Let’s Cook: Making Schnapps (Šnopc) in Slovenia: Part 2


Making schnapps in Slovenia is a winter affair. My car thermometer read -11c as I pulled up at the small farm, somewhere in the distant hinterlands of Koroška.

In rural Slovenia, the hills are alive with the scent of schnapps cooking.

Ever since I was offered a small glass of the clear, strong, homemade spirit by my neighbour Jaka eleven years ago, I had been keen to see the schnapps making process for myself. Finally, a decade later, that day had come.

I was joining Viktor, Marina and their two (now adult) children – Ana and Martin – (as well as their rather long dog – Robbie), in a nine-hour moonshine making mission.

The day began a little after 9am with a spot of breakfast, which of course included a shot of schnapps, along with tasty cold cuts from the farm, finished off with dark, black Turkish coffee.

Long-dog Robbie joins the cook

The younger contingent of the cooking team – Ana and Martin – spoke excellent English so I was able to explore quite deeply into their lives and the process of the cook. But there were numerous periods throughout the day, where I was with only Viktor or Marina (or Robbie), which provided me with ample opportunity to practise my caveman Slovene.

Let’s Cook! Stage 1

In Slovenia, you don’t ‘make’ schnapps, you ‘cook’ schnapps (kuhati
šnopc). And my hosts had been cooking for the last 10 days straight. The 2018 autumn had produced a particulary fruitful harvest, which meant they had weeks of mash to get through.

Although back in autumn, during Making Schnapps Part 1, I had been plucking plums, today it was a batch of pear schnapps we were making. The mash had been sitting in a barrel fermenting through the winter. Now it was time to cook.

The Yugoslavian-made pot still was some 40 years old

Upon stepping into the barn where the cook was taking place, I was hit by the sweet scent of pear. The first part of the cook was filling the 100 litre still with pear mash. The steel and copper contraption was 40 years old Viktor told me, manufactured by a then Yugoslavian company that no longer existed.

A wood fire was then lit below the copper cauldron, and we sat around the still, enjoying the heat and waiting. Viktor instructed me to feed the fire to ensure it burned hot and fast. A wheelbarrow of well-aged pine fuelled the burn, which popped and spat as it roared in the belly of the still.

It took around an hour for the first drops of distillate to appear. For those who have forgotten their school chemistry lessons, let’s recap. Distillation is the process of separating (in this case) ethanol, from a mixture of liquids.

First drops coming off

The process works because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. This means as the mash heats up, alcohol starts evaporating out of the mixture first. The vapour travels up the copper pipe and then down into the cooling coils of the still. These are kept cold by being immersed in a barrel of water, which was kept cool by pumping the water out through a pipe that sat in the snow, before returning back to the barrel.

The cold sides of the coil cause the alcohol vapour to condense into a liquid again, and this then comes dripping out of the condenser pipe and is collected.

The first cook produces something Victor called Meka Rakija.

“In Serbia – they drink it like this. But it is not yet schnapps. It is Meka Rakija. In Slovenia – we make schnapps.”

I was keen to sample the cloudy white liquid and found it to be very palatable. It had a sweet flavour with a tasty note of pear. I requested to capture some of this nectar and was duly given a 500ml Pepsi bottle which I filled. I later measured the alcohol content and found it to be a healthy 30%.

Keep on cooking

We kept the fire crackling, and as the mash came up to temperature, the flow of the distillate increased, filling several buckets which were then pooled with previous batches.

Second Cook

Before commencing the more delicate second cook – the still was emptied of its now alcohol-less mash, and given a thorough clean-down. I asked Viktor what happened to the steaming barrels of spent pear, wondering if perhaps the pigs would enjoy it. Apparently not. The animals won’t eat it so it ends up in a big compost in the forest.

First cook done. Emptying the pear mash

We retired back to the house for lunch before starting the second cook. A hearty meal of beef goulash and polenta was served. When I asked Marina – the lady of the house – if I could help with anything in the kitchen, she expressed surprise, explaining that men are rarely seen in that part of the house.

Back to the now gleaming copper still, Viktor filled it with the proceeds of previous first cooks. The second cook is a much more careful and controlled stage. Ana and Marina showed me how to keep the fire small but as consistent as possible, burning just one or two small split logs at a time.

In goes the proceeds of the first cook. Meka Rakija – a liquid around 30% in alcohol.

We sat in the welcome heat of the still, patiently waiting for the first drops to appear. I am always keen to hear Slovenians’ opinions of life before independence. Do they miss Yugoslavia? Was life better then? Or has independence been good for the people? Viktor’s answer was typical to what I often hear:

“Everyone in the country had a job then; everyone had enough. But then there were many situations where they had five people doing a job that one person could do.

Also – because Yugoslavia strictly controlled imports, it was hard to get certain products that weren’t manufactured inside the country. For example, we had to go to Austria just to get washing detergent and you were supposed to pay import duty if you brought it back into Yugoslavia.

I think Slovenia is better now.”

The hot seat

After a good hour, the first drops of liquid began to appear. Completely clear and colourless, Viktor explained that this was very strong, and for ‘external use only’. In other words – not for drinking.

