With lockdown restrictions and pandemic chaos for much of 2020, I knew that getting back to the UK for Christmas was going to be unlikely. I held on for as long as I could, delaying my decision to travel back to The Motherland, but by the start of November I knew a return was unlikely.
It turned out to be the sensible decision. After saying that there would be a relaxation of the lockdown restrictions in the UK over the Christmas period, there was a last minute reversal of the rules, meaning that much of the UK were unable to travel beyond their cities or towns, let alone travel from other countries.
I was not the only stranded expat in Slovenia; two fellow Brits were in a similar predicament, so as the reality of not being able to return set in, I suggested the idea of BREGxmas – spending Christmas in The Kingdom of Breg.
However, as the 25th of December approached, even making the two hour journey from Ljubljana to Breg started to look troubled. Slovenia had banned movement between municipalities, meaning that we would potentially risk fines if we were caught high-tailing it out of Ljubljana. Now, as I own Breg, I had justification to be traveling there, but my two compatriots were in an altogether greyer area, and though we did formulate a justification for our journey based on an exception loophole, we travelled in fear of it being rejected, and our wallets emptied of several hundred euros for breaking rules.
So, in the run up to Christmas, there was still some debate on whether we should attempt BREGxmas or not. However, just three days before Baby Jesus’ B-day, we decided the risk was worth it – and off we went, freeing ourselves from months of Ljubljana lockdown.
It turned out to be a good plan. Breg delivered a truly white Christmas, with snow already on the ground, which was topped up on Christmas eve and Christmas day and then followed by a cold, crisp, sunny Boxing day.
My guests for BREGxmas were – Tom – deep-thinker and founder of KickstartYourCommunity – and Jason – a former chef and the now-founder of Cultisan – who prepared a delicious menu for our stay, featuring Sea Bass, Roast Turkey, and all the Christmas cuts.
Together we spent our evenings in front of the log burning stove, warming ourselves whilst snow fell outside. We punctuated the festivities with walks around the snowbound landscape, down the white meadow and into the frozen forest, with Jason taking Ronnie – the local farm Alsatian for whom he has a great affinity – along for the ride.
Four years previous, I had spent Christmas in Breg with my family. It had been a slightly more challenging experience as Breg house at that time was in a less developed state, with no oven (so no roast) and due to some temporary problems – no water! There was also no snow, although it was an extremely cold period – hitting lows of -10c.
Thanks to COVID-19 it’s been over a year since I’ve been able to return to the UK. But in absence of my family, it was great to spend a couple of days with two fellow Brits – Tom and Jason – feasting and drinking, and watching some Christmas classics: Die Hard, Elf and The Office Christmas Special, all selected from the Breg House DVD collection.
Breg truly delivered a picture perfect Christmas the likes of which are normally only seen on Christmas cards, which was not only great to experience for the first time myself, but also lovely to be able to share with friends.
A big hvala lepa to Tom, Jason (and Ronnie!) for making BREGxmas 2020 one to remember.
In this digital era, few people buy films in physical form. Yet over the last year or so, I have been steadily building a Breg House Film collection, entirely in DVD format.
Well, though Breg House is not entirely ‘off-grid’ (it is spring fed and has its own septic tank, but runs off mains electricity) I have so far refrained from installing a Wi-Fi connection. It would be possible to do so – the neighbours have internet – but I prefer to keep it unconnected, meaning disconnecting from the real world is easier.
Therefore, on those rainy autumn evenings, or those icy winter nights, when I’m sat in the wooden lounge, tending my Piazzetta wood stove, I wanted to have a library of films that I love, ready on hand.
You might ask why I don’t simply use a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime to download movies and watch them on my laptop. Well, unfortunately, unlike the music industry, where there is now a single source providing almost any track I want, there is yet to be the equivalent of Spotify for film.
On the contrary, things are getting worse; the film streaming landscape is becoming ever more fragmented with the arrival of various competing services, each with their own set of content.
So you now have to subscribe to several services depending on which network currently owns the rights to the film or TV show you happen to want to watch. It seems that for the foreseeable future at least, we will experience a heavily fractured streaming landscape, with no (legal) single source of film.
And the fact is, many films – especially older, classic movies – are not available on Netflix, or Amazon Prime Video as part of their subscription offering.
