An insight into which wild plants and flowers you can eat as you adventure
around Slovenia’s forests, walking trails, and meadows. Featuring brunch
at the famous VILA PODVIN, headed by CHEF UROŠ ŠTEFELIN.
When I first visited Slovenia, it was in the glorious season of spring, back in April 2013. My senses instantly sprang to life at the sight and smell of my new, brightly coloured surroundings. Spring had sprung, the flowers were in full bloom, and I was grateful to be here, among such natural splendour.
This came as a big surprise to me, especially after my first visit to the country the previous November, when all was white with snow. Additionally, if living in Malta, one tends to be rather deprived of being able to admire nature at its best—Malta is rather barren. Apart from the fact that the island, due to its geographical disposition, can only enjoy two seasons: summer and winter.
Slovene Chefs Love Local & Organic
Fast-forward to spring / summer 2019 in Slovenia, I’m enjoying this colourful burst of life as intensely as I did six years ago. My two-year old daughter is also in awe of her multi-coloured world. I’m doubly content!
We live in a rural area of Slovenia, which provides ample opportunity to wander around and explore the flora. I often find myself wondering which plants and flowers are poisonous, especially as I need to be on the alert should my daughter attempt getting a good taste of what she plucks off the ground. Picking flowers and eating them would never cross my mind! Though, I have eaten food dishes containing edible flowers.
Many Slovenes love using natural and fresh ingredients they can source from their home gardens or nearby forests in their cooking. Quite a number of star chefs in Slovenia are extremely popular for their expertise in turning out healthy and amazing dishes using local, organic ingredients. One such chef is Ana Roš of Hiša Franko. She earned the title of World’s Best Female Chef in 2017, and for many good reasons. Ana is an expert at creating personal dishes and menus featuring foods that she grows and forages in the wild.
Ana Roš deserves much more attention than just a mention, so you’ll be seeing more about her in my future posts. Plus, there’s a world of other brilliant Slovenian chefs that I’ll be giving importance to down the line.
So now to my burning question: Which flowers and plants are edible? This one’s a head-scratcher, right?
Summer Foraging Workshop: An Invitation
Foraging? What’s that? If you’re not familiar with this word, it means searching for food or provisions.
Fast forward again to last month, Saira Aspinall of Hiša Marni (Marnie’s House) invites me to join her Summer Foraging Workshop. It will take place in Radovljica, northern Slovenia, not too far off from Lake Bled. “You’ll learn how to identify plants and forage for wild, edible flowers,” she says. “Sounds fantastic!” I say, instantly accepting her offer.
“Dr Katja Rebolj, an expert on Slovenian nature, edible plants, and herbal weeds, will lead the workshop,” she continues. My reaction: “Oh super!”
“And, you’ll begin with brunch at Vila Podvin…”, Saira goes on. This restaurant was voted third best restaurant in Slovenia at the 2019 ‘The Slovenia Restaurant Awards’. “I can’t wait,” is my last remark.
At Vila Podvin
We arrive at Vila Podvin restaurant to find the garden tables beautifully laid out. The setting is peaceful and calming. Chef Uroš Štefelin, who heads the restaurant, appears from inside and comes to greet us. I also chat briefly with his business partner Marcela Klofutar, who later explains the dishes Uroš has prepared for us.
Finally, I get to meet the event organiser, Saira Aspinall. She’s a lovely British young lady who, together with her husband Will, is renovating an old farmhouse three kilometres away from the historic town of Radovljica. It’s also just 10 km from Lake Bled.
Back to chef Štefelin, he’s one of Slovenia’s best chefs, renowned for modernising traditional Slovene cuisine. I had tasted his food at one of the Taste Radol’ca culinary events, and I’m very delighted to be right here at his restaurant.
We’re about to indulge in three dishes comprising wild flowers and greens. Meanwhile, as we prepare our taste buds for what’s to come, we sip on refreshing flower iced tea and elderflower cordial. The latter is typical in Slovenia. It’s locally known as Šabesa or šebesa—a simple, tasty, fresh beverage made from elderflower syrup.
(Photos: Will Aspinall)
You’ll come across many households and tourist farms that make and serve this. And yes, picking elderflower from the trees, just like picking any other natural goodies in Slovenia (chestnuts, wild mushrooms… the list is endless) is another of the Slovenes’ favourite pastimes.
It’s hard to walk past this fragrant flower without noticing or smelling it. You can pick it any time around late May to mid-June. Head out on a warm, dry, sunny day, and look out for buds that are freshly open. Try to collect them, as all other wild edibles that you pick, in an area that’s well away from traffic fumes. You can even dry it and use it in your tea.
Chef’s Tasty Treats
And now, on to our three dishes! Chef Uroš sprightly reappears with our first (pictured below): Smoked sea bass Fonda fillet, accompanied by yogurt sauce with dill oil and cabbage thistle, and marinated vegetables. Mullein, with its yellow flowers, sits atop the sea bass. Stationed at the side on another piece of smoked fish is gallant soldier (Galinsoga parviflora) or ‘rogovilček’ in Slovenian. This starter is extremely appetising and visually appealing.
Next comes Marinated pork ‘mangalica’ with a honey and sour-cream dressing containing wood sorrel. Bittercress, ground ivy, and meadowsweet do a super job as garnishers.
