It began, as I've found in many an uncanny occurrence in my life, by chance, in 2013, on Trubarjeva Cesta in Ljubljana. We had planned to spend six months in Slovenia, our longest stretch ever, and decided to rent.
I searched rentals on the internet, and located a one-room flat, and connected with the owners, Jasmina Kozina and Urban Propotnik, who operate a Ljubljana running club "for health" (Urbani tekači) and ended up as lifelong friends.
In an email flurry prior to leaving, Jasmina said she and Urban would pick us up at the airport, and take us to Trubarjeva, where they gave us the keys. In the kitchen we found gifts — fresh-baked bread and a small jar of green spread that was labelled čemaž, from Jasmina's mother.
For me, it was the beginning of a years’ long affection for and connection to this peculiar Slovenian concoction, often at the dismay of my spouse, Kate, who bears the brunt of wafting garlic.
In my hometown of Rock Springs, Wyoming, USA, where all four Slovenian grandparents settled and preserved Slovenian culture, I grew up with kranjska klobasa and kisla repa prepared by Slovenian immigrant neighbours. But not čemaž.
Čemaž is wild garlic, according to Wikipedia, botanically "Allium ursinum ... a bulbous perennial flowering plant in the amaryllis family." It grows prolifically across Slovenia and a good share of Europe.
Spring brings the lush wild garlic, and as Slovenians have done for centuries, a harvest of those luscious green leaves. And some lurking danger, if you don’t pick the correct plant. Siol.net this year wrote that "in the last twenty years, more than thirty individuals have been treated ... infected with the autumn undergrowth, and four have died." But it's also easy to identify: simply "rub the leaf of the garlic between your fingers, it releases the smell of garlic."
After Jasmina's and Urban's gift, I was hooked. In our 2013 months in Slovenia I found it at the outdoor market, sold on stands on Trubarjeva and in stores.
So I bought jar after jar, spread it on bread, accompanied with cheese. It's become my breakfast staple, tomatoes now substituted to avoid those all-too-seductive but salty cheeses, doing a favour to keep my blood pressure down and to mesh with our newfound vegetarian diet (with gentle encouragement by Jasmina and Urban).
Jasmina's mother lives on the coast, near Piran and Portoroz. "My mom's basic recipe is to meld it with olive oil and salt and leave it in a big container," Jasmina said. "She makes from 50-100 litres. Then she takes it out as we consume it, let's say 5 litres per time. And sometimes we add things ... all kinds of seeds and nuts, other veggies, avocado and tofu."
Urban eyes, collects wild garlic this (2020) spring on Castle Hill in Ljubljana. (Photo by Jasmina Kozina)
During yet another sojourn in Slovenia in 2018, but this time with my new citizenship, another chance encounter. Sonja Bezjak said she had relatives in Wyoming, by coincidence, just north of my grandparents' locale in Rock Springs. Weeks later, she kindly drove us to her Slovenian home area for a visit, at Trate in northeast Slovenia.
Yet another adventure ensued — a float on the Mura River, inspired by Kate's reading of Murisa by Feri Lainscek, where we met dedicated locals working to block hydro projects on the pristine "Amazon of Europe."
Then, an invitation to dinner at Sonja’s parents' home. Along the way, we stopped, to pick up vegetables at her aunt's house. Sonja told her about my čemaž affinity, and handed me a jar of Aunt Pavla's version. Her recipe:
- · 600 g of čemaž
- · 15 g to 20 g of salt
- · 6 dl of olive oil
"First you wash the leaves, then you mix/cut them in blender (not too much), add salt and oil," Sonja related. "Keep it aside for one night. Then fill the jars, if needed add oil to cover the blended leaves. Your čemaž pesto is ready."
But Sonja also added, "my mother and my aunt are worried that you might mix the leaves with the poisonous leaves of lily of the valley, if you plan to pick it by yourself. I believe there is no čemaž in New Mexico, however maybe it’s worth noting in your article that there’s this danger." So I noted it, as you’ll remember! (In yet another coincidence, I recalled that my mother, who loved flowers, also grew lilies-of-the-valley in the front yard in Wyoming, so I do know what they look like.)
What NOT to eat - lilly of the valley. Photo: pxfuel
On the Mura, Jan, our raft guide, told us there was once a čemaž festival nearby. I was never able to track it down, but Jasmina said čemaž is often featured at food events.
One was in early 2018 at Terme Snovik, near Kamnik, "the first festival in Slovenia intended for spring healing cabbage," the organizers said. "Garlic or wild garlic or bear garlic ... is used in both cuisine and medicine." Events included lectures on preparing cuisine, field trips and talks on the leafy plant's healing power "known to the Romans, and passed down from generation to generation and proven by modern science."
As Jasmina noted, vegetables can be added to čemaž, for use at home. But if you dine out, one restaurant I found on the internet, Gostilna Repovž in Brezovica, features "čemaž soup."
For me, stranded in the USA in between sojourns to Slovenia, I'm on my own for my čemaž supply. I've never been able to find it, even in imported food stores.
So I've come up with my own recipe: What I find in my garden — chives, onions or leeks — supplemented with store-bought equivalents, and for a couple tall jars, two bulbs of peeled garlic cloves, or during spring, young soft garlic. It's all pureed with pumpkin seeds and olive oil, with a few sprinkles of vegetable salt and turmeric.
In this COVID-19 time, čemaž is probably no match for the sneaky virus. But garlic does have antibiotic properties, so it helps keeps me healthy. And a handy side effect: One of the symptoms of the virus is the loss of smell, so as long as Kate grimaces when I have my daily morning fix I know she's healthy.
Of course, I'd like to have the real thing, but that will have wait until our planned return to Slovenia, set for this summer, but now COVID-scuttled. But with each taste of my "čemaž" I'm hopeful that the real deal is just around the corner.
With Kate in Ljubljana
You can read more of Paul Krza on Slovenia here