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.

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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.

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

Assault on Breg House; giant ants attempt annexation of kitchen

Slovenian ants have mounted a full-scale invasion of The Kingdom of Breg House in an attempt to annex the kitchen.

Following weeks of increasing tension around the border area where the Slovenian Army of Carpenter Ants had upped military patrols, they have now crossed sovereign lines in to The Kingdom of Breg and proceeded to set up bases within the territory of Breg House, in an attempt to annex parts of the building.

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An Slovenian ant prepares for the invasion of Breg House

Carpenter ants are one of the larger species of ant, with some ranks measuring up to 2.5cm in length. They are also equipped with significant mandibles and armed with formic acid spray.

The King of the Democratic People’s Republic of The Kingdom of Breg House (DPRKBH), who is also Head of the Military, Foreign Secretary and the Economic Minister (and who once scored 11 holes-in-one in his first ever game of golf) has taken a hard-line against the ants, issuing the following statement:

“I find ants fascinating. In fact, of all wildlife documentaries, I like ant ones the best. However, this is an attack on The Democratic People’s Republic of The Kingdom Of Breg House’s sovereign soil and it will be met with the total annihilation of the foreign imperialist ant invaders.”

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Spoils of war: A member of the Slovenian Ant Army shows off a hammer that was captured by his platoon during the two-day conflict.

Journalists on the front line reported a scene of total destruction following two days of heavy fighting which has left several, if not quite a few, ants dead. Chemical weapons were reported to have been deployed by both sides; the Slovenian Ant Army launched formic acid attacks, whilst The Kingdom of Breg deployed booby-trapped food supplies, crystalline poisons and water, to repel the invaders.

At least one ant was taken prisoner and held for interrogation. However, in an uncharacteristic act of compassion not seen since the start of the conflict, The Kingdom of Breg later released the captive, unharmed.

This is not the first time ants have invaded another’s space. The Slovenian Ant Army have been known to move beyond their borders in the past; their population has rapidly expanded in recent weeks, and the ants have pushed into new territories as they seek more resource to support their rapidly industrialising nation.

For now, peace has returned to Breg House, with the ants retreating and both sides reaching an uneasy ceasefire. However, the border remains a flash point, and fighting could erupt again at any time.

The King of the People’s Democratic Republic of Breg House has insisted they will not take up arms, unless provoked:

“Here in the DPRKBH we have enjoyed many years of peace with our formic friends and we would never launch any attack outside of our own borders. We hope the ants will now keep their side of the peace treaty, having experienced the terrible fury of The Kingdom of Breg House. But if the ants attempt to invade our territory again, we will not hesitate to repel them using the maximum force necessary to keep Breg House free of imperialist insects.”

 

Črno Zrno: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

Č is for Črno Zrno

Today we reach the first exotic letter of the Slovenian alphabet; the letter Č. Pronounced “ch”, like “ch” in “church”, there were a few contenders for Č.

I am a fan of Čevapčiči – the Balkan dish of grilled, minced meat shaped into sausages (but without a sausage skin).

Čebela (bee) would also have been a worthy choice; Slovenia is bee mad, and you see hives (called ‘bee houses’) painted bright colours or with traditional folk art, all over the country. But rather than those more obvious choices, I am instead going for Črno Zrno, Ljubljana’s most interesting coffee bar.

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Črno Zrno (pic: Črno Zrno)

Črno Zrno translates as ‘Black Bean’. I first became aware of Črno Zrno from Noah Charney, an American who has settled here and is a long time Slovenophile and prolific author (check out his excellent book: Slovenology). Situated in the old town, on a cobbled street that curls up and around the castle, Črno Zrno is the creation of the Colombian, Alexander Niño Ruiz.

I describe Alex as a coffee scientist. He carefully weighs out his ingredients using an electronic scale and uses glassware that could come from a lab. He imports beans from his native country, then has them roasted in Slovenia to create his own, unique flavours which he loves to share with his customers.

