The Slovenia Times

Garden in the sky - how Canadian and Italian ended up in Slovenian mountains


Sometimes the best stories happen unexpectedly - in this case the collaboration between Hiša Franko and self-made hippy farmers Jeanne and Matteo.

In the world of fine dining, producers are rapidly coming out of the shadows, from behind the scenes into the spotlight. More and more chefs are pushing them to the foreground, giving them the respect they deserve and acknowledging them as an essential part of the creative team. In a time terms like "local" and "sustainable" have become axioms, chefs first started to showcase the produce as the real star of the meal, then they moved onto the producers, the farmers, collaborating with them on the menu, often a year in advance.

So, when Jeanne (Canadian) and Matteo (Italian), who used to work across the border for the renowned winemaker Joško Gravner and learned the ropes of organic winemaking and farming with Aleks Klinec and Janko Štekar, approached Ana Roš with the idea of growing organic produce in the partly abandoned, 14,7-hectar farm high up in the mountains, all shaped and grown depending on Hiša Franko needs, it turned out to be the perfect match for everyone involved.

"To be honest, having worked for Gravner, we were ready for pressure. But we still got a bit nervous when Ana actually called," they smile shily. "I mean, going from vineyard work to working with two biggest names in this area ..."

They now produce exclusively for Hiša Franko and, as they say - "Everything we do here is Ana. And Ana is us."

And their place in Srednje, far from everything, is exactly the kind of rustic fairytale chefs can only dream of. A dilapidated World War I. farmhouse they somehow put together, then filled with rusty appliances from flea markets, pretty, flowery chipped chinaware, animal skulls and dry herbs.

Jeanne, a Quebecoise, used to work with winemakers in Italy. Bologna-born Matteo was in charge of a wine bar in London, working more closely with natural wines. They met and decided to produce wine together, ideally somewhere in Eastern Europe - Serbia, Georgia ... it ended up being Slovenia. And it also ended up being far more than just wine since, as Matteo explains, "viticulture just wasn't diverse enough for us".

And so they let go of the vines and moved onto pumpkins, radicchio, chicory, sunflowers, flax, zucchinis, all kinds of herbs, including some much more exotic varieties like Mexican oregano, Chinese amaranth and New Zealand spinach Matteo adores. "It's just lovely - fatty, watery, really works in a plate," he explains as he caresses the thick green leaf with his heavily tattooed arms.

Jeanne, barefoot, is picking borage leaves and baby cucumbers as she paves her way through the fields, a beautiful mess of all different crops, mixed with flowers and so-called companion plants, in no apparent logical order, seeking balance between plants and soil. "It's a Russian roulette, you just have to try and see what works," Matteo grins. They cultivate approximately up to 300 different crops throughout the year, experimenting, testing and learning as they go along, ordering seeds from France, Italy and USA where they can get the biggest selection of heirloom seeds.

They work completely in sync with nature, with no machinery, using biodynamic preparations like nettles and yarrow, no sophistication, just playing it by ear - and taste buds. In reality not so completely different than the Hiša Franko team down in the valley. "Creativity and skills are easy to use when you have a product," ponders Matteo.

There's a certain intangible magic to the tiny, locked-in-time hamlet of Srednje, over the Kolovrat mountain, with 100-year-old orchards of twisted, craggy plum, pear and apple trees that produce the sweetest cider and the most aromatic schnapps. Rugged terrain facing the mountains and deep forest, a remote area of Slovenia close to Italian border that has been always closely associated with myths and legends, tales of white magic, fairies and paranormal forces.

Some might get spooked, especially when you're moving into a run-down house occupied by a bat colony and with a ceiling that looks like it will cave in any minute. But Jeanne and Matteo, they just dusted the place, oblivious to rodents, cracks and decay. He had to learn basic construction works, and real fast, while she and their baby daughter Lou were squeezing in freezing kitchen, heated only by body warmth coming from baby goats they bought.

These days, the house looks utterly charming with old stove in the center where Jeanne bakes her delicious spelt sourdough and sawed-off cupboard where she is mixing the freshest garden salad for us. All sorts of greens and microgreens, herbs, petals, chives and pickled roots. Little Lou, with her straw hat, is peeping over the counter while her 10 days old brother Romeo Leone is sleeping blissfully in the pram. Jeanne, this powerhouse of a woman, was out in the fields the very next day she came from the hospital.  

It's extremely hard work, especially just for the two of them. They start the day at 6 am and finish at 8 pm. If they're not tending to their garden, they are foraging wild berries, mushrooms or picking chestnuts or pickling vegetables. Lou follows them around - when she's not in the shed, bonding with the stubborn goats. And yet, they are perfectly fine with the manual labor aspect of it. "The hardest part is really not physical work, but bureaucracy. Defending and justifying yourself every time like you're doing something bad," they lament over the notorious Slovenian red tape. The downside of doing something out-of-the-box.

Matteo brings out the rounded stemless glasses from Gravner and fills them with his skin-contact wine he produced. A living wine, an elixir of life. She serves us salad with creamy fresh goat cheese and crunchy spelt bread. Sitting out here, far from the madding crowds, far from the tourists down in the valley, sipping on seriously good grappa, time really does stand still.


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