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Culinary magic deep in the forests of Horjul

 

Turn after turn, past old apple trees, past thick forests, past green patches with donkeys or young goats. Šentjošt nad Horjulom is only half an hour’s drive from Ljubljana, but seems a world away.

Among the hills of the Polhov Gradec Dolomites, bell towers, goat farms, and gorges full of hidden mushroom sites in the autumn, one of the most progressive restaurants in Slovenia is located. The Slovenian Fäviken was a recent comment of a Swedish journalist.

34-year-old Luka Košir does not hide his fascination with Swedish chefs who have turned game and remoteness to their advantage. His role models are Magnus Nilsson from the now closed Fäviken, Rene Redzepi from Noma, and all who co-created the concept of the new Nordic cuisine. Fifteen years ago, it was an exotic feat of the crazy Vikings, while today, it is part of modern global cuisines with its philosophy of drawing on its immediate surroundings and contributing to the development of fermentation.

Grič Restaurant is a family business which turned a village inn where the locals went for snacks, pizzas, and beers into one of the most interesting and advanced restaurants in Slovenia after Luka’s return from Ljubljana in 2010, where he worked at JB and Harfa. At first, Luka’s mother and father wrung their hands as the menu became more avant-garde and the cuisine more experimental, but the old guests almost stopped coming and new ones were nowhere in sight. In Slovenia, half an hour’s drive from Ljubljana often seems very far. Too far for dinner which may be reached on a steep winding road.

King of ferments

But Luka persisted. He buried himself in books on ferments and garums, studied Scandinavian, Japanese, and Basque techniques, soaked up the advice of David Zilber, Noma’s fermentation magician, studied South Korean kimchi recipes, and was later attracted to Josh Niland’s stories on the maturation of fish products. He carried out hundreds of failed experiments before he found the right balance and autonomy, which may today be detected in Grič’s tasting menu.

“During those first experiments, my father would throw half of everything away – even today, he’d rather see that I stuck to lunches,” grins Luka, comfortably sat in a wooden chair on the upper floor of the log cabin which has been the main space in the restaurant’s new chapter in Šenjošt since last year. The bright wood-clad dining room with a view of the forest on one side, and the village church and Orešnik’s goat farm on the other.

A dried lavender bouquet hangs from a wooden beam, while the late afternoon sun casts long shadows of spruce on the table as one amuse-bouche after another is brought to it. The whole of Šenjošt is lined up in front of the guests – from Košir’s vegetable gardens to Medvedov graben far below them, where Roman Koligar breeds trout which end up on Luka’s menu.

Fermentation
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Best neighbour(s)

Shiny white slices of bacon slightly seasoned with pink peppercorn are made by a neighbour, who also makes creamy hand-pressed butter, with miso under them. And completely fresh sashimi made from Roman’s virgin pink trout with gold pearls of roe from Arctic char on it, as they crack between your teeth and spice the fish up with gentle saltiness.

And fritters filled with cottage cheese with herbs and dried leek powder, and a pea and fried kale cake. Picarels fried in acorn flour are served on the fifth plate, while the sixth plate brings you a selection of pickled mushrooms.

The plates are skilfully made from ceramic and what is on them is years away from the old Grič, and glassed are filled with old Medot’s sparkling wine with honey and brioche flavours. Nevertheless, the log cabin has not lost the charm of the times when Luka’s mother was behind the stove. The lager-sipping locals still lean on the counter in the ground floor, despite jars of Luka’s fermentation experiments observing visitors, the same counter where you are welcomed with an aperitif of Poire Williams or juniper brandy from another neighbour.

Gostišče Grič
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Home-made miso

The story on the upper floors, however, is completely different, despite the fact that Luka’s (numerous) offspring sometimes crawl on all fours along the stairs during dinner, giving the guests a curious glance.

In the meantime, you are served the first plate, the mackerel, salted and washed in apple cider vinegar with added onions cooked in wild cherries which have fermented for two years, a magnolia leaf and wild garlic pickled in home-made vinegar and honey. Wild garlic mayonnaise and magnolia leaf water are the icing on the cake.

This plate is followed by a lamb tartare with hazelnut miso, last spring’s pickled asparagus, and a sauce made of butter and asparagus water. No one has perfected the art of home-made miso – a traditional Japanese seasoning made from fermented rice – as much as Luka Košir, who today makes around 15 various kinds of miso. The barley miso remains the traditional kind, but he has tried them all. Pistachios, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, corn, beans, hazelnuts, the soya beans he bought for feeding the ducks but which they sniffed at.