First stream from the second cook. WARNING: may contain methanol

Here the language barrier here proved to be too much and I was unsure as to whether it was methanol (a much more toxic member of the alcohol family which can cause permanent blindness by destroying the optic nerve if drunk even in small quantities), or just very strong ethanol (common drinking alcohol).

I noted that the first litre of the distillate was collected, bottled and measured (85% alc) but no futher testing was carried out on the rest of the batch. The only test performed was Viktor throwing a shot glass full on to the fire. Apparently, the ferocity of the ensuing flames, allowed him to gauge the alcohol make-up of the liquid.

I assume that even if the rest of the distillate contains some methanol, when mixed with the entire batch, it’s not at a dangerous level. At least that’s what I hope, else my optic nerves are going to get destroyed.

It’s All About The Angle of Dangle

After the first litre of this potentially-optic-nerve-destroying liquid had been taken, Ana explained that we had to keep the spirit flowing from the still, at a low, steady rate. And this was gauged by the angle at which the liquid ran from the pipe.

“The stream should fall exactly vertically” she explained.

At first I was unsure how it could not fall vertically, but as the fire died down, I could see how the steam started to bend back under the pipe. And when more fuel was added, there was an initial spurt where the stream arced away from the pipe. I played with the fuel, trying to keep the perfect stream as instructed.

Perfect streaming

Following a round of homemade pancakes, my hosts seemed satisfied that I was now a capable enough cook to keep the operation running. They duly left me to keep the fires burning, whilst they disappeared to milk the cows. 

At first I felt like Jesse from Breaking Bad when Walter White leaves him to cook his first batch of meth on his own. A pang of responsibly hit me. After all, this was part of their commercial farm operation. This cook was money. Was I going to mess the whole thing up and ruin the entire batch? Would Viktor (aka The Slovenian Heisenberg) ‘disappear’ me?

I paid close attention to what I had learned; keep the flow coming gently. Stop when the liquid becomes milky. Don’t drink it all. As each 10 litre bucket came off, I measured the alcohol content, then added it to the main barrel. Each tier was lower in alcohol than the previous one; 75%, 65%, 40%, 30%. But when mixed together, the overall batch was still well over 60%.

The Slovenian Heisenberg’s schnapps cooking operation

Saying that, we were using an alcoholmeter for the readings. This is a calibrated instrument that looks a bit like a thermometer and is designed to measure the amount of ethanol in a liquid, containing only ethanol and water. As there are numerous other products produced by the distillation process (methanol, oils and higher alcohols) I don’t think the readings we took could be completely accurate but did provide an approximate figure.

As the cook entered its dying stages, Heisenberg returned and instructed me to feed up the fire up again. Squeezing out as much ethanol from the cook was the goal, and that required a roaring fire for the last few litres. For the final hour of the cook, we entered diminishing returns. More heat was required to get what was a weaker and weaker distillate, until finally, the output became a cloudy liquid. The cook was over.

Each cut was pooled into one barrel

It was after 7pm when I placed the fruits of my labour into my car. Heisenberg seemed satisfied with the cook and had kindly given me two litres of pear schnapps, diluted down to 50% alcohol. It had been an interesting experience. I had learned much and acquired a new appreciation for the hours and energy that went into this fiery liquid, which is to Slovenia, what tea is to Britain; dolled out at any hour to guests.

Finally, 12 years after my first taste of Slovenian schnapps, I had joined the cook. And na zdravje to that.

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The Curious Case of the Slovenian Snow Caterpillars

It came late this year, but winter has finally arrived at Breg House. To celebrate the glorious Premier Snow – last weekend, I popped on my skis and went for a little ride near the house. The snow was calf deep, and I was sorry to get to the bottom of Breg Piste, and then have to de-ski and walk back up again. But as I did, I noticed something strange in the snow: caterpillars.

There were dozens of them, up on top of the snow. At first, I thought they were dead – but upon closer inspection, I found them to be very much alive and kicking.

Green ones, brown ones, speckled ones. How did they get there? What are they doing? It had been unseasonably warm the previous day, and I wonder if they had prematurely been roused, fooled into thinking spring had arrived?

I suspect the future is not bright for the Slovenian snow caterpillars of Breg House. With snow on the ground and temperatures set to fall to -8c, they may not find the food they are looking for.

If there are any caterpillar experts reading – please do add an explanation in the comments below.

5 Worst Things About Living in Slovenia

In the interests of balance, to contrast my 10 Best Things About Living in Slovenia, I’ve compiled a ‘worst things about living in Slovenia’ too. No country is perfect, and having lived in six different nations so far, I’ve experienced the pros and cons of each.

I’ll point out that when it comes to Slovenia, a) this list is far shorter than the best things list, b) most points are not unique to Slovenia, and c) this list presents somewhat of a ‘first world problems’ line-up, in that if these are the worst aspects of living in Slovenia, then overall – things are pretty good.

And of course, this is just my personal experience of life in Slovenia. Please add your own thoughts and experiences in the comments.

1. Slovene Grammar Destroys Neurones

As someone trying to learn Slovene but unfamiliar with the family of Slavic tongues, there are several concepts which exist in the Slovenian language which are quite head-twisting for me. Though Slovenes are quick to cite the ‘dual plural’ as being the foreigner-proof aspect of their language – for me it’s the declensions (skloni) which I find most frustrating.

