everyone who has ever attempted to bake potica knows that it is devilishly difficult to make a palatable end product. The taste may be fine, but the texture is often off and the poticas of novice cooks have an uncanny tendency to fall apart. It takes years and countless disasters to master the cake.

There is a veritable cottage industry of tweaks to the original recipe and almost every household appears to have some sort of trick to make "the best potica". Kulinarika.net, a popular recipe site, has a bewildering 147 recipes.

Other foods loom large in the national psyche as well, for example beef soup, Kranjska sausage or the sauerkraut soup jota. But what sets potica apart is its festive character.

Far from being an everyday dish, potica is made for special occasions such as weddings, funerals and christenings, and it has a prominent position on the festive spreads for Christmas and Easter.

But perhaps the best indication of its centrality to ethnic identity is its role in Slovenian communities outside the homeland.

A field study among the members of the Slovenian diaspora in Serbia by the ethnologist Maja Godina Golija found that potica features as a source of national identity, and the defining feature of what sets the Slovenian community there apart from the majority population.

In Hanna A. W. Slak's 2006 documentary 100% Slovenian, which tells the stories of three generations of ethnic Slovenian women in the US, a woman from Pittsburgh, referring to potica, says: "Food is ethnic identity and they really can't be separated."

Linda Mann, a second-generation Slovenian American, agrees. "Potica was always the most important dessert at any family celebration. To me potica is a symbol of celebration," she told the STA.

"Whether it be a holiday, wedding, family celebration or even a funeral, everyone's eyes would light up if potica was served. As a child I remember all my relatives talking about potica recipes and whose was the best. It was sort of like a potica competition and everyone had an opinion."

The origin of potica is moot. Ethnologist Janez Bogataj's seminal 2013 book on the dish, Potice iz Slovenije (Poticas from Slovenia), dwells on its history for 30 pages to come to the conclusion that it has evolved over the past 500 years from festive bread dishes that originate in present-day western Slovenia, northern Italy and southern Austria, where similar dishes exist to this day.

Its history, then, is complex and colourful as Slovenia's, reflecting the history of a nation that has lived at the crossroads of Romance, Germanic and Slavic cultures and managed to survive by co-opting elements of them all to create its own distinct culture and identity.

© STA, 2016