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A Weekend in Slovenia

I’m in Slovenia visiting Alenka at the moment. Her home is near the Austrian border, and yesterday we took a little “wine walk” for a couple of hours (after stuffing ourselves silly with a Bosnian specialty, Čevapčiči), stopping to sample local wines along the way in both Slovenia and Austria.

The day before we spent a few hours bottling about 1,000 bottles of family wine.

Not a bad way to spend your weekend, I must say. Here’s a few photos (the first set is a slideshow; I’ve had issues getting it to play but I’m on a slow connection. Please let me know in the comments if it’s working or not? Thanks!)…

Filling wine bottles (slideshow). Instagram photos, reposted here.

The impossibly delicious Bosnian Čevapčiči

Slovenian Forest at SundownSlovenian Forest at Sundown @ November 2011 | Fujifilm X100 w/ fixed 23mm [@35mm] ƒ/2.0 lens @ ISO 200, ƒ/5.6, 1/26

A little wine and roasted chestnuts in Austria

Sunset Over Austrian Vineyards

Sunset Over Austrian Vineyards @ November 2011 | Fujifilm X100 w/ fixed 23mm [@35mm] ƒ/2.0 lens @ ISO 200, ƒ/2, 1/17

This morning, Alenka’s brother was fixing a hole in the roof. I climbed up for the view, and shot this using Photosynth on the iPhone. Pretty cool software (be sure to pan down; you can see the hole I’m standing in!).



Slovenian Mists

This photo was made, if you can believe it, through the bathroom window in my girlfriend Alenka’s family home in Slovenia. I woke up one morning just as the sky was getting light, went to the cold bathroom to do what you do first thing in the morning, and saw this view. Goodness. I quickly shivered back to the room and got my camera.

Such a gorgeous part of the world.

This is made using the same preset in Nik’s Silver Efex Pro II as yesterday’s post. Again, you can download the preset for free here.

(I really thought I’d shared this photo before, but couldn’t find it… anyway, if I did, sorry!)

As always, click to view the photo larger. Thanks!

Slovenian MistsSlovenian Mists @ October 2010 | Canon EOS 5D Mk II & 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L @ ISO 100, ƒ/6.3, 1/250




Koline. Or, “The process of converting Wilbur into Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner—by hand”

In our modern world full of iPods, automatic washing machines, and factories where a cow walks in one end and hamburgers — complete with mustard and pickles — comes out the other, it’s a rare treat to witness something crafted entirely by hand. Whether it’s a perfectly tuned C.F. Martin guitar or a delicately spiced and succulently fatty smoked sausage, the type of care and love that goes into hand-crafted goods is chiefly a dying art. Which is precisely why when I had the chance to document the still-common practice called koline at my girlfriend Alenka’s aunt’s farmhouse in rural Slovenia, close to the Austrian border, I jumped at the opportunity.

Tool of the tradenote: the photos in this story are, of course, of a large animal being carved up for food. There’s nothing here you wouldn’t see in any butcher shop, but if animal parts and blood makes you squeamish, you may want to pass on this story!

In America, we don’t even have a word for this. Or maybe we do, but this city-boy has certainly never heard it. In Slovene, koline is the day-long activity, once considered a family holiday, starting in the early morning when the animal’s breath is still visible on the cool air, of slaughtering the pig, skinning it, slicing away the layers of fat and disassembling the animal with the precision of a skilled watchmaker, laying out each component in perfect symmetry to later be evolved into an eventual meal, ultimately crafting the tasty morsels that most of us simply walk into the local grocery store and plunk down our hard-earned dollars for the privilege of eating.

Cutting through the top layer of fat

The master butcher at work

My morning started mercifully with “accidentally” missing the actual slaughter. I’m told the sounds heard on those early mornings are best experienced with earplugs firmly in place, and since posting photos of that would be a guaranteed way to lose half my readership, we took our time arriving to the farmhouse and pulled in just as the already guillotined swine was laying prone on the hundred-year old hand-made koza, (koza actually translates to “goat”, but is essentially a wooden autopsy table), leather skin spread back to form a tarp for the day’s proceedings, and the first layer of fat about to be pierced by the delicate scalpel of a skilled surgeon—in this case, said instrument being an 8” blade and the surgeon, a hired butcher from the next house over who would single-handedly deconstruct this 500 pound animal over the course of the day. The butcher, it’s worth noting, is the same butcher who has always carved for this family. A Slovenian family, on the day of koline, will always use the same artisan, and wouldn’t dream of hiring another if theirs wasn’t available.

