The “blonde witch” as locals affectionately calling for her, cannot walk more than a few steps on the alpine meadows around her home without gathering ingredients. What most of us consider just beautiful to look at – tall grass dusted with color bursts of gentian, plantain and lady’s mantle leaves – Tanja Rebolj sees as key components of the medicinal and delicious spirits of her own invention. The Slovenes call their 22 types of spirits “Schnaps”. But it’s not liquor as we all know it.
Stop in each gostilna, the Slovenian word for a country restaurant (or someone’s home), and you’re offered šnopec (Schnapps), a hard liquor distilled from fermented fruit (usually apples) and then flavored with a single ingredient: Williams pear or walnut, lemon or honey, blueberry or young spruce tips. My mother-in-law, for example, likes to add sugar and fresh lemon juice lemon, a cousin of the Italian Limoncello. Homemade, single-variety schnapps is so ubiquitous in Slovenia that almost everyone has a relative who makes it. It’s considered not just a welcome drink, but a panacea for everything from a hangover to tummy troubles to leather shoes that are too tight. (Rub with schnapps!)
But Cvet Gora — a former post office that Rebolj has turned into her home, B&B and eco-shop with her homemade drinks made from foraged ingredients — does booze differently.
Cvet Gora is located in Jezersko, a town high up in a mountain pass in the Kamnik-Savinja Alps. It was the first official “mountain village” in Slovenia and joined a network of settlements in the Alps that are hubs for sustainable, eco-friendly mountaineering and hiking. Nestled on the border with Austria, which is just a short walk away, Jezersko started out as a stopover for furlani, the 19th-century equivalent of truck drivers hauling cargo on horse-drawn carriages. Today it is a popular destination for hikers, mushroom pickers and cyclists descending to or from Austria as part of an Alpine loop with majestic views.
As a child, Rebolj often visited Jezersko for mountain hikes (a common Slovenian pastime), and she eventually married someone who was born and raised there. A decade ago, Rebolj moved through the ranks of the Slovenian Army as a logistics specialist, but felt she was not treated the same as her male counterparts. So she left.
Unsure of what to do after the military, Rebolj drifted off in search of a new outlet. “My mother-in-law knew about 20 plants that grow here in Jezersko,” she says, “and made tea from them. When she died, locals were still asking about it. So I started making the tea according to her recipe.” In order to establish her own tradition, Rebolj turned to schnapps.
Rebolj’s interest in wild plants grew and she read voraciously about herbalism, medicine and botany. For the last 20 years, she’s earned the title “blonde witch” not only by brewing “potions,” but also by performing a magic trick that she can’t really explain, but that happens regularly enough that she begins to believe that she might have a special power. “Flowers call me when they want to be picked. It may be funny, it may be strange, but there were times when I went to Jezersko and I was like, ‘Okay, I need this plant.’ And the plant would call me. There were points where I felt like I had to stop. And I stopped and found the plant.”
The saying goes that you shouldn’t get high on your own stash, and although Rebolj tries her shot to get the concoction right, she doesn’t drink it. She’s spent years developing 22 varieties, each based on a traditional home remedy and with far more ingredients than the typical schnapps, and she’s got plenty to taste. She’s more of a mixologist than a moonshine maker.
Rebolj brandies are rooted in both history and science. She reads scientific studies on the plants she collects and bases her recipes on naturopathy and herbalism as taught by contemporary specialists. The label of each bottle contains early modern engravings of an important plant component as well as an image from the 17th century encyclopedia Glory of the Duchy of Krain by Baron Janez Vajkard Valvasor, a polymath who wrote and printed an enormous compendium of knowledge, legends and folk traditions in Carniola, part of present-day Slovenia. This book references witchcraft, magic, and home remedies and blends their contemporary potion-making with traditions that date back centuries.
Rebolj started serving their liquor to customers in 2013. When hosting tours, I love taking guests to Cvet Gora for a tasting of all their creations, with Rebolj narrating as we sip (including an Atlas Obscura tour that I lead). called “Forest to Table in Alpine Slovenia”). It’s like listening to the director’s commentary as a DVD extra. she Antiživček (Anti-Nervousness) Schnapps contains herbs such as chamomile, echinacea and valerian, which are said to have a calming and sleep-inducing effect. Rebolj developed Hribovska Kri (Hill Blood) when men complained that she made liquor said to be beneficial for what she calls “women’s problems” (menstrual pain, menopausal symptoms) but not for men. So she countered with a liquor jokingly for “men’s problems,” which she says is “like natural Viagra, but I can’t call it that because they’re going to sue me.”
There are also Zimska Pravljica (Winter’s Tale), a schnapps that somehow tastes exactly how I imagine apple strudel to be liquefied. “I bake apples, then add rum and brewed wine, then spices for Christmas like cinnamon, aniseed, nutmeg and clove. These spices are also said to be good for the stomach and serve as a digestive aid. But people really like them because they taste like strudel.” Others in the lineup include (roughly translated) Alpine Wound Healer, Memory Eraser, Jezersko Doctor, and Jaga Baba.
The “queen of herbs” of her lineup, as she describes it, is Jezerska Pehta (Pehta from Jezersko, based on a fictional witch-like character in a popular Yugoslav film about a shepherd boy named Kekec, who is something like a Slovenian Huckleberry Finn). It consists of 102 ingredients, all collected by Rebolj and turned into a recipe that took eight years to develop. “Most of the time I don’t do it because I only do it when I have all the ingredients,” she says. Jezerska Pehta is a tongue dance of flavors vaguely reminiscent of Jägermeister. Focus and you feel like you can intuitively recognize each of the many ingredients.
Rebolj collects all the ingredients for her spirits herself, and almost all of them come from within a kilometer of her home. Slovenia’s most famous chef, Ana Roš from Hiša Franko restaurant (she was World Chef of the Year in 2017 and appeared on Netflix Chef’s table), promotes a “zero mile” policy: She wants all of her ingredients to be less than a kilometer from her restaurant. Rebolj is not dogmatic about this, but she strives for the same.
Rebolj has taken a national tradition – homemade liquor – while expanding and shrinking it, both in a positive way. She has expanded the concept of what liquor can be, transforming it from a simple alcohol with a single flavor into a series of complex and subtle recipes. But she’s also kept it focused and made the national tradition hyper-local, using ingredients she finds in her garden.
At the moment, the only way to taste their brandy is by a trip to Jezersko. By the way: Apprentices are very welcome at Rebolj. I have already chosen my room – the one closest to the closet with Zimska Pravljica.
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