This ongoing mental tripwire is what I call the ‘Slovene Skloni Matrix’; a giant table of word-ending modifications which intersects six cases, three genders, two types of plural and a single type of singular, (not to mention the different endings for adjectives and nouns), that must be memorised and applied in order to end your words correctly, depending on the context.

In Slovene, even proper nouns are modified, thus my name can be: Sam, Sama, Samu, Samom, etc – depending on what’s being said.

Damn you skloni – damn you all!

I acknowledge that if I spent more time actually learning the grammar rules, rather than complaining about them, it probably wouldn’t be on this list.

2. Death Wish Drivers: Blind-Corner Road-Hoggers

Too many Slovenian drivers have a terrible habit of straying from their lane on blind corners. Every time I drive to Breg, at least once during my journey (and normally several times), I will come around a corner to find an oncoming Slovenian driver with at least 50% of their car on my side of the road, forcing me to take evasive action. This also triggers my ire in the form of a lengthy horn blast and some ‘Get the hell over!’ gesturing.

With this dangerous habit so common here, it’s little surprise to me that Slovenia is ranked in the bottom third of EU countries when it comes to road safety and has more than double the road deaths per million inhabitants, compared to the UK.

Slovenia is ranked 21st out of the 28 EU countries for road deaths

What does surprise me though, is that Italy is not ranked even lower than Slovenia. Whilst driving from Barcelona to Slovenia (and back) during the Road Trip From Hell in 2017, the Italian drivers stood out for being by far the worst of the six countries that we drove through.

3. The Habit of ‘Hate Thy Neighbour’

It’s a strange and somewhat sad situation here, that Slovenians seem to have an unusually high frequency of neighbourly feuds and disputes; apparently, neighbourly envy is deep seated.

There’s a well-known Slovene saying which illustrates this trait:

Naj sosedu crkne krava, če je že sami nimamo.

It translates as:

‘May the neighbour’s cow die, if we don’t have one.’

The longer version of the story goes something like this: there were three neighbours, each owning a cow. One day, the cow of the first neighbour dies. This makes the other two very happy. Then the cow of the second neighbour dies. This makes the last neighbour even happier still – neither of his neighbours has a cow, yet he still does!

But then he realises that his now cow-less neighbours will come begging for milk, so he then wishes for his own cow to die too, so that he doesn’t have to give them anything.

Being a Slovenian cow: not recommended

The rather sad meaning of the story is that Slovenians would rather see their own cow die, before having to share anything with their neighbours.

Now, I must point out that most of my neighbours have been very generous and very sharing. Despite hearing several stories from Slovenian friends and colleagues about their neighbourly problems, I took the whole ‘hate thy neighbour’ trait, as an exaggeration.

That was until I myself started having my own problems with one of my neighbours, which now makes the cow story sound quite accurate. Though my dispute involves neither dead cows nor any calls for milk, I have personally experienced the unfortunate depths to which neighbourly relations can fall, over the silliest and smallest things.

I’ll again say that all my other neighbours have been lovey, helpful and pleasant people, but if this really is as common as I’m led to believe from my Slovene friends, then for me it’s the most (and perhaps only) ugly side of Slovenia that I’ve so far experienced, in what is otherwise a very pleasant place.

4. Service Culture: Not Very Proactive

As with much of the rest of continental Europe, table service is the norm here and going to the bar (like in the UK) is generally not the done thing. This is good. I like not having to waste my time queuing, waving a tenner at the bartender hoping he’s going to serve me next rather than the guy who just barged in front of me.

However, in more than half of the places I go to, I find that although the table service upon first seating yourself is quite prompt, follow up attention is much less so. Normally you need to flag down the server, rather than getting a proactive ‘Would you like another drink/something else/ the bill?’ attentiveness.

I reiterate, there are some places with great service but there’s definitely room for improvement in the many of cafes and bars I’ve visited.

5. Unreliable Tradesmen: No shows and Radio Silence

It’s not unique to Slovenia by any stretch, but I’ve found it even more difficult than the UK to get tradesmen here to actually turn up when they say they’re going to turn up. I’ve had numerous dealings with various trades over the years, and more often then not, they have not appeared when they said they would.

This has been especially frustrating when I have driven two hours to Koroška on the agreed date just to meet with a tradesman, only for a no show, then radio silence, with my calls and texts going unanswered.

A tradesman found kipping on the job
(To be fair – Glyn here is an excellent and reliable grafter who’s been integral to the development of Breg House)

This has led to my default position being to expect them not to appear at the agreed time and date, and the acceptance that things always take longer than I want and require more pestering than I’m used to.

So – there it is. I suspect this list might change over the years; some things may improve (my grasp of Slovene grammar for example!) and new items may appear. I make no complaints about life overall here – but there’s always room for improvment.

Do you agree with the list? Post a comment below.

10 Best Things About Living In Slovenia

I’ve been visiting Slovenia since 2007 and living here since 2017. Slovenia is the sixth country and on one of three continents I have lived, so I have some perspective on life in other parts of the world.

