Suddenly, Jaka and I found ourselves driving through tiny Slovenian Karst towns built of stone. I was nervous that my car would fit between the stone houses that squeezed the road tight. As we drove deeper, ( the streets became narrower and narrower. We started to question if cars were even allowed. After navigating the stone mazes we arrived at our destination, Pršutarna Ščuka.
If you are seeking Slovenian food of the utmost quality then you should be considering visiting the Karst Plateau. Here you can visit producers of wine and dry-aged Karst prosciutto (kraški pršut) that are designated with a Protected Geographical Indication from the European Union.
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Karst: What is it?
The Karst Plateau, Karst Region, and Karst are a few names given to this region. In Slovene, they call it Kras. This name comes from the karst land. That means that it is made up of soluble rocks; limestone. Hence why there are so many caves and intermittent lakes in this region. Water below the ground carved out rivers, cave systems, and lakes that you can visit today.
This region is within the Primorska region which is the entire western part of Slovenia that borders Italy and has access to the Mediterranean.
The first person to study karst and give it its name is Johann Weikhard von Valvasor. He was a natural historian from Slovenia. If you visit Bogenšperk Castle you can learn a lot about his significant contributions to the country.
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In the middle ages, the region was deforested so that the wood could be used to (literally) support Venice. Another party fact which I love to tell everyone, the nails that hold this wood together were fashioned by Slovenian blacksmiths from Kropa. Without Slovenian natural resources and artisans maybe Venice wouldn’t be what it is today!
While the karst extends from southwest Slovenia and northeast Italy down through the Balkans, the Karst Plateau that exists in Slovenia (and a some of Italy) is the focus of this post so I will refer to it by its local name, Kras.
Life in Kras
People who live in this region can not rely on farming. The soil is not good enough to grow food, it is dry and rocky, and keeping animals is out of the question. Their waste would run into the groundwater because of the karst. Resiliency prevailed and the locals got creative.
They turned to mulberry trees and silkworms which became incredibly valuable when selling their raw materials for silk to Italy. This unfortunately stopped when the border between both countries was closed (see: Yugoslavia) and is no longer really practiced today.
Pršutarna Ščuka has one of the oldest mulberry trees that they shaped into an umbrella. This shaping process helped increase the number of branches so that they could produce more mulberry trees for the silkworms. Now they keep up the practice out of tradition. It is done by hand every year using willow branches to tie the Mulberry branches together to keep the shape.
Another feature of Kras is the houses. Driving through the region you are immediately faced with how different the houses are from other parts of Slovenia. I ignorantly asked if everyone was rich. The houses were built in a round shape with a courtyard in the middle. This is because of the harsh winds that blow through Kras. But it is true that the more wealthy the family the larger the home and thus larger the courtyard.
If you haven’t picked it up yet, this landscape is unforgiving. There are no rivers, no bodies of water, and it can go months without rain. And this harsh wind I keep mentioning is called bora or burja in Slovene. This wind can reach and exceed 200 km/h and comes from the top of the Alps across Kras and down through Croatia and Trieste. This is the reason for the towns being so dense, the streets to small, the houses built as they are, and for the delicious air-dried kraški pršut which can only be properly dried in Kras.
Pršut and Teran: A Heavenly Slovenian Duo
Today many people who live in this region produce Teran, a (deep) red wine, that can only be grown in this region with Refošk grapes, that are indigenous to Slovenia. It has a special traditional designation within Slovenia stating its importance. The name Teran comes from terra rossa, Italian for red earth, because of the color of the soil in the region.
The other product is prosciutto, which is called pršut in Slovene. Specifically, in this area, they have kraška pršut (Karst prosciutto) which has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) within the EU. For ham to be considered kraška pršut it needs to be dried naturally for at least 12 months, and it also must contain salt from Sečovlje Salt Pans (same as Kranjska Klobasa).
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Naturally dried in this case is done by opening and closing windows in the room where the ham is being dried. If the area is too humid or the temperature is not quite right, the ham will spoil. Many large productions of prosciutto/pršut are done with air conditioning or injected with nitrates, but not in Kras. I visiting Pršutarna Ščuka to learn about the traditional drying methods and of course to taste the best of what Slovenia has to offer.
