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Matiček – chef with a green hat

 

Young nutria with grapes. Dormice preserved in lard. Little butcher’s badger. Pickled chamois liver. Mouflon braciolas with tarragon. Gypsy style bear thigh. Bear heart goulash. Wild duck cooked in pig’s bladder. Roasted venison tongues.

The dishes of Matjaž Erzar – Matiček read like a walk through a forest, across meadows, streams, ravines and along mountain ridges. Matiček knows every inch of his hunting ground and knows how to prepare the most obscure wild animal species, be it a fallow deer from the Slovenian forests, kudu from Namibia or elk from Newfoundland.

Matiček with a pheasant
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

When he built Gostilna Pr’ Matičku Inn on the outskirts of Kranj, Slovenia’s third largest town, in 2000, he knew right then and there that he would only serve game meat. But times were different then. While hunting was Matiček’s hobby, a passion passed on from generation to generation in the Erzar family, most Slovenians were not particularly fond of game, and at first it was difficult for the new inn.

“I only have my stubbornness to thank for having survived with this philosophy,” Erzar smiles, surrounded by hunting trophies in his rustic inn. At the entrance, you are welcomed by a bear that he hunted down several years ago in the Labrador region of Canada. The giant head of a 700-kilogram elk shot in Newfoundland stares straight into the bar.

“Initially, I didn’t like game either; in those days, you could only get a game salami, or meat so dull it was a chore to chew,” he explains. “So, I ate it more when travelling around the world, and I realised that game can be prepared in many great ways. You can make everything from it. After all, it’s a predecessor of farmed meat.”

Pr'Matičku Inn
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

He has served everything at the inn that could be hunted locally, and he has prepared meat in the English style. “At first, the guests declined everything. But today, guests are different, too, and while I was one of only a few who served game 20 years ago, today it’s offered by all Michelin-starred chefs!”

Matiček’s cookbook, Divjačina (Game Meat), which was published in 2005, contributed to the popularisation of game in Slovenia. In the book, he describes in detail the procedure after an animal is shot, i.e. skinning, gutting, cutting up and transportation, including the history of hunting in Slovenia, the cull of individual game species in the last 40 years and the chemical composition of game meat.

The major part of the book includes an exceptionally rich and diverse collection of recipes ranging from marmot ragout to fawn kidneys roasted in pastry. “When I was writing the book, there were 26 types of game; at the time, it was still possible to hunt wildfowl. Now, you can only hunt pheasant and wild duck. There was dormouse, cormorant, badger, nutria, jay … as a child I also ate squirrel,” he remembers.

Matiček’s study of game meat received a lot of attention because there were no game recipes until then. “Slovenians never had aristocracy, we were always servants. We had no hunting grounds of our own, which is why poaching was popular and recipes weren’t written down but passed on from generation to generation. Very little was written down, except in the monasteries. Back then, they ate beaver and otter – that was fasting food,” he explains.

black pudding
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Nowadays, Slovenian game meat is considered first class. It is healthy because there are no large monocultures in which pesticides are used. There is a lot of game due to the country’s forest cover, but this is almost entirely exported. Some 80 per cent goes to Switzerland, where it is appreciated the most. The Nimrod company, from whom all Slovenian hospitality service providers buy game, is one of the four largest distributors of game meat in Europe. At a time when much is being said about green and sustainable approaches – including in cuisine – game meat should certainly receive more publicity.

To the question of whether he considers himself a hunter or a hospitality provider, Matiček replies that he is a “chef with a green hat”, as he is a passionate advocate of using the entire animal. “Killing is never a pleasure; no death is exactly ethical. But, it’s different if you kill an animal and then use it in its entirety. We survived in the past only because we used every single part of it. Ten years ago, offal was thrown away. Today we use everything – tongue, organs, hair for maturing prosciutto… ” he says, placing a steaming plate of perfectly seasoned venison tripe on the table. “Look, you get ten portions from one animal. And on top of it all, this is the purest of meat, no chemistry, lime, or lye, which are used for tripe at a slaughterhouse.”

“I make dishes that were forgotten. Dishes that farmers once ate, offal, trotters, paws … while the gentry would eat steak and fillet. I haven’t eaten a beefsteak in 15 years.”

Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

“At 7 o’clock sharp at Ravbarkomanda!” Matiček ordered when arranging to meet at the hunters’ assembly. “Green” prevails here at the peak of the hunting season. Up to one hundred hunters from all over Slovenia gather here for the first morning coffee before reaching their final destination: Paljevo pri Anhovem Hunting Lodge in the forests above the Soča River. Erzar is a member of that hunting association and has hunted most of his game here in recent years, including wild boar, bear, and deer. For pheasant and hare, he goes to Goričko. He takes his prominent foreign guests to Kočevsko, where he cooks for them after the hunt in one of the cottages of Marshal Tito, who was also a keen hunter.

Hunting in the Primorska region is also exceptionally popular among the Italians (four of the hunters gathered on that day were from Italy), some of them even come from the Vatican. It was from them that Matiček learned a lot about the preparation of game and new recipes, such as stuffed pig’s trotters.

That day, they hunted wild boar. In fact, every day is a day for hunting wild boar in Primorsko because their numbers have grown so much. While 40 years ago, some one thousand were culled annually, the numbers now range between 15,000 and 18,000, and the prices of meat have dropped to between EUR 0.5 to 3 per kilogram. “Such huge numbers cause a lot of damage and kill so many sheep that quotas no longer apply, and wild boar can be culled in ways that were banned just ten years ago.” Erzar explains behind the steering wheel of his SUV in which he uses an old pistol for a gear stick.

Matiček unloading some salami with hunting dogs watching
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

“If wild boar is not culled, agriculture will end in the Primorska region. With controlled hunting, we maintain a natural balance, we maintain nature,” he explains. “Look to the left there – a little egret that has flown in from Africa,” he says, pointing his finger towards the edge of the Vipava valley as a shining Goriško morning sun replaces the Ljubljana fog.

At 8 o’clock, the hunting lodge in Anhovo is already full of hunters dressed in camouflage clothing who are wrapping their hands around mugs of coffee and tea laced with rum to keep themselves warm. Matiček and a friend set up a fire in a hollowed-out log and start preparing a heap of eggs with pork cracklings. One of the hunters opens a bottle of sparkling wine with an axe, smashing the neck of the bottle so that the bubbles speckle his green fleece. He shrugs, laughs and starts pouring the remains of the wine left in the bottle. The dogs are becoming restless, so the leader calls for attention, divides the men into groups and assigns each group their territory. “Today, we shoot boar, fox and chamois,” he says before they scatter, clad in fluorescent orange jackets, rifles slung across their shoulders.

hunters and dogs are going off for a hunt
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

A few hours later, they return with a pair of chamois and a pair of wild boar. It is not the most successful of days, but they seem pleased, nonetheless. How does the saying go: it’s not the destination, it’s the journey? “The bear scared them all,” Matiček almost apologises before he joins the others in the circle. Hunters’ blessing. When it comes to hunting, the ritual, an almost ceremonial protocol, is important. Irrespective of the yield. The leader offers congratulations on the kill, and they pay tribute to the animals shot by bowing their heads and putting small branches in the animals’ mouths. Their last bite.

After the formalities, it is time for a toast. Many toasts. Matiček goes into the kitchen to prepare sausages and sour turnip, while the men sit down at a long table covered with a plastic tablecloth, with trophies and the Posočje scenery in the background. After a meal comes the “hunters’ rattle”. Matiček, at the head of the table, lines up the men, each one with a glass in front of him. “Load the rifle!” They pour wine up to the edge of their glasses. “Hold the rifle!” They pick up their glasses. The instructions are then given at an increasingly faster pace and those who are attending the rattle for the first time are having difficulties following them. “Two inches from the mouth, hold, into the mouth, two inches from the mouth, drink up, on the head, on the table, tap-tap, tap-tap ….boom!”

With one routine move, Matiček cuts the boar’s stomach open, and offal slides out and over his fingers. The blood colours the snow red. Skinned nutria and pheasant are already hanging on the hooks behind him. The wood-fired oven at the inn is already lit. The Kranj innkeeper uses all parts of the boar. He makes sour soup from the stomach, some meat goes into salamis and sausages, the rest goes into segedin goulash and roasts, which he stuffs with bread, salami, etc. “Everything that can be done with a farm pig can be done with a wild boar, only the meat is more robust,” he explains. He takes only the best meat, the quality of which depends on a number of factors, including gender, season and what the animal was eating.