In the interest of balance, I also wrote a ‘5 Worst Things About Living In Slovenia’ article too. That was however, a considerably shorter piece, and one that is vastly outweighed by the positive aspects of life here.

1. Natural Splendour: Slovenia Is Extremely Good Looking

I have lived in Europe, North America and Asia (see: For Fukui’s Sake: Two Years in Rural Japan), yet no country I have visited is as consistently beautiful as Slovenia. It’s the type of beauty that constantly punches me in the face and demands my attention.

And it’s not just a handful of hotspots either. Yes, Lake Bled and the old centre of Ljubljana and Piran are the pretty pin-ups of the country, but almost everywhere, from the spikey mountains of the Julian Alps, to the vineyards of the south, to the terracotta towns of the coast, to the villages of the Slovenian hinterlands, makes my heart go boom.

2. Weather: It Has A Great Climate

For me, Slovenia has an almost perfect climate. If you like snow, you’ll enjoy Slovenia’s proper, cold, snowy winters. There are ski areas dotted all around the country including Krvavec which is just 30 mins from Ljubljana, plus many more a little further afield.

Slovenian summers are hot, meaning lazy days cooling off on the coast or by one of the lakes or aquamarine rivers. Spring and autumn are ideal inbetweeners; warm days, and crisp evenings. Plus Slovenia gets some really good, heavy thunderstorms, and everyone loves a good storm – right?

3. Lingo: The Level Of English Is Amazingly High

Most Slovenians of a certain age speak English as a second language to a level only rivalled by Scandinavians. Indeed, it would not be possible for me to work for a Slovenian company, were it not for my colleagues’ impressive ability to speak English so fluently.

This is however, a double-edged sword; if you’re trying to learn Slovenian, (which I am), practice at speaking the language on a day-to-day basis can be in short supply. In fact, many Slovenians are tri-lingual, often having a working knowledge of German or Italian in addition to English and their mother tongue.

4. Location: It Has A Great Central Position In Europe

Slovenia prefers to be deemed to be in ‘central’ rather than ‘eastern’ Europe and for good reason. Geographically, it’s much further west than many might realise, bordering Italy and Austria, as well as Hungary and Croatia.

Ljubljana is only 2.5 hours from Venice, 3.5h from Vienna and 2hrs from Zagreb. Politically and culturally too, Slovenia seems to have more in common with western Europe than the (former) eastern bloc, and is modern, developed and advanced.

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5. Crime: It’s Super Safe

Though not completely non-existent, crime rates are very low in Slovenia. It’s a country where kids still play in the streets without parental-fear, you can walk most anywhere at any time of day, and people often leave their cars unlocked when in the shops. Statistically, murder rates in Slovenia are the lowest in the EU.

6. The Great Outdoors: It’s Clean And Green

Slovenia has done well to preserve much of its natural beauty and most of the population are respectful of their environment. Litter levels are low and recycling provision is high, and it’s ranked the 3rd most forested country in the Europe. Slovenes love the great outdoors and spend plenty of time hiking, skiing, kayaking, paragliding, rock climbing etc etc.

On a more day-to-day basis, I have been particularly impressed with Ljubljana’s provision of bike lanes. Almost all major roads, and many minor ones, have a designated bike lane, and many even have a bike lane completely separated from the road. This is vastly superior to what I’m used to in the UK and enables me to cycle around much of Ljubljana, without having to worry about getting run down by a car, and encourages the population to use their bike.

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7. Tech Jobs: Slovenia is a Blockchain Hotspot

There are lots of interesting start-ups and several established tech companies in Slovenia. A high level of developer talent, combined with a high level of English and a pedigree of programming has led to a petite, yet healthy tech-scene. Some Slovenians have historically sought employment in Germany, the UK or elsewhere, but the growth of Slovenia’s tech scene (especially blockchain and ‘crypto’) is also drawing foreigners to move here.

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8. Rural Traditions Remain Alive

In contrast to #7, sometimes living in Slovenia feels like a welcome step back in time. Many things that UK hipsters deem ‘artisanal’ or ‘craft’ and pay big bucks for back home, are just part of everyday life here.

Growing your own vegetables or butchering your own meat and making your own sausages for example. Or making your own schnapps, cider or wine; many Slovenes have hobby vineyards with little wine cottages. These are all common aspects of Slovene life, which are less common now (or non-existent) in the UK, outside the said expensive ‘artisan’ arena.

I do wonder however, if the next generation of Slovenian teenagers will continue with such a way of life, when it’s often easier, cheaper and quicker to buy such supplies from the local supermarket, rather than spend two days butchering a pig and making your own sausages, or tending your vineyard every weekend .

I once joined my friends Rok and Ivo at their dad’s wine cottage during the grape harvest. They complained bitterly that they had to put in a huge amount of work throughout the year in order to make wine which was inferior and in the end, more expensive, than what they could buy in the supermarket.

Though I could see their point, I love this aspect to life here, and I hope Slovenes will keep it alive for a long time to come.

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9. Slovenes Are Friendly

My overriding experience, having been visiting Slovenia since 2007 and living here since 2017, is that 99% of Slovenes that I have interacted with have been kind, friendly, welcoming and helpful. I have had only a couple of bad experiences (see: Battling Bureaucracy: A Taste of Red Tape in Slovenia), and most Slovenes have gone out of their way to assist me when I’ve been in need. Which has been quite often (see: Barcelona to Breg: Road trip from hell | Part 2).