Let’s take a few examples of movies I’ve recently wanted to watch: Apocalypse Now, Terminator (1 and 2), The Full Monty, Princess Mononoke, Alien, District 9, Seven Samurai, Gattaca, Moonrise Kingdom (I could go on..) – at the time of writing, none of these films were available to watch as part of the Amazon Prime Video or Netflix subscription.
So, on top of the internet connection requirement, and the need to pay a subscription to these services, you also have the ownership question. Netflix has steadily reduced its selection of films over the years and turned to producing its own content, as the licence for said films has expired and been re-acquired by networks who are now launching their own streaming services.
Whilst Netflix does produce some great TV series stuff of its
own, often I just want to watch a specific film, and if it’s not on Netflix or
Amazon prime video – I can’t. With a DVD, I have the film forever. Aside from
loss or damage, I’ll be able to watch that film for years to come. With streaming
services, a film can be available this month, gone the next.
Marry all this with the fact that in the UK, you can walk into any charity shop and find a healthy selection of DVDs starting from 50p, and it means that building a curated collection of films I love (and some I want to watch but just somehow never got round to seeing) is the cheapest, most sensible (and most fun), option. So whilst the CD really is now almost entirely redundant, the DVD lives on.
And finally – there’s just something nice about being able to browse a film collection in physical form.
Hence, I encourage all Breg House visitors to bring a DVD or two (as long as I don’t have it already) to help build The Mightly Breg House Film Collection, which hosts the largest selection of English language movies in the entire realm of Koroška. Probably.
It remembers a time, some 300 years ago, when the land was all hers. And it wants it back. So it constantly gnaws away at the structure. Left unchecked, it would slowly consume the place. So I find myself in an ongoing fight to stave off its advances.
In spring, the vegetation around the house rises up from its winter sleep. It may appear an innocent observer, but in fact it’s constantly seeking for a way in. Roots reach in to the structure, ever working their way deeper.
Seedlings germinate in the smallest of gaps; a crack in the wooden stairs, a hairline split in a timber. Creepers search for a way to envelop the house. Damp is drawn up from the cool earth below in to the walls.
In summer the insects arrive. Wasps find cosy holes to build their nests, scraping away at Breg’s wooden walls, stealing pulp for their paper building materials.
The occasional wood-boring insect drills into the thick beams that support the structure. Slovenian ants have been known to invade, seeking to expand their territory into Breg House (but have been successfully repelled).
Hot sun scorches the black roof, blasting it with solar radiation. Each year, the corrugated tar material grows thinner and weaker, till eventually it loses its rigidity and allows for attack via the heavy summer storms, when the rain falls so hard, the slightest gap, hole or crack will be penetrated by water. The lightening strikes loud up here in the mountains of Mežica and although Breg house has never been be hit, the threat remains.
Autumn is perhaps the only respite Breg House gets, before the onset of winter once more. The plants are on the wane, the insects have diminished, yet the bite of winter is yet to arrive.
So I am in a constant fight against nature. Though I let the garden grow fairly wild – allowing the meadow grasses to flower, before cutting it back a bit – I have to be vigilant. Constant repairs are required. Clearing giant icicles before they damage the roof.
Ejecting unwanted insects seeking to cohabitate with me. Draining tanks and pipes come winter to avoid ice attacks.
Breg House has survived 300 years so far. I plan to help it survive another 300.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a Velux window rather than a pot of gold that sits under a Slovene rainbow.
Dež 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?
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.
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.
Over the last six months of wandering the wilds of Koroška, I have stumbled upon several representations of wangers. Are these some ancient Slovenian fertility charm, or is it just the lumberjacks having a laugh?
A pine plonker found in forest near Breg
Certainly, with the wooden willies, some effort has gone into finding and shaping of not just the winky, but the arms, legs and face. And in some cases, several wood wangers have been stockpiled, presumably for future distribution to areas where fertility rates are below average.
A cache of wood wangers, as found in the forests around Breg
During the heavy snows of the Koroška winters, when the forests were largely impassable, the ingenious locals instead took to crafting giant snow schlongs. Impessive attention to detail can be seen in their work suggesting this is more than mere child’s play. Indeed, they have gone to great lengths on their rendition of follicles on the cobblers here. Such art deserves wider recognition.