We follow Matiček back to the inn, past the old majolka wine pitchers and cow skulls, old scythes and the ox yoke above the door. All antiques, items and equipment were, for the most part, collected locally. Only the stuffed and mounted exotic animals and a photograph from one of the Miss World pageants held in Africa testify to Matiček’s faraway trips. The brick of the floor is from the church roof, the wood-fired oven is made up of seven old ones, and the fridge is hung with an old door that he restored himself.

Such pieces of history bear witness to the past of this region, attesting to the difficult rural way of life which left a mark on Slovenia, the customs linked to the harvest, livestock farming, eating and drinking. Onion-shaped lamps hanging from the ceiling are halved copper pot stills. The cart above the bar is one of the last in which Germans fled across Jezersko to Austria at the end of the Second World War. The glasses hanging underneath it are hooked on the wooden teeth of an old rake. “Would you like a shot?” offers the innkeeper. “Do you want a lady’s bedstraw? Echinacea? Fruit brandy? Or something sweeter?”

game heads mounted on the wall of the inn
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

The chef, who trained as a young man under some iconic Slovenian chefs, such as the late Ivan Ivačič, and was part of the Brdo State Protocol Service that cooked for the greatest names in history from Helmut Kohl to François Mitterrand, now works much more spontaneously and without a menu. “I don’t know what I’ll cook tomorrow. I shot a boar on Sunday and I’m serving the last portions today. I cook what I hunt and what grows in my garden,” he explains.

He cultivates his garden ecologically, not even weeding it. “What used to be thrown out, now goes on a plate – nettles, chickweed, common purslane, etc. I figured that if weeds grow next to a certain vegetable, they probably have a function. Almost everything can be processed. I preserve dandelion buds, and I was already making nasturtium pesto ten years ago.”

It is hard to take him completely seriously, with blood still on his hands and the smell of a roast pervading the warm inn. But Matiček says that he finds inspiration for his cooking right here, in his garden where, in addition to vegetables and herbs, he also grows 17 fruit varieties. “I have zizyphus, sea-buckthorn, pituralka pear, sorb tree, hawthorn, rowan, aronia … I tried to plant native, lesser known varieties. And then I try to incorporate them in my dishes,” says the innkeeper who produces some 70 per cent of the vegetables he serves. The excess is preserved or processed into chutneys and jams. “That’s right. Matiček can even cater for vegetarians,” he laughs.

But, have no fear. Avocado toasts and hummuses will not replace deer and mouflon at the Pr’ Matičku Inn any time soon. As if trying to stress this, Erzar places a rack of huge elk antlers on a wooden table before us with a selection of game salamis and other charcuterie – deer, chamois, bear, wild boar, etc. He finishes the presentation with a small pile of grated horseradish placed next to slices of salami.

elk antler with game salamis
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Giant portions of kožarica skin sausages baked in the wood-fired oven, sour cabbage with cracklings and sautéed potato are served especially for the ladies at the table. “There’s 80 per cent skin and 10 per cent game meat in the sausages. Women love them because they are a collagen bomb. More efficient than any powder,” he smirks.

“Such rich cuisine can be found in remote areas of Slovenia. Look at blood sausage, for example, each region has its own variety. From the sweet ones with cinnamon, to bitter ones with liver, those made with raw blood and those with baked blood. Then there’re blood sausages with buckwheat, millet, barley, rice, etc. I take a pig’s head for the basis, add deer lungs, game hearts and also tongues,” he explains.

Matiček at the stove
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

In the meantime, he is bringing to the table a true game feast – perfectly roasted chamois fillet with dry chantarelles and sea-buckthorn sauce, deer heart stuffed with leftover chamois salami, red cabbage with apples, a cheese dumpling, and a steaming naturalistic-looking whole mallard cooked with vegetables in a pig’s bladder.

Matiček looks towards the ibex on the wall, which watches over us the entire time. “I caught it at 4,000 metres in Kyrgyzstan, on the Chinese border. It was cold as a witch’s teat, no alcohol,” he remembers.

a game dish - blood susage
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Usually, he goes abroad to hunt once a year, and he has hunted everywhere from Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Maine to South Africa and Namibia. “I was there in 1997. Those were the days! We were still allowed to smoke on the plane. We flew with loaded rifles and carried the meat in hockey bags in our hand luggage. It’s all different now.”

“Hunting tourism in Africa nowadays brings in more money than cattle farming. You can’t imagine how much money they spend. But remember, with smart management and controlled hunting, no animal species will become extinct. Greed – well, that’s another story.”

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