On my recent trip to Slovenia I was lucky enough to visit a wonderful restaurant, Majerija, deep in the Slovenian countryside and interview the chef-patron there, Matej in Nataša Tomažič. This country inn produces exquisite food as well as a range of naturally produced preserves and cordials.
In addition, hidden discretely beneath the surrounding herb garden are a set of guest rooms, cleverly provided with natural light by a talented architect.
And the buildings and land are set in stunning countryside, with the picturesque spire of the church in the neighbouring village, echoing the soaring heights of the mountains circling the hills in which old farmhouse nestles.
I asked Matej how he came to conceive of such a bold and imaginative project.
SD: How did you come to set up Majerija and why did you choose this location?
MNT: So – I was born just ten kilometres away and my wife is from this village. It all started back in 1989. We were a young couple, and my wife was in love with this old farmhouse. But it was an impossible dream, we were on point zero then, we had nothing. It just wasn’t realistic.
At that time I was teaching in Trieste and working as a chef at La Subida, in Cormons, just across the Italian border, [This is a restaurant of which A A Gill wrote, ‘Great food travels, there are no secret fairy-tale places left: La Subida is as close as you’ll get.’ Ed].
I was teaching and working alongside Valter Kramar, Ana Roŝ’ husband, and later we were joined by Ana.
Nataša, my wife, and I were finally able to save enough money and in 1994 we bought this building with the idea of living in it and establishing a country-style restaurant, along the same successful lines as La Subida. But the problem was that we’d put all we had into the purchase – we had no money left to invest.
So we began by building it up from scratch – we reinvested money as we went along. My wife works as a school teacher but she also plays an important part in the restaurant – she gives it the ‘feminine touch’. Now Tanita, my daughter, who is 23, is a sommelier, and Luka, my 17-year-old son, is also very good on wine. The snag about that is that these days I can only take them to good restaurants!
SD: Why do you think Ana Roŝ has been so successful?
MNT: I’d say that was because she has the right character, she’s dedicated and able. And she doesn’t overcomplicate things, she keeps her food simple and elegant and concentrates on quality.
SD: What is your approach to food?
MNT: The base of everything is tradition. I try to moderate it, to interpret it in interesting ways, but I don’t want to lose anything, its essential character. I’m particularly keen on using fresh, seasonal, ingredients. And I especially like to use herbs in new and different ways. You just have to look outside – you’ll see most of our garden is given over to herbs.
SD: Tell us something of your use of herbs?
MNT: The most essential point is that I almost always use fresh herbs, that contributes to the seasonality of the dish as a whole. Basil, for example, is only any good between April and November. It’s also important to be specific about the particular type of herb. For example, in the ricotta pâté which you’re having for lunch I’ve incorporated some tarragon – but it’s a different type of tarragon to the type the French use in their mustard.
What gives such scope is that there are no rules about the use of herbs. You can use basil very effectively with pasta; red and white meat; fish; ricotta and other cheeses; and with sweet deserts.
SD: How does this philosophy tie in with Slovenian food in general?
MNT: The wonderful things about Slovenian food – the important thing – is that it is a kind of culinary cross-roads. There is the Austrian-alpine influence; the Italian influence; the Balkan influence – from the area that was once Yugoslavia; and the influence of Slovenia itself.
In the springs and summers our best food borrows from the Mediterranean, whereas in the autumn and winter we use ingredients grown further inland.
SD: How do you achieve a balance between updating traditional Slovenian food whilst at the same time retaining its character?
MNT: A good example of this is a type of flat bread cum pasta which we call mlinci (the word literally means ‘tatters’). When the millers in this area cleaned their equipment they saved the remaining flour (it could be wheat or buckwheat) and used it for making bread – and of course this bread was different with every baking. I even remember my grandmother using this left-over flour to make bread for our pigs – it was delicious!
This mlinci is traditionally baked first over a wood fire, boiled for five minutes or so, and then served with a heavy sauce – food needed to be real fuel in those days. Now I would serve mlinci with a much lighter sauce made with fresh vegetables and herbs. For you, today, for example, I’m serving it in a sorrel sauce.
I also like to invent different types of pasta, or a new way to eat minestrone.
SD: One final question: you have a strict rule that you always have lunch, however brief with your family. What do you like to cook? [To this Matej replies with a boyish grin].
This is a terrible admission – but I don’t like to cook at home!
For other interviews with chefs, follow this link.
Lunch with Matej in Nataša Tomažič, chef-patron of Majerija – what were the treats in store?
- Ricotta and tarragon pâté with crispy cornbread chips, melon and a summer salad.
- Mlinci with sorrel – like the tarragon, the sorrel was not a variety I had ever come across.
- Pork fillet with cherry jam, lemon thyme and lemon verbena. The cherries in the jam come from the restaurant orchard.
- Home-made ‘ricotta’ cream with elderflower sorbet and a salad of raspberries, peaches, grapes and mint. Matej explained that the ‘ricotta’ is a very special type of curd cheese made to his grandmother’s recipe. “It’s creamy – not lumpy like cottage cheese – and it’s not really like ricotta either. It has a little vanilla and lemon zest mixed into it.” I have to admit – this was wonderful.
- Rhubarb biscotti with coffee (see the recipe for these at the bottom of this post)
- And a parting gift – a fragrant jar of elderberry and apple jelly, enhanced with a little vanilla and lemon verbena – given to me still warm from the saucepan
Here is Matej’s recipe for rhubarb biscottini
For the pastry:
- 300g plain flour
- 150g butter
- 100g icing sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- ¼ tsp baking powder
- 1 egg yolk
- Zest of one lemon
For the topping:
- 100g quince jam
- 500g rhubarb
- 120g demerara sugar
- Preheat the oven to 180°C.
- Peel the rhubarb and slice into 1 cm cubes. Mix with the demerara sugar.
- Mix all the pastry ingredients together until smooth and put in the fridge for about half an hour to cool.
- Roll out to a thickness of about 1 cm.
- Top with the rhubarb and quince jam and bake for 25 minutes.
- Then we take them out, leave them to cool, and then cut out the half moon shapes.