Alex keeps his menu simple but is constantly experimenting with blends and brews. My personal favourite is his delicious cold brew which he serves in wine glasses, but you can also get ‘pour over’ coffee as well as espressos.

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My personal fave: cold brew (pic: Črno Zrno)

His coffee is okusno (delicious) but it’s not just the beans that keep people coming back to Črno Zrno; it’s Alex himself and the very space he has created. An architect by trade, he has turned what could almost be just a passageway, into a stylish and welcoming place. The vaulted ceiling and colourful tiles draw you in to his stage, where he performs his coffee making ‘displays’.

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Črno Zrno sits on a cobbled street in Ljubljana’s old town

He enthusiastically explains where each coffee is grown, referring to a map of his homeland that sits on the wall, allowing him to educate his customers on the geographical diversity of Colombia and the characteristics each region imparts on the flavour of the beans. Alex has visions of how he will evolve his business; he already sells his own bagged beans and various coffee-making hardware. He’s done coffee pairing with local resturants, and there are more ideas to follow, he says.

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Alexander Niño Ruiz – Colombian coffee scientist and creator of Črno Zrno – Ljubljana’s most interesting coffee bar (pic: Črno Zrno)

There’s something about Alex’s warm personality and Latino cheek that draws a certain patron. A meeting place for both the exotic expats of Ljubljana and homegrown locals alike, it’s so small that you inevitably end up talking to whoever else is there. And this, combined with Alex’s knowledge and passion for the coffee he serves, makes Črno Zrno a very regular stop for me.

When I first arrived in Ljubljana, I was looking for somewhere friendly and homely. A place where I might meet an interesting mix of people and enjoy something delicious and unique. I found all those things at Črno Zrno.

Don’t be fooled by its petite nature. Physically it may be small but Črno Zrno punches well above its weight and is a huge asset to Ljubljana’s coffee and social scene, and somewhere I will keep going back to, again and again.

 

Cockta: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

C is for Cockta

At first it was somewhat slim pickings for the letter C. Consulting my Slovenian-English dictionary, the C-section was lean.

I shortlisted Cerkev (Church) – as there are many pretty ones atop green hills all over Slovenia, Cesta (Road) – as I do enjoy driving the quiet winding mountain roads here, and Copati (Slippers) – the Japanese-like love of wearing slippers AT ALL TIMES when in your home is quite a lovely quirk; slippers are provided for guests, and you better damn-well wear them or else face Slovenian Slipper Wrath from your host.

Then I remembered Cockta. Invented in the 1950s, it’s a Slovenian brand (though now Croatian owned much to Slovenians’ lament) and since I first visited Slovenia in 2007, Cockta has been a reliable source of schoolboy humour.

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She is certainly enjoying a bit of Cockta here. Billboard circa 2012

Originally deemed ‘Yugoslavian Coke’, it shares the colour of its American rival, though unlike coke it is caffeine-free and its flavour is also quite different “coming from 11 of the finest herbal extracts, which are handpicked, carefully inspected and blended into a unique herb cocktail.”

Above: early TV advert for Cockta

The official Cockta website describes Cockta through the ages, and has some amusing claims:

“From Sputnik to Moon landings, from champions to revolutionaries, from cosy traditions to great changes, Cockta has not just been there – it has made history.”

In the 1960s, Cockta apparently was “the official beverage of the sixties”. I’m unsure which official body made this so, but it’s quite possible that the Yugoslavian government did actually make Cockta its official drink during this decade.

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Vintage Cockta poster from Yugoslav era

The 1970s was apparently the decade of “Cockta-ing the world”:

“The Beatles disbanded, the Moon was conquered, the rock hardened, the world toughened. The seventies were strange times, and Cockta was both nostalgic, contemporary and futuristic.”

The 1980s was apparently the decade of “Cockta mania”:

“In the decade of one-hit wonders, Cockta was the classic, in the midst of bizarre clothes and hairstyles, Cockta was the ultimate cool, and on the dancefloor Cockta had the best moves.”