Giant snow schlong as seen on road to Breg, Koroška, Slovenia
I am yet to ascertain whether the snow and wood winkies of Koroška are purely for fun, or whether there is some fertility function surrounding their construction, but I will keep you posted on any new John Tompsons that appear in the vicinity.
Slovenia, like much of Europe, had experienced a heavy winter. The copious snow combined with some vicious windstorms had done its damage to the trees around Breg House; many had limbs dangling, some had been brought down completely.
Now that the spring melt had arrived and the patches of snow were rapidly retreating, it was time to tackle these now-defunct trees so I headed up to Breg for the Velika noč (Easter) weekend to spend some time sawing, chain-sawing, splitting and stacking wood.
The (hand) tools for the job
As the trees were ‘windblown’ I had to consult my brother (who is a tree surgeon) on the best way to tackle them. There are numerous forces of compression and tension at work, and with one tree lying atop the other, I had to be careful to dismember the tangle in the correct order to avoid me being crushed to death by a falling trunk.
My brother also advised me that it was ok to use sunflower cooking oil in my chainsaw (since I’d run out of chainsaw oil and being the Easter holiday, the shops were closed). The sunflower oil ‘hack’ worked and my chainsaw powered on through the job.
My brother told me I could use sunflower oil in my chainsaw as a temporary substitute. So I did.
Sawing up wood by hand is tiring but I prefer it for many jobs, especially when dismembering a fallen tree in a tangle of branches. However, using a chainsaw to slice up trunks and limbs is satisfyingly fast and there’s a joy in sinking the chain-teeth into a log and watching it almost melt through the wood it like a hot-knife in butter. Apart from when your chainsaw gets wedged in the tree – which thankfully only happened once during this operation.
The dream team: chainsaw and axe
But no wood work is more fun than splitting thick trunks and limbs, into fire-sized logs. For this I use my Struc Slovenian-made splitting axe or ‘maul’. Mauls have a fat, wedge-shaped blade which forces the wood apart, helping it to split more easily along its grain.
Check my wedge: maul head
Axes: turning wood into firewood since the Iron Age
However, my favourite axe is a smaller one that I bought in Britain some years ago, and never had much use for it, but at Breg House, it’s the perfect tool for splitting wood into kindling, or snedding. Snedding is removing side branches from a larger limb or trunk. This can also be done with a saw or chainsaw, but a good axe is a quick and fun way to do it. This axe is perfect for both jobs – it’s perfectly weighted, nice and sharp and just feels great in the hand.
My favourite axe
My third axe – a ‘Viking’ – was somewhat of an impulse buy. I saw it in the local DIY store, Inpos, in Ravne na Koroškem, and I just had to have it. I love the shape of the handle and the colour of the blade. It can also be used for snedding or splitting kindling, but as it’s a little lighter, it’s not quite got the oomph of my fave axe. However I like the way it looks and its light weight means it would make a great ‘travel axe’ for a camping trip.
The Viking; my smallest but sexiest axe
I spent two days dismembering two fallen fruit trees, hacking, sawing, lugging, splitting then finally stacking the wood in my Kozolec – a Slovenian hay rack which doubles as my log store. With a hot Slovenian summer, those logs should be ready to burn in my Piazzetta stove this winter, and therefore I hope never again to suffer the great log famine of winter 2017/18.
Pimp my log pile: a fine mix of freshly cut apple, plum and a touch of elder
One of the benefits of doing a bit of hard graft at Breg House, is that my kindly neighbours ensure I am kept well fed throughout the day. Numerous rounds of potica, an elevensies break consisting of Turkish coffee, homemade biscuits, and a shot of their schnapps (in Slovenia it’s perfectly normal to drink schnapps in the morning and/or whilst operating chainsaws or other heavy machinery), as well as a beef and horseradish lunch.
My neighbours also invited me round for ‘Easter breakfast’ which is a big deal here. Everyone eats bread, ham and boiled eggs mixed with horseradish. It was delicious, but I was to later experience the somewhat noxious side effect of eating six eggs before 9am.
Elevensies for loggers at Breg House, courtesy of my amazing neighbours: homemade biscuits, turkish coffee, and schnapps
I got back to Ljubljana early evening, feeling zonked. One of the things I love about being at Breg is that there’s always physical work to be done, and despite the weariness from a day’s logging – doing it feels good. Especially with potica and schnapps.