It had been raining for three days in a row when we arrived in the Jezersko region in Slovenia and our guide Marko suggested that we visit a local herbalist as an alternative to hiking and biking, which was impossible given the weather.
We missed spectacular views of the Alps surrounding us and sunny views of the valleys below, and since we are big tea lovers, interested in alternative medicine and herbalism that had become a part of our life back in Frankfurt, we didn’t hesitate. Our curiosity was piqued and we were ready to learn about the herbal and tea traditions in our new destination.
The alluring smell of herbs was the first thing we noticed when entering the house of Matej Tonejec, a young, modest guy with a welcoming smile. We visited him in the house his great-grandmother built, where he had created his herbal and tearoom.
“If you can’t find a dream job, then create your own”
As a child, Matej was drawn to plants and nature, so his decision to become a biologist was an easy one. He studied Systematic Botany in Ljubljana and for his thesis he wrote about 1000 different species of local plants, 800 of which he himself found.
When he graduated in 2012, he could hardly find a job that would make him both happy and financially self-sufficient. He started to think about how he could make use of his knowledge and combine it with his love and curiosity about nature.
Eventually, he got his licence for growing, picking and selling herbs and leading tours (available in Slovenian, English and German). Within eight months in 2014, he led thirty groups for herbal hikes in Jezersko. Matej works in co-operation with the Feel Green company, which organises ecotours in the region. You can find more information about their regular seasonal programme on their website.
Matej learned the most from his grandmother and from personal experience in the meadows and forests of Slovenia’s unspoiled nature. Now it’s been six years that he’s been fully dedicating his time to herbs and three years working and experimenting with teas from the plants he picks or grows himself.
What inspires him most while picking herbs and choosing selections for his infusions is their smell, shape and their individual “personalities”. Matej picks them with full respect and prefers picking their leaves and flowers rather than the roots to preserve the life of certain plants that way.
Currently he has thirty different species of herbs, 90% of which are air-dried. We tried a couple of teas that we mixed ourselves, along with a fabulous herbal syrup done with eleven different herbs.
Apart from educating the locals and random tourists, he also translated a book from Croatian original about 400 species of plants that you can eat (“Enciklopedija užitnih divjih rastlin”).
Two thirds of the plants that Matej grows have medicinal properties, but most of the teas he prepares are for enjoyment rather than medicinal usage. Although, if you visit his herbal room with a health problem, he can suggest herbs to use to cure yourself. Nowadays he supplies a few local restaurants with tea infusions in tea bags, too.
Now he is working on his new project: opening a small shop in his backyard, where he is going to sell herbs and herbal goods of his own production.
Apart from a hobby that turned into his living dream, Matej’s other passion is to be on the road. He took his first trip when he was 16. Among his most impressive eco-friendly trips are those by bike from Slovenia to Thailand, across America, or the one to Yunnan in China and Japan, where he learned more about tea culture, too.
He also created a movie about his epic bike trip to Thailand and you can watch it in Slovenian on his YouTube channel.
We left Matej’s house with a warm feeling from meeting someone who appreciates nature, who cares about preserving it and who talks about plants with much love and respect. Indeed, for us it was a touching and inspiring experience.
Have you ever met a local herbalist on your travels or in your neighbourhood?