I often think that a Slovene living in the UK would not have experienced as much kindness from the Brits, as I have here, especially considering I am no where near fluent in Slovenian (though I am learning: see: Struggles with Slovene: 6 Months of learning Slovenian).

10. The Quality of Life is High

Slovenians on the whole enjoy a high quality of life and there seems to be, overall, a good level of equality across the country. Saying this, I have found that Slovenians are a little over-obsessed with salaries.

I often hear them complain that salaries in Switzerland, or Germany or the UK are so much higher than in Slovenia. Whilst it’s true that the average salaries are higher in those countries, I feel Slovenes sometimes overlook the much higher living costs of those countries, and are therefore missing the bigger picture: the actual quality of life in their own country.

Beach time, mountain skiing, great weather, good quality food and great wine, a clean, green and safe country, are all aspects of Slovenian life accessible to the average Slovene, which can’t be said for the UK.

Do you agree with my list?  What do you like about living in Slovenia?

DIY Meat Supply: A Lesson in Slovenian Butchery

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Log on. No danger of log shortage here.

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.

 

Making Schnapps (Šnopc) in Slovenia: Part 1

Ever since my neighbour Jaka, (God rest his Slovenian soul) plied me with his homemade Slivovka – the clear, strong spirit that is plum šnopc (or schnapps) some 10 years ago, I had been eager to join the making of it.

I remember my first visits to my neighbours, when Jaka would dole out the stuff regardless of the hour. Despite the somewhat ‘interesting’ flavour, me being British and therefore legally bound by British etiquette and politeness, I would of course finish the entire glass and remark how delicious Jaka’s šnopc was.

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My contorted face clearly didn’t betray my true feelings, and encouraged by my apparent fondness for the spirit and pleased that he had found such a fan of his creation, each time I finished my glass, Jaka would immediately refill it. My protests had no effect and I would be once again faced with the prospect of draining another draught.

I eventually learned that in order to not become drunk on šnopc before midday, I had to fight my British instinct to politely drink all that had been poured, and risk potential offence to my host by leaving my glass at least half full.

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Many Slovenes make their own šnopc and I have quite a supply

Since then I have been the lucky recipient of various bottles of homemade šnopc from various Slovene friends, and I have now developed quite a taste for the stuff. Alongside my whiskey collection, I have various bottles of homemade šnopc, including one of Štefka’s 2015 vintages – a fine year.

Unlike in the UK, where the distilling of alcohol without a license is highly illegal, resulting in heavy fines and prison time, in Slovenia it’s permitted and popular, especially in the countryside.

After a decade of drinking it, this weekend, in the Kingdom of Breg, I was finally able to get involved with the making of this most Slovenian spirit.

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Purple carpets of Slive (plums) at Breg

Šnaps Team: Assemble!

I sat at the little table outside the house, where I was given – a small glass of schnapps (of course!). It was a clever move by Ančka – the Kingdom of Breg’s matriarch; a little taste of what was to come, if I put in the hard work. And Stage 1 of making Slovenian schnapps is to harvest the raw materials.

The one and only ingredient required for the most popular variety of schnapps is slive – plums. By design, The Kingdom of Breg is rich in this asset; successive generations of residents have planted and maintained a significant orchard of plum trees, the oldest of which are now around 100 years old.

The process started with each tree undergoing a thorough shakedown with a hooked pole. This relieved the branches of their burden and created a purple plum carpet beneath each of the 50 or so trees.

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Bojan carrries out a plum tree shakedown

After a quick tutorial on quality control from Štefka, regarding which plums were v redu (OK) to collect, and which were to be rejected, I began to fill my bucket with the purple fruits. Once all our buckets were full, I was tasked with transporting the fruits via wheelbarrow, to the schnapps making HQ – Štefka’s barn – where the contents of each bucket was poured into a large, plastic barrel.

There was no washing of the fruit. Alongside our purple gold, each barrel contained a ‘seasoning’ of grass blades, stalks, the odd leaf, earth, an ant or two and the occasional spider. Once a barrel was full, it was simply sealed and left to liquefy and ferment. Nothing more was added. I appreciated the simplicity of the recipe, and it is probably a reason why making schnapps is so popular in Slovenia.

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Future Šnopc: 100% plum (may contain trace amounts of ant, stalk and spider)

Whilst the procedure is simple, the work itself is more taxing than I expected. With thousands of plums to pluck from the ground and dozens of full buckets to be hauled up hilly terrain, it was hard on the back. Štefka alluded to this as we gathered plum after plum, hunched over with bent backs, and she exclaimed:

“Šnopc is expensive!”

I had to agree. For the first couple of hours, I was having great fun in my plum-picking bubble, but by the end of the day, my back was stiff, my body aching, and I was looking forward to the end.

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Ančka: matriach of the Kingdom of Breg

Of course, the day was punctuated with numerous pauza – breaks in which I sat with the rest of the work crew: Štefka, her mother and matriarch Ančka, and two more of their friends, and was offered beer, cake, salami, bread as well as a lunch of potato salad, boiled eggs and sausage.