Gostišče Grič
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

How to move Japan to Šentjošt?

Like with miso, Košir had a go at a Slovenian version of soya sauce made from barley and pumpkin seeds. The very winter plate he served that day stemmed from soba, Japanese buckwheat noodles, but he used out buckwheat mush instead. He hid it under the scarlet leaves of Solkan radicchio and fused it with one of the soft-boiled eggs he gets from his father-in-law, cold-pressed pumpkin seed oil, pine nuts, and Orešnik’s young goat cheese.

Košir also included his father-in-law in duck breeding on the estate, which is probably the only main meat protein with which this young chef is associated today. Birds used to be the responsibility of Peter Blombergsson, a breeder at Fäviken, with whom Košir perfected his bird-breeding technique. His duck dishes have been perfected without any shortcuts and traditional combinations. On that day, the menu included an extraordinary, decadent but pleasantly domestic, dish, no matter how paradoxical it may sound.

Luka cooks duck wings for 24 hours in a sous-vide machine, and reduces duck stock from fifty litres to a mere two litres, producing a delicious velvety thick concentrated gravy accompanying pulled duck meat on a bed of corn polenta and celeriac on brown butter. All of this is dipped in sheep whey caramelised into a country “dulce de leche”. To top it all off, Košir grates a generous amount of Périgord truffles at the table.

Luka Košir

Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Ode to cabbage

Although meat is well represented on Grič’s menu, be it in the form of sheep and goats or pork (both from neighbours), ducks, beef (which he gets from nearby Betajnova) or game (from Meglen in Dolenjska), Luka believes that vegetables have a lot more potential which is on its way to the forefront of the menu. He is most fascinated with cabbage.

He ferments it in beef back aged in tallow and fish sauce made from Koligar’s trout. He then peels fermented cabbage and cooks it in a sous-vide machine with some tallow, then cuts it, roasts it in tallow, and adds its own sauce. The dish is perfected with Orešnik’s aged goat cheese with Reblochon-style red mould.

Diners are finally wiped out with venison, which has been dry aged for two months and is a wonderful compliment to our forests and fields, and seasoned with spruce ash and pine oil. This is complemented by Janko Štekar’s small Pituralka pear from Brda, and pumpkin glazed with fermented plums.

Košir’s desserts are never too sweet, they continue the common thread of the green, vegetable, and cheesy – a combination of mascarpone and marzipan, an addition of poppy seeds, green almonds, and golden beets, and a sea buckthorn ice cream for freshness and bitterness.

The limit? The sky.

Currently, it seems that the sky is the limit for Luka. Fermentation has become so self-evident for him that he does not even mention it any more. He experiments with the Penicilinum Candidum mould which is used for Camembert. He wants to graft fruits following the example of Mugaritz.

With the exception of genius crazy cooking colleagues from abroad, he finds inspiration in the surrounding perpetually changing nature. He says that deciding on the winter menu is the easiest, since he spends the whole spring and summer pickling, drying, fermenting, and souring whatever Šenjošt boasts.

For some people, creating top cuisine in a remote village where no gourmet accidentally wanders to would be a drawback. But not for Luka. “Being here is an advantage for me. It is easier to plan everything, and guests need to plan their visits. I feel good here, I literally live off the locals, the fields, I’m self-sufficient, work with people I trust … You don’t have to fake anything and make up stories to sell yourself well,” explains Luka. He keeps a clear head throughout. “This is no romance. Our life here is that simple.”

In Medvedov graben

Until a few years ago, he clung closely to the immediate surroundings of the log cabin – vegetables from the garden above it, meat provided by farmers, eggs brought to the top of the hill by Roman Koligar from Medvedov graben. Until Koligar asked the then unknown chef why he was resisting his fish. By then, Koligar had been breeding Arctic char, brown trout, and rainbow trout for two decades in a gorge just below the village.

When he was a child, this man from Črnuče, who married a local woman, spent a lot of time at his grandmother’s farm, which is why he always wanted to work with animals. Today, he breeds chickens and in Šenjošt in harmony with nature and without any chemical products, but fish remain his greatest love. He has 20,000 of them, including juveniles. His business is good even without any advertising (“The only publicity is good fish.”). Also thanks to Luka Košir, whom he works with hand in hand. They improve each other’s knowledge of fish, too.