Lastly, in keeping with the elderflower theme, Uroš serves us an elderflower pannacotta dessert, decorated with wood sorrel, purple coneflower petal (Echinacea purpurea), and common purslane (Portulaca oleracea) or ‘tolščak’ in Slovene.
Am I stating the obvious by saying all three dishes are super delicious?
We leave Vila Podvin and take off through the forest behind the castle grounds. As we forage, we come across some wild plants and flowers that we tasted in chef Uroš’ three dishes: gallant soldier, meadowsweet, and common purslane.
Gallant soldier, which we had with the sea bass fillet, comes with plenty of calcium, iron, and other minerals.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) or ‘oslad’ is similar to elderflower. We see it as we walk further away from the more urbanised area where we started off. It grows in meadows and thrives along stream banks. All can enjoy this culinary herb, except for those who are allergic to aspirin.
Eat lots of meadowsweet if you can, as it contains an abundance of antioxidative flavonoids and vitamin C. You can consume it with savoury dishes like salads, sauces, and soups; or as a dessert. In fact, it goes very well with almonds, and buckwheat porridge. You can even add fresh or dried meadowsweet inflorescence (complete flower head) to your tea.
As Fit as Phelps
Our expert forager, Katja, points out some common purslane. “If it were an Olympian, we could definitely compare it to Michael Phelps!” she says.
This succulent is one of the greatest in the world. It contains really high levels of vitamin A, and enough vitamin C and B to give you a good boost. There’s also a good amount of riboflavin, niacin, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron.
Furthermore, by ingesting this super plant, you’ll be getting a good dose of omega 3 fatty acids. Fun fact: Purslane contains five times more omega 3 than spinach.
You must be careful though! Its raw form contains more oxalic acid than spinach, so I don’t suggest you overindulge or consume it too regularly. To be on the safe side, consider cooking or pickling it, as this will reduce the oxalate content.
To Eat or Not to Eat?
Apart from the above wild edibles, we stumble on a number of other curious plants and flowers that are fit for eating. Katja states that they’re commonly found around meadows and forests in Slovenia. In fact, many seem familiar, but I’d never have considered eating them. Here are the ones I find most interesting because of their appearance and usage: Aposeris (Aposeris foetida), known in Slovenia as ‘smrdljivka’.
I’ve often heard Slovenes talk about it. They refer to it as ‘krompirjevec’ (‘krompir’ being potatoes) because of its taste and smell. If you squash the leaves between your fingers, you’ll smell this odour that’s very similar to that of raw potato. The scent will linger for a while, but I don’t find it unpleasant at all. It goes best with potato, in salads, or in the same dishes where you would use dandelion (‘regrat’).
I immediately take a liking to red clover (Trifolium pretense) or ‘črna detelja’ because I’m familiar with it —I’ve often seen it on the hills of Gozo, the second largest inhabited island in the Maltese archipelago, where I’m from.
Till now, I’d only been aware of its use as fodder for livestock. But thanks to this workshop, I learn about its culinary uses. You can add it to salads (chop it up slightly and sprinkle it over), or to your porridge (you can throw in the whole flower, preferably towards the end of cooking time so it doesn’t overcook). It also goes very well on bread or salty pastries.
How about cake decoration? Well, certainly! And for tea lovers? Yes, it’s super, especially in dry form. And, if you want a natural thickener for your soups, then red clover is your answer.
Wild carrot is the ancestor of all cultivated carrots. You can eat its white flower head raw or lightly battered and fried. The root is not very sweet or tender, but it is edible if cooked, and it contains starch. Try catching these plants early enough for a more tender root, otherwise its touch and woody. You might also want to consider eating the leaves 😉 Wild carrot seeds work well in soups and stews and can flavour tea, too.
Hog the Weed
Can you guess which is the most favourite weed among foragers worldwide? It’s hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) or ‘navadni dežen’. Foragers consider it to be delicious, especially when the stems are juicy, tasting very much like celery. You can just peel the stem and eat it. Alert! You mustn’t confuse it with giant hogweed—a towering, invasive plant of which the sap can cause severe burns, scarring, and possibly even blindness.
Saira has prepared a lovely surprise for us to mark the end of the foraging workshop. We arrive at an opening in the forest, where she’s set up a dispensing machine with Prosecco on tap, and an inviting display of olive and sun-dried tomato focaccia. Saira serves this with her homemade parsley and hazelnut pesto.
We happily pour Prosecco into glasses that Saira has carefully decorated with brightly-coloured flowers. These go down very well after our foraging walk. We find cool refreshment in the elderflower cordial that’s also available on tap. Saira hands out a parting gift—bags of homemade tea containing lemon grass, thyme, mixed wild flowers, and cinnamon.
(Photos: Denise Rejec)
What a memorable experience this has been. A day with a difference, with lots of indispensable information to take away with us. Many thanks go to Saira and family for organising such a wonderful event.
Words of Advice
Finally, I’d like to share a piece of advice with you: NEVER consume wild plants or flowers unless you can properly and positively identify them. Be sure before you try! I also suggest doing thorough research on the plants and flowers you are picking.
Happy foraging 🙂
Expert Slovene Forager: Dr Katja Rebolj
Dr Katja Rebolj is the person to turn to should you want to know all about the nutritional values, flavours, and medicinal uses we can find in our natural surroundings.
Dr Katja Rebolj has over 20 years’ experience foraging in Slovenia’a countryside.