During these breaks I ascertained that each 300 litre barrel of plums would eventually produce about six litres of schnapps. The strange thing is, that neither Štefka, nor Ančka drink the stuff. However, it seems to be a good currency here in the Slovene Hinterlands and therefore a valuable asset to stockpile.

Now the hard work of the plum harvest is done, we must wait until January by which time the plums should have fermented nicely and we’ll be ready for stage 2 of the process; the distillation.

I plan to be present.

UPDATE: I was present! Read Part 2: Making Schnapps in Slovenia: The Cook

Dež: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

D is for Dež

Some might see dež – which means ‘rain’, as an unwelcome addition to my A-Ž of reasons for living in Slovenia. Indeed, I have noted the Slovenian tolerance for any weather other than completely clear and sunny, is markedly different to my own.

On numerous occasions I have heard Slovenian friends curse the ‘terrible’ conditions (ie not 100% blue sky and sun) which by English or Scottish standards, are really quite pleasant.

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Clouds move in front of the mountains, during a rainy day on the Ljubljana outskirts

Interestingly, the data almost hides this fact. Ljubljana, my current home, receives double the annual rainfall of my former home, Edinburgh. Certainly, Slovenia’s lush greenery must in part be attributed to dež. But despite the volume of rain which falls here, Ljubljana’s climate is far more to my taste. The rain is more intense and less frequent than that of the UK’s. And the fact that Ljubljana also receives more than double the sunshine, and far less of the incessant wind (which even after 10 years of Edinburgh life, forever annoyed me) seals the deal for me.

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Cloud and mist fill the valley below Breg House in Koroška

From my point of view, Slovenia’s dež is very welcome. Sometimes it comes in the form of short, violent storms, almost tropical in nature. Other times, it’s less dramatic; a day of soft rainfall that blankets the entire landscape. However the dež arrives, I relish a rainy day. Granted, it’s an inconvenience when it comes to my commute, (my preferred mode of transport being a bike), but aside from that, there’s something very pleasurable about rainfall.

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It’s a Velux window rather than a pot of gold that sits under a Slovene rainbow.

D always brings with it a different mood; a certain quietness to the land. There’s a feeling of calm and tranquillity that accompanies the water falling from above. I love to sit on my balcony and watch the plumes of clouds drift in front of the nearby mountains, forming new scenes each minute.

Then there’s the noise. Even if you are a dež detester, surely you can not deny that there are few sounds more comforting than the hiss of rain falling outside?

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Rain at Breg House

And let us not forget rain’s other pleasure; the delectable smell of the land; the earth, the fields, the pine-fresh forests. The rains bring it all out of the ground and into the air for us to deeply inhale.

Rainy days are also when The Kingdom of Breg House is at its best. Watching the fire dance inside, whilst the rain falls outside, with a whiskey in hand, is surely one of life’s greatest pleasures.

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Early morning storm over Lake Bled

So let’s raise a glass for dež, probably the most unliked and underappreciated form of weather for most, but for me, a time to be enjoyed rather than endured.

Breg House’s Official Whisky Policy

Over the years, various visitors to Breg House have kindly brought a bottle of whisky with them as a gift. This has led to a small, but growing collection of whiskies from around the world. Currently, Japan, Scotland and the USA are represented.

To help grow the collection, which guests are very welcome to enjoy too, Breg House now asks that all visitors bring with them a bottle of whisky of their choosing. The more unusual, the better!

Breg House looks forward to being able to offer guests a range of interesting, weird and wonderful whiskies, alongside the homemade local brew: schnapps.

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Bring a bottle to add to the collection!

7 Similarities between Japan and Slovenia

Japan and Slovenia…similar? Yeah right.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Japan and Slovenia have absolutely nothing in common. After all, on the surface, the two nations appear very different.

Japan is an Asian island nation, Slovenia a European continental country. Japan is an ancient land of 127 million people; Slovenia a new born, with just 2 million inhabitants. Japanese culture is a subject of global fascination, Slovenian culture is unknown to most of the world.

However, having myself lived in rural Japan, as well as Slovenia, I have discovered a surprising number of similarities between these two great countries.

  1. The Landscape

The most obvious similarity between Slovenia and Japan is the natural landscape. Both countries are blessed with green, mountainous terrain, interspersed with flat field-land. Looking out from my balcony in Ljubljana, I gaze upon a landscape of green fields, woodland and mountains.

It’s very much like the view from my balcony in the small town of Ono, Fukui. Whilst Japan’s crop of choice is rice, and Slovenia’s is wheat, barley or corn, the scenery is very simlar. Indeed, two friends who also lived in Fukui – Colin and Chris – recently visited and both independently commented that the landscape in Slovenia ‘could be Japan’.

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Fellow former Fukui-ites – Colin and Chris – agree that parts of Slovenia ‘could be Japan’

  1. The Language

Japanese and Slovene as languages, share nothing in common. They have no grammatical or structural similarities and knowing one will not help you in any way to learn the other. But there are traits that the two tongues share.

Firstly, both Japanese and Slovene are thought to be foreigner-proof by the locals. Both nationalities remark how difficult their native tongue is for foreigners to learn and are therefore both surprised and pleased when foreigners attempt to speak it.