I must point out that if a bottle of soft drink had the best moves on the dancefloor, it does not say much for Yugoslavians’ abilities to shake their booties in the night party discotheque clubs of the ‘80s.

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Be careful how you hold your Cock(ta).

Perhaps realising that dancing was not its forte, Cockta got serious in the 1990s, getting involved in politics and apparently playing some sort of role in the dissolution of the Former Yugoslavia:

“Tear down this wall and get me a Cockta! Everything changed in the nineties, from the basic economy to maps. It was a time of exhilaration, and we had our own Ode to Joy in our hands: a cold, perfect Cockta.”

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A Cockta Calendar

Moving into the millennium, Cockta became “a tasteful guide to the things to come, a fizzy reassurance of our choices. The future is cool, and so is Cockta.”

And finally, bringing us to the year 2018, the big news for Cockta lovers is the release of ‘Cockta Original’ along with a label re-design.

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2018:  Cockta Original on the shelves

So there you have it; Slovenia’s answer to Coca-Cola seems to have become a notable part of Slovenian identity, having played a role in Yugoslavian dance culture, geo-politics and youth fashion.

Cockta must also be credited with providing English-speaking visitors with a wealth of crude punning material, the likes of which we have not seen since the Americans invented ‘fanny packs’.

And it tastes pretty good too.

Read more: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

Akvarel: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

A is for Akvarel: Watercolour

I’ve been visiting Slovenia for over a decade, but the dashing splendor is yet to wear off. I’ve decided to compile a series of A to Ž posts that share some of the reasons that I now live in Slovenia.

We shall commence our Slovenian alphabet aerobics, with the word Akvarel. The literal translation is ‘watercolour’ as in the type of painting, however, I’m taking some artistic license of my own and using it to mean ‘the colour of the water’. Because the colour of the lakes and rivers here never gets old. Here are some pictures I’ve taken of The Slovenian Blues (and greens, and aquamarines) over the years.

 

 

 

My Favourite Axe: a weekend of woodcutting

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Check my wedge: maul head

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Snowshoeing at Dom na Slemenu

In early February, with thick, fresh snow on the ground, I headed to the inn of Dom na Slemenu. Run by my friends Rajko and Darinka (who previously ran the inn at Pikovo) it offers one of the most beautiful views in the area as well as delicious, hearty food, so it’s a regular destination for me.

My goal was to explore some of the trails in the forest via snow shoe and take some pictures of what was quite a magical snowscape. Below are a selection of snaps from my visit.

 

10 Years at Breg House: Before and After

It’s been just over 10 years since my brother and I bought Breg House. It’s been quite the journey with many problems (some of which I’ve not yet written about) and it’s far from finished, but it felt like it was time to show the progress with some ‘before’ and ‘after’ pics.

Perhaps the most striking change, has been the conversion of the upper floor. The entire purpose of this building when built originally some 300 years ago was as a larder in which to hang, cure and store meat. In the ’70s, following the division of the farm into three separate properties, the upper floor just became a storage zone for junk, completely uninhabitable.

A big part of renovating Breg House was to take what was actually a sizeable and very interesting space, and turn it into something useable, namely a cosy lounge, kitchen and a snug.

This meant spending over a week, removing the old lime plaster by hand, using wire brushes and vinegar to reveal the beautiful timbers below, as well as cutting a bigger doorway to open up the entire floor and connect the new lounge space with the new kitchen space.

The snug was somewhat of an afterthought but is now one of my favourite areas of the house. From bare wood and a bathtub:

To beams and books:

And a new kitchen was added to in a space that was just a storage zone for junk:

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Downstairs, the old kitchen was converted into a master bedroom with ensuite shower and WC.

And one of the old bedrooms has been divided to give a shower, as well as updated furnishings.

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Moving on to the outside, it was once only possible to access the upper floor via an external staircase. Now an internal stair connects the two floors from the inside, and a new set of chunky steps has been built at the rear.

There are  more improvements to come – but that’s the summary of the last 10 years’ worth. Hopefully the next phases won’t take another 10 years!