01 August 2011

Halfway Up The Mountain

High up above the little town of Zreče, on a steep, mostly wooded slope, we stayed for three nights at Tourist Farm Arbajter. The valley below is filled with old watermills and log trucks; at the mountaintop, the Rogla ski resort was green and mostly empty. In between, the streams were rushing loudly and the meadows were almost sheer cliffs. The Arbajter family raises deer and sheep here, and let out some of their rooms to travelers. Konrad and Maritza, the farm's papa and mama figures, are among the most welcoming people we've met on the trip.
It's certainly a working farm, with scores of deer darting back and forth on the hillside and a few dozen sheep grazing slowly alongside them. We aren't entirely sure about the process, but it seems that the venison is harvested with a rifle. We talked at length with our hosts, but they didn't speak any English and our Slovene is limited to mispronunciations of numbers and the words for beer and wine. It's entirely possible that most of the information in this post is false or seriously misunderstood. We do know that Konrad is a hunting enthusiast and that he'd assembled an impressive collection of trophies. There were various stuffed cervidae (including four fawns), a badger, a few weasels and a smattering of squirrels.
Konrad also makes sausages, which were delicious. At breakfast, we were presented with venison and pork "salamis" and an herby deer paté. Also, eggs fried in cracklings and grease, cereal, farmer's cheese, local jam and a garlic-heavy lump of chopped lard. He had just built himself a new sausage-curing room, which he showed us and was very happy with. The salamis were earthy and mildly spiced, with a dark grain and tasty gaminess.
When we returned to the farm each evening, we were greeted with a small glass of "borovnica," the local blueberry schnapps. We aren't positive that Konrad and Maritza made it, but someone in the area certainly did. They had various solar-fermenting jars on their porch and tucked away in the pantry - pickled vegetables and cherry liquor, some fruit preserves and one container that looked like it contained capers.
It was a pleasure to sit down in the sunny dining room at breakfast and dinner. The kitchen was just through the door and we could always smell something cooking - the scent changed subtly as the day went on, from eggs and baking bread at breakfast to rosemary and garlic before dinner.
We were fed well, of course, and with proud flourishes. The dishes were typically hearty Slovene mountain food, with lots of meat and starch, mostly slow-cooked and tender. We shared with the Arbajters a love of "bučno olje," or pumpkin seed oil. They dressed their salads with it and mixed it with new cheese to make a green, salty paste for Maritza's bread. When we left, they gave us a bottle of the thick, nutty stuff that a friend had made.
The valley was clogged with mist when we arrived, and it wasn't until our second day that we could really grasp how beautiful the view was. Konrad stepped out onto the porch with me at dawn and pointed out the different towns that trickled down the cleft, and then where the hills of Croatia began, some twenty five miles away. They're proud of their place, and seemed to enjoy the wonder that visitors feel. It's the kind of place that one wants to bring other people to, to see and experience what's there. Taking our leave, we promised to bring our families someday.

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