Last weekend I headed up to Breg House to do a few jobs I wanted to finish before the winter snows fell. But I ended up getting roped into to dismembering an entire cow and being taught the finer points of butchery at a local family farm.
The farm belonged to my neighbours’ sister/daughter. I had met them several times in the past, and they had invited me to visit. Finally the day had come when I took them up on their kind offer, as I was running some errands in the vicinity of their home.
The farm sits just metres from the Austrian border. Indeed, some of their farmland is actually on the Austrian side of the border, a slightly unusual arrangement which may make their application to the ‘Farmers Without Borders’ organisation somewhat tricky.
It was about 11am when I was welcomed into their house by Marjeta, and instantly offered coffee, and schnapps. As I was quite thirsty I asked for a glass of water. Marjeta produced a small glass of schnapps, along with a small blue bottle from the fridge. This, I assumed to be the water, so uncapped it and took a massive swig only to discover it also contained schnapps! It was quite the faux pas, and I scambled to explain in broken Slovene my mix-up and why I had just downed half a bottle of her homemade Slovenian spirit.
We sat for some time chatting. It was great for me to get a chance to really practice speaking Slovene. As I have previously noted (see: Struggles with Slovene: 6 months of learning Slovenian), one of the downsides of Slovenians being, on the whole, excellent English speakers, is that most of my day to day conversation at work is in English. But in the hinterlands of Koroška, it is often out of necessity that I must (try to) speak Slovene. And though I know I still sound like a caveman, it is the best practice I can get, and I was able to ask numerous questions about life on the farm.
After a round of pork and bread, it was time for me to be put to work. So I headed downstairs to the meat room – to find Dani, the man of the house, and two of their friends Marko and Neva, slicing, dicing and sawing up a cow. They explained that the vast majority of the meat would end up as sausages and salami, with just a few choice cuts being used as steak or mince.
I was intrigued to learn about the process of butchering, so they armed me with a knife, dressed me in an apron, and demonstrated the process of removing the fat from the muscle tissue. Apparently, butchering your own meat is a long-standing, once-common Slovenian tradition. Known as koline, there’s a strong social element combined with the task, so it’s a sort of meat-butchering, sausage-making party. However, the practice is nowadays less prevalent than it once was.
Now, watching my Slovenian workmates, the process looked easy. But in practice, I found it was not. There’s a delicate technique required to gently remove the layer of fat without wasting any meat, and it took me some time to find the right angle of the blade and cutting action that would best allow the fat to come away quickly and in one piece.
I spent the whole afternoon de-fatting and chatting with my fellow butchers. It’s an often fiddly task, but with Neva’s patient tuition, I improved as the day went on. The day was punctuated with cake, coffee and beer breaks to ensure the workforce was kept contented. It was also interesting to really feel and see how different the various cuts of the cow were, in terms of the muscle tissue, fat content and general texture.
Dani was kind enough to give me a full tour of the farm, where he showed me his cow shed, cat collection (they have eight), impressive log supply (no danger of a log crisis here!) and his cider-making operation, where I was given a sample.
By early evening, Danjela and Mitja – the daughter and son – had returned home. Both of them speak excellent English, so I was able to ask some of the more complex questions that my basic Slovene had prevented me from asking. It also happened to be Mitja’s birthday – so yet more cake had to be eaten!
There is something I love about learning how life works here in Koroška. Getting involved in the traditional practices like this is a pleasant contrast to my day job, working for a blockchain company in Ljubljana.
I left with improved blade skills and the desire not to eat another piece of cake for some time.