Pršutarna Ščuka: Traditional Slovenian Pršut
The moment we arrived at Pršutarna Ščuka we were treated with absolute kindness and professionalism. Maja Ščuka began the tour at the large limestone archway that leads guests into their courtyard. Once entering the courtyard you are greeted by a massive umbrella-shaped 250-year-old Mulberry tree. Not a leaf out of place.
Maja explained a bit of history about her family and their involvement in Karst activities such as owning a limestone quarry, planting one of the first Mulberry trees to feed silkworms, and now their pršut and wine ventures. Everything is done traditionally by hand which makes it all much more special.
Afterward, Maja showed us one of their drying rooms. She explained the entire process of how they acquire the pigs (and other animals), salt, pressurize, and air dry them by constantly opening and closing the windows. I didn’t realize how delicate the entire process is. Maja shared that something as simple as salting too much will not be realized until 2 years later!
That lovely bora wind combined with the karst landscape that I mentioned before is how they can do this just with the windows. If there was more humidity in the air, such as in Vipava Valley (just 15-20km away) it would not be possible to dry the ham with this method. It would need to be smoked as well.
It typically takes 24 months to do this process, and it is important to let the ham dry over two summers because this is when the aroma forms. Because it takes a lot of time they cover the hams with fat to protect the outside layer from getting too hard. Maja shared with us that they have had to add 2 months to this time, compared to 20 years prior, because of changes in the weather.
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After she explained the whole process of making kraški pršut we got to do a tasting! We opted for the gourmet package with hand-cutting prosciutto workshop.
Now, I have had my fair share of prosciuttos and pršut and the kraški pršut produced at Pršutarna Ščuka is in my top list of things I’ve ever eaten. No lie. The pršut sliced paper thing just melts in your mouth, unlike anything I’ve had before. There were also products made from boar, deer, and chamois. I nearly melted into a puddle after tasting the chamois it was so rich and just melted away on my tongue. 100% I would recommend visiting and doing a tasting. Especially because these products are only sold in house.
There were also olives, cheeses, some fruits, and bread. The whole spread was really delicious and filling! We were also given Teran that the family produced. Maja explained how during this time of the year they are pruning the grapevines by pulling individual leaves, and when they make the wine they pull the grapes by hand.
We ended the day with a hand-cutting workshop. They brought out a whole leg of kraški pršut and showed us the best techniques for cutting it; how to hold the knife, the movements, and how much practice it really takes. Jaka and I both gave it a try for a few slices. I didn’t do half bad! That means I just need more practice – haha.
I’m inspired by people who are holding on to traditional methods concerning food. Using traditional ingredients and preparation is not an easy way to do things. It is much more difficult, much more time consuming, but the result is very rewarding. You feel the passion that the Ščuka family has for their crafts and that is a very special experience.
How to visit Pršutarna Ščuka
You can arrange your visit to Pršutarna Ščuka by contacting by email or calling them directly. They have all of their tasting offers and information about bookings on their site.
Unfortunately, I think the only way to get here would be by driving. Some buses can get you to Štanjel which is nearby but from Ljubljana, it would be around 2 hours of buses whereas it is an hour and ten minutes by car.
What to visit in Kras
Štanjel is one of the oldest settlements in Kras. A cultural monument, this medieval town mimics the plans of an Etruscan town. Here you can visit a 600-year-old traditional Karst House and a museum within the castle.
Škocjan Caves is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most important caves in the world. Formed by Reka River which is still flowing through today. There is also one of the largest canyons of any cave in the world found in Škocjan. Their website is a good resource for more information.
Lipica Stud Farm is home of the Lipizzaner (Lipicanec in Slovene) horses. The original stud from 1580 was from Lipica. It was bred with other horses to create the Lipizzaner strain. These horses are famous for performances and how easily they can be trained. Check out their site if you plan on visiting.
Sežana is a small town in Kras bordering Italy and here you can visit VinaKras for wine tastings and cellar tours at their facility.
Check out the local tourism page Visit Kras for other things to do and places to do tastings.
Kras Wine Road is a route through Kras of various vineyards that you can visit for a tour and tastings. Check out their website for more information.
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This entire experience was really special for me and I’m happy that I can share it with all of you. I know there is not a lot of transparency with bloggers and I do want to say that this post was not sponsored or gifted. I stumbled upon Pršutarna Ščuka through their Instagram page and then booked a visit. All expenses paid by me.
Thank you as always for reading these posts and if you enjoyed them please do share with a friend. -Helene