Indeed, the Japanese believe that only those possessing Japanese DNA are equipped to speak nihongo. Uttering the simplest phrase in Japanese – for example ‘Watashi wa Igirisujin desu’ (I am English) – will undoubtedly trigger the ‘Ehhh! Nihongo jouzu!‘ (Wow! Your Japanese is excellent!) response.

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Likewise, as I recently discussed in my post Struggles with Slovenian: 6 Months of learning Slovene, most Slovenians do not expect foreigners to bother to learn Slovene, and hence when you drop a phrase or two, they too are pleased and surprised.

The owner of a café in Bohinj once waived my coffee bill, simply because I asked for it in Slovene. It’s a show of respect that someone takes time to learn another’s language, especially when that language is not easy to learn, and this effort does not go unnoticed by the Japanese or the Slovenes.

  1. The Climate

Though Japan stretches over several climatic zones from sub-tropical Okinawa, to sub-arctic Hokkaido, I spent my two years living in Ono, Fukui, which is half way down the main island of Honshu, and the climate there is very similar to that of Slovenia’s.

Both countries have four, very defined seasons; cold, crisp winters with oodles of snow  (ideal for snow-lovers such as myself), a pleasantly warm spring season; hot, sunny summers (though Japan’s is more humid), and a beautiful autumn with spectacular colour changes in the mountain forests.

And both have big, warm, tropical-esque rain storms, after which the scent of the earth is divine.

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Autumn colours, Jezersko, Slovenia

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Winter scene from my balcony, Ono, Fukui, Japan

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Winter scene from my balcony, Ljubljana, Slovenia

  1. A Love of Slippers

Most people know of Japan’s strict ‘slippers only, when indoors’ policy, which is well documented. Indeed, even in schools, kids and teachers must leave their outdoor shoes at the door, and switch to slippers for class. But I was surprised to find that Slovenia has a very similar custom. Just like in Japan, every Slovenian home has a stash of slippers at the door for guests, and walking into a home in your outdoor shoes is most certainly a faux pas.

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Copati (slipper) shop, as seen in Ljubljana, Slovenia

  1. A Love of Gardens

Both the Japanese and the Slovenes seem to take immaculate care of their gardens. Although in Japan where space is far more limited lawns are rare, plants, trees and bonsai are kept perfectly pruned, watered and even trussed up come winter to protect them from the heavy snowfalls. In Slovenia, grass is kept neatly cut, flower boxes perfectly arranged, and vegetable patches weeded and watered. Both nations seem to have a deep connection with their plants and the love of tending for them.

  1. A Fever for Festivals

Japan and Slovenia both love a festival. Slovenia has the saying ‘a festival for every village’ and I think the same could be said for Japan. Neither nation needs much excuse to dress up, play music and parade, and even the smallest towns have found something to celebrate.

Japan has the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (snow festival); Slovenia has its Snow Castle Festival in Črna na Koroškem. Japan has its Festival of the Steel Phallus, Slovenia has its own fertility festivities in the form of the Kurant Festival. Japan has numerous sake festivals, Slovenia has numerous wine festivals. The list goes on…

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Japanese sake festival

  1. Pride in Regional Dishes

Both Slovenia and Japan have great pride in certain foods that come from certain regions of their countries. Despite being a relatively tiny country, Slovenia boasts numerous specialities that hail from certain areas, and there is strong regional identity, for example Jota from Istria or Kranjska klobasa, a sausage that has caused political fighting as Slovenia and its neighbours – Croatia and Austria – battle over it.

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Klobasa (sausage) as served by my lovely neighbours in Koroška, Slovenia

Similarly, Japan has built a whole industry around food tourism, and almost everywhere, from whole prefectures right down to the smallest villages, has at least one special dish that it claims is completely unique to the area. Thus people will travel a long way to sample the firefly quid of Toyama prefecture or the Ishikari nabe of Hokkaido.

Echos of Rural Japan

With so many similarities between my experiences of rural Japan and Slovenia, it’s really no co-incidence that I was drawn here. My two years living in rural Japan were deeply formative; I was struck by its rural beauty. I loved living life outdoors, roaming mountains, paddling rivers, exploring lakes, trying to learn a new language, and feeling like everyday was an adventure into the unknown.

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Exploring deserted lake, Fukui, Japan

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View from my balcony, Ono, Fukui, Japan

When my time in Japan came to an end and I returned to live in the UK for the next ten years, I could never quite get Fukui out of my system. I was always searching for a life like that again.

When I sit outside on a hot summer evening, look out over the layers of mountains, and listen to the crickets chirp, I hear echos of rural Japan.

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Early morning mountain mist, Ono, Fukui, Japan

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Afternoon haze, Mount Peca, Koroška, Slovenia (pic: Benito Aramando)

It took me 11 years to make it a reality, but I think I finally found what I was looking for, here in Slovenia.

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If you’d like to read more about life in rural Japan, For Fukui’s Sake is available from Amazon

Struggles with Slovenian: 6 months of learning Slovene

Having been living in Ljubljana for six months, it’s high time I talked about my experiences of trying to learn the local lingo: slovenščina.

