How often do you get the opportunity to dine 160 metres or so below the ground?
When Radio SI (Slovenia’s international service) contacted me to take part in their ‘Slovenia’s Hidden Gems’ project, I jumped at the exciting opportunity. They chose me to try out the Velenje Underground experience, so I began counting the days till I could embark on this rather unusual culinary adventure. Till… the big day finally arrived.
“Good afternoon,” smiled Barbara, our tour guide from Velenje’s Šalek Valley Tourist Board. She warmly welcomed us inside Vila Bianca (Velenje’s tourist office) and offered us some refreshments. These went down quite nicely after our one-and-a-half-hour drive northward from Ljubljana. “Welcome to Velenje, Slovenia’s youngest city—just 60 years old! We’ll now take a short tour of the city in which you’ll witness stories of the present mingled with the not-so-distant past.” Quite a decent way to work up a good appetite for our one-of-a-kind dinner experience this evening, I thought.
I gathered a good deal of facts about the young city in that one hour. A much needed addition to my current poor state of knowledge that consisted of ‘Velenje = lake, lakeside beach, and the Pippi Longstocking Festival.’
The city was once named Titovo Velenje (or Tito’s Velenje) because of the locals’ admiration of the ex-Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. He now towers over the main square in the form of a 10-metre tall statue.
From the spacious main square, we walked past what I think is Velenje’s most interesting building—the cultural centre. It dons a cubist, coloured glass facade in the style of Mondrian. Further along, the award-winning, recently redesigned riverside esplanade marked the end of our tour.
All was well and good till that point in the late afternoon. But the most fascinating aspect of our experience that day was yet to unfold, and it would take place 160 metres below the ground. The charismatic Matej, with his remarkably fluent level of English, took over as tour guide from that point on. He would lead us on an intriguing expedition through the mysterious tunnels of the Velenje Coal Mine, toward our dinner table.
My husband and I joined a group of six people at the museum entrance where Matej urged us to step onto a barrel and introduce ourselves. Only on divulging our passwords one at a time would we be granted access to the mine! Our revelations were also rewarded by a full mug of Laško beer, which we had to down in a few seconds. As you can imagine, this entire shabang resulted in a whole lot of laughs, and we felt prepared to face our adrenaline-pumping fate.
We first entered the clothes hanging room. Here, I soon felt shivers as I caught a deep sense of the past. This is the room where the coal miners would leave their working gear to air from the sweat and dust that accumulated by the end of their toilsome day. Dramatic photos of the workers’ charred faces further highlighted their hardship.
A more pleasant surprise awaited us as we stepped into the next room: Greetings with a glass of sparkling Rebula wine, plus a tasty amuse bouche of crispy pancetta topped with a dollop of avocado cream. We were already immersed in a mysterious aura as we savoured or culinary provisions, surrounded only by candlelight.
Sense of taste heightened due to lack of light, and belly nicely prepared for more goodies, it was time to move on. Matej gave us a helmet each and led us to the mouth of the coal mine where we took the oldest remaining elevator to clank and squeak our way down to into the… darkness?
Down in the Mine
Not as dark as I’d imagined it to be. The first part of the tunnel as we exited the lift was well lit, but the passageways got darker as we trod on. We passed a number of mining machines, including a monstrous drill. Further down the trail, we heard an excerpt from a lunch-break conversation that the miners would typically have in the mine’s darkness. The series of sound effects culminated in a thunderous explosion simulation.
A couple more drilling machines along the way, till we reached our culinary destination. A row of chefs saluted us as we took our places at a long, beautifully decorated dining table. Set within a cosy, wood-cladded section of the tunnel, the dinner setting provided a pleasant contrast to the industrial surroundings.
I quickly warmed up to the new scene as I savoured the starter of orange-marinated deer carpaccio drizzled, with a balsamic plum cream. All the better accompanied by a Quercus rosé wine. The wine’s fruit-forward qualities of raspberry, currant, and cherry blended marvelously with this semi-sweet starter.
The soothing, creamy texture of the garlic soup that came next was so luscious. It must have been one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted. Pure comfort soup. What made it taste so delicious? Was it the unfamiliar setting I was in? Perhaps.
Most likely conclusion: Even though garlic was the main ingredient, it didn’t come across as too blatant. Just the right dose of garlic and creaminess. There was plenty of opportunity for the taste of the accompanying crayfish and sage to come through.
As the evening progressed, I almost forgot we were in a coal mine. An exceptional five-course meal and service provided by the Vila Herberstein chefs. Selected wines from Klet Brda Winery. They all made for a stupendous dining experience. Quite a contrast with what the poor miners had to eat back in the days.
Yet another pleasant surprise was in store. Suddenly, a woman dressed in evening wear completed with a jacket and hat from a mining officer’s uniform appeared from around the corner. She began singing Bizet’s famous ‘Habanera’!
Mezzo-soprano Gordana Hleb’s heartful interpretation served as an inspiring interval between the soup and the main course, which consisted of honey-coated duck breast in Porto sauce. Mashed celery tuber and candied kumquat were on the side. And the wine? The Krasno Pinot Noir perfectly matched this dish due to its mature red fruit and full-bodied character.
Gordana reappeared to sing Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’. What a perfect song to calmy draw our evening to a close. This, together with a delightful dessert of vanilla mousse and chocolate brownie, decorated with a strawberry puree. Then finished off with a Verduc dessert wine that smelled of wild strawberry and acacia blossoms.
All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes. Otherwise, we can’t prepare ourselves for new future experiences, can we? So we stood up, satisfied, and walked back to the elevator that took us back to familiar ground. Our last wine for the night appeared before us: a floral sparkling muscat. A sweet ending indeed!
I must convey my deep thanks to Barbara for patiently giving the Velenje tour in English, and Matej for an unforgettable adventure. Furthermore, Vila Herberstein chefs for their one-of-a-kind food experience that required them to take their culinary masterpieces 160 metres below ground level. Finally, Ksenija and Radio SI for this wonderful opportunity.