Trout Roman Koligar
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Trout Roman Koligar

Košir will tell you that Koligar is the reason why he began working with fish. On the other hand, Košir encouraged Koligar to begin harvesting roe from his trout, which he used to throw away, and kill fish in a humane, traditional Japanese way, ikejime. For this, you need to be dexterous and swift so that the fish do not suffer, while the meat remains pure and without a drop of blood.

“You see, first, you pierce the brain with this spear, then you cut the neck, and after that, you go straight through the spinal cord with a stainless steel wire to instantly destroy the nerves in the spinal cord,” explains the fish farmer as he carries out a procedure reminiscent partly of a ritual and partly of surgery.
After a day of rest, it is Košir’s turn to make fillets and then sashimi. This is a dish which made him really famous years ago when he served mere raw fish seasoned with home-made barley soya sauce and chickweed from his garden at the Open Kitchen.

Later, he switched from trout to sea fish and other organisms, and today, Grič’s menu includes everything from anchovies and mackerel to mussels and shrimps, crazy garums with an intensive flavour and experiments with fish maturation. However, the trout from Medvedov graben remains an indispensable regular.

Trout
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Orešnik’s cheeses

Another regular of each of Luka’s journeys are Orešnik’s goat cheeses. Soft, aged, with blue or red mould, and thyme … With just the right intensity but perfected cheeses with which Irena Orešnik and her family can match any stiff French competition.

The story of Orešnik’s cheeses dates back to 1991 when Irena and Dejan, a wife and husband, bought their first goats. Today, they have 90 of them. She is a local, an agronomist by profession, and has always been interested in such a business. She is an undestined restaurant owner who got tired of hurrying to work in Ljubljana and back home. “It’s so beautiful out here, it’s paradise, and we missed all this by driving to town in the dark,” explains Irena looking dreamily towards the Polhov Gradec hills.

She and her husband contemplated all options and ended up with goats. She admits that they were clueless about cheese making. This is not a traditional cheese-making area, and initially, they intended to sell just milk and yoghurt. But Irena soon began learning about cheese and she got completely absorbed in it. They were ahead of their time, entirely organic, they cooperated closely with the French. Ideas kept popping up and new cheeses with them, all made of the raw milk the Orešniks swear by.

Orešnik Cheese
Poto: Suzan Gabrijan

A while ago

When Slovenians were used to eating only the most common, generic young cow cheeses, the first Slovenian cheeses with noble mould and yeast on the surface were ageing in Irena Orešnik’s cellar.

But the times were not kind to such delicacies. It took ages (read: decades) not just of fighting bureaucracy and informing consumers, but also for a class of people who travel more, taste more, and appreciate such products to be formed. It also helps that Ljubljana is nearby.

Only now may the Orešniks put the first blue cheese made of a mixture of goat and sheep milk (which is rare even globally) on the market – a wonderful, perfected, elegant cheese following the example of British Stilton. Or with a spread of red mould similar to Reblochon and with a distinct aroma and taste.

Some progressive and more open restaurant owners, who saw added value in Orešnik’s cheeses, also contributed to the fact that Orešnik’s cheeses are today an indisputable quality brand.

Cheese producer Orešnik
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Indispensable part of the best restaurants

Today, Orešnik’s products are crucial among the products a select few of the best Slovenian restaurants have to offer, from TaBar to Atelje, from Strelec to Krištof, and they have a particularly strong connection with the Brda locals, especially with both Klinec families. “The fact that they promote our cheeses is extremely important for us. And it has taken us 25 years to reach this point,” says Irena.

However, the first for them is still their neighbour Luka. He knows exactly what he wants – “Cheeses as special as possible – slightly soft goat cheeses with yeast, mould, thyme, aged …,” explains Orešnik. “He has very specific wishes, and we try to meet them whenever we can, but only if the product is good enough. We have very high criteria about what we put on the market.” They do not put on the market any cheese before it has reached optimum maturity, which is at least three months for semi-hard cheeses, while soft cheeses take between three weeks and two months.

It is slightly undreamed of that a region that does not have a cheese-making tradition has become probably the strongest in new-age cheese making in the last decade with the Orešniks and the Pustotniks in the nearby Poljane Valley, which brings traditional cheese-making regions, such as Tolmin and Bovec regions, welcome competition.

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