25 July 2011

The High Gorenjska Meadows

In Upper Carniola (or Gorenjska, in Slovene), Slovenian brown Cika cows have always been important. For centuries, the people of these mountains have been producing rich butter and cheese, grazing their herds on the highland meadows and moving between the valleys and the peaks as the seasons warmed and cooled. In the region around Lake Bohinj, this way of life has barely been interrupted.
Besides simple curd cheeses and butter, the lake region boasts a number of stronger and more complex specialties. Mohant, a soft and pungent cheese, is usually served in little balls and has an intriguing, moldy-sweet taste. Tolminc, with the small holes, is milder and nuttier, with a beautiful milkiness. There are also mild, swiss-style aged varieties that have become more popular in modern times. They're easy to find everywhere, but a good place to taste a sampling of them is at the small cafe Planšar ("Herder"), in Stara Fužina.
Before the 1870's, the Gornjska province dairies produced butter, which was mostly sold in Trieste, across what is now the Italian border to the west. Once modern cheese making techniques reached the region, though, the focus shifted to longer lasting and more salable hard cheeses, and small mountain dairies began to cook their milk in these hanging copper pots. As recently as the 1970's the Yugoslavian government was supplying similar vessels to farmers here in order to subsidize production. At the dairy museum, just across from Planšar, there are a number of old implements, a deconstructed alpine herder's hut and a slew of interesting photographs from years past.
In the summer, the cows are generally grazing on high, remote fields. But during the colder months, they're brought down into the valleys where it's warmer and they can be closer to the villages. In these lower elevations, traditional double hayracks abound - though they often house balers and mowers now, with most of the winter feed wrapped up in bales nearby. Still, the structures are quite common, particularly in the fields around Studor. These regionally-peculiar buildings are topped with an overhead storage space, often used for drying corn.
We took a hike up into the upper villages, where the buildings are spare and sparse. Overlooking Bohinj, these communities are remote and hemmed in by woodland - the cows were higher up still, in the forest and above the tree line, but there were signs that the herders were around. A young couple cut hay with scythes, an older man chopped wood, a few dogs yipped when we walked by.
Down in Bohinjska Bistrica, the largest town in the valley, a convenient "Mlekomat" supplies cold, whole milk from a spout (one euro for a liter). If you don't have your own container, this dairy-ATM also has bottles for sale - twenty cents for a plastic liter jug, fifty for a liter glass jar. It's all very easy, and there are instructions in a multitude of languages. We sprang for the glass bottle, which seemed nicer and more permanent.

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