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Many Slovenians are surprised that I am bothering to learn Slovenian at all. Indeed, the reaction of one of my colleagues when I first told him I was taking Slovenian classes was a mirthful “Why?!”.

After all, he and all my Slovene colleagues speak excellent English, so why would I trouble myself with this little-known language of just 2 million speakers, that everybody tells me is “very difficult for foreigners” and another summed up as being “pretty hard and not that useful”.

Indeed, I have met several expats who have been living here for years, have Slovene partners, yet don’t speak Slovenian at all. In Slovenia, and especially Ljubljana, it’s easy enough to rely on the locals’ excellent linguistic skills and spare yourself the trouble of tackling mind-twisting grammar when it’s quite possible to operate in English alone for the vast majority of daily life. (Although you can still run into problems, as I discovered at the uprava enota…see: Battling Bureaucracy: A Taste of Red Tape in Slovenia).

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Tools for the job

But I don’t want to become another foreigner who never bothered to learn the language of the country in which they reside. The British already have a reputation for being lazy when it comes to languages so I want to learn as much of the local lingo as possible. Not only will this help me understand and operate better here, but it’s a matter of manners too. Taking time to learn your host country’s tongue opens the door to cultural insights and shows a level of respect and interest in your adopted country, which I think is important and worthwhile.

I’m not completely alien to language learning; I have an intermediate level of French, I lived and worked in rural Japan for two years so banked some nihongo, and I even (reluctantly) attended Russian classes at school.

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Where’s Spot? High brow Slovenian literature

It’s true that Slovene is not the easiest language to grasp for non-Slavic speakers. It’s grammatically complex, with an annoying number of ‘cases’ (sklon) which mean that you have to constantly modify the endings of words depending on the context of the sentence. For native English speakers, this is an ongoing trip hazard. I rarely get the endings of all my words right, although for the most part, the meaning of my sentence can still be understood.

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My least favourite aspect of Slovenian: ‘cases’ which mean you must constantly change the endings of words, depending on context

Slovenian also has something called the ‘dual plural’, a rare, archaic feature which has all but died out in most other languages, if it ever existed at all. But the dual is something that Slovenian has held on to, and of which Slovenes are very proud. This means futher changes are required when you are only talking about two things or two people (as opposed to three or more). And of course the word endings change again depending on whether it’s two male things, two female things or two neuter things.

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This is more my level of Slovenian literature

Just when you think you’re beginning to get a handle on all of that, your teacher then casually tosses another Slovenian hand grenade into the classroom which explodes in a fireball of ‘finished’ and ‘unfinished’ verbs (akin to perfect and imperfect tense). And as you’re reeling from shock and awe at their very existence, there’s the ongoing struggle of Slovene’s tongue-twisting nature.

For the uninitiated, trying to pronounce seemingly vowel-deficient words like pospravljajo (they clean), vprašajta (a question [dual form]) or nahrbtnik (backpack), requires highly dextrous mouthparts, the likes of which only a native Welsh speaker could appreciate.

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On my reading list. Kids books are a good way to learn

Perhaps the biggest challenge with any attempt to learn a language is motivation. Knowing myself, I decided that classes, rather than pure self-study, would be the best option for me. So I signed up for courses offered by the Univerza v Ljubljani, Filozofska fakulteta. These were very good, and I now know a hell of a lot more than I did before I begun. These classes have now ceased for the summer, so I’ve reconnected with my old Slovene teacher, Valentina Zupan from LearnSlovenianOnline.com, to continue my twice-weekly classes, in the hopes that I’ll keep the SLOmentum going.

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Our masterpiece Slovenian poems, as published in the department magazine

Despite all of this, I sometimes feel that the top of Mount Speak Slovenian, is a very long way off, and that I am only a few steps in to the journey. The fact that most Slovenians speak such excellent English, means that despite living amongst them, I don’t speak much Slovene on a day to day basis.

When I lived in rural Japan, the farmers and fisherman that surrounded me spoke no English. So I was forced to (try to) speak Japanese daily, and speaking a language, no matter how badly, is the best way to obtain and retain a language. But here, seemingly everyone, from my 12-year old neighbour, to the cleaning lady at work, speaks English fluently.

I always try to order in Slovenian at bars and restaurants; sometimes the reply comes in Slovene, but half the time, my accent or my failure to use the accusative case correctly betrays my foreignness, and the waiter replies in perfect English before handing me an English menu.

It is when I am in Koroška, at The Kingdom of Breg House, that I find I progress most. It is here that I can really practice speaking Slovenian with no fear of my neighbours switching to English, as most of them don’t speak any at all. It’s here that I feel I have actually made some progress, as I stumble through, somehow, actually communicating in Slovene. Albeit sounding like a troglodyte.

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In Slovenian, Sam-I-Am is Jan-I-Am

I know learning a language is a long road and one filled with frustration. Some days I feel like I’ve made progress, others I become angry at Slovenian’s audacity to be so tricky and annoyed at my constant mistakes, and my inability to remember words I really should know by now.

Nonetheless the SLO must go on. It will be an up and down ride, but I hope, malo po malo, I will improve, and one day, mogoče, I’ll be able to read the Slovene version of Where’s Spot? (recommended for ages 2-4), all by myself.