Peeling back massive layers of fatWith the outer fat layer removed, he starts into the meatIt’s remarkable just how much fat is on a pig of this size. The outer layer of blubber seemed more suited to an animal who spends its days in the freezing arctic — that dynamited beached whale video on YouTube comes to mind — than one who lounges in the mud and hay talking to spiders all day long. But I suppose that should be a lesson to us all—if you want to know what happens when you spend your days on the couch eating slop, here’s your evidence! As the first layer was cut away, in massive, War and Peace tome-size bricks, they were transported in buckets to a cauldron of fiercely boiling water; a child-sized metal barrel sitting over an enclosed wood fire pit, designed for maximum heat conduction and easy cleaning. In this vat, the hunks of fat are boiled for various uses. From the boiled fat they can separate the pure lard, a rendered and clarified fat that will be used for cooking (like oil). Once drained, what remains are brown, pea-sized granules called ocvirki that will be used in dishes like potatoes and eggs, or even spread on bread. Some fat is simply boiled to purify it, then cooled, ground and salted, becoming something called zaseka, and used to store some of the sausages in, in large metal containers called kibla, and also may be spread on bread, usually topped with onions or garlic. Finally some of the fat goes straight from the pig to the freezer to chill it, making it easier to chop into tiny cubes to mix into the sausage later.

The boiling vat of fatBoiled fat, ready to become ‘zaseka’

One of many end-results of the fat, this one is called ‘ocvirki’

The fat is an incredibly important part of this process and as you can see, has many, many uses. And if you think that’s not healthy, go ahead and ask any gramma from the Midwest who lived through the depression—they all cooked with lard and wiped bacon fat off the iron pan with their fingers, lapping it up. This fat is pure and clean — no preservatives, just lard and salt — and amazingly delicious.

Once past this shiny white layer, the pure pink meat of the animal is revealed. The surgeon deftly slices away, removing piece after piece, layer after layer, splaying the components on the table in mirrored pairs.

Larger cuts of meat, called ‘riba’ (which oddly translates to “fish”), are revealedThe insides are rinsed and flushed

Each piece laid out in symmetry

Internal organs are removed, some saved, some discarded—with particular care taken to removing the bitter gall bladder from the liver without puncturing it before the liver is inspected to judge the general health of the pig, then hung to drain and often cooked up for a snack during koline. The intestines from this actual animal aren’t used to make the sausages; apparently it’s quite tedious to clean and ready them, so it’s easier to just buy a handful of already-prepared intestines from the market and use those.

The bitter gall bladder is very carefully removed from the liverThe liver is inspected, and hung to drainI should mention that during the course of the day, we stopped three times for meals. The first was simply a late breakfast of sausage, no doubt created several months before during the last koline. Lunch was massive (the midday meal is typically the largest in Slovenian culture), and included, along with the soup, salad, potatoes and chicken, a pile of salty, freshly roasted dark cut from today’s exercise. The meat was thick and gamey, with a freshness to it unlike any pork I’ve had before. Not everyone is a fan of fresh swine, as it definitely has a stronger flavor than ham that’s been cured, but I’m a quite fond of game meat so thoroughly enjoyed it. The third meal came at the end of the day, and still barely able to walk after lunch, we were fortunately able to make our exit before gaining another pound or two.

Once the beast’s skin had been liberated completely from its innards, it was folded up like a wet blanket and unceremoniously discarded. Apparently back in the day, the skin could be sold to a tanner who’d turn it into leather, but now its value isn’t worth the time or effort required.

All the meat removed, the skin is simply folded and discardedThe next task at hand was to make the sausages. Two types would be made today; the primary would be with the good meat and fat, formed into dozens of links, some to be hung to dry, smoked and cured, or boiled and preserved. The second would use the head meat and offal from the animal, mixed with a gelatin and squeezed into plastic tubes to set—head cheese. Something revered by the older generation, but suffice it to say I saw a lot of sour faces among the under-50’s as this was being prepared!

The butcher grinds some of the meat. Once combined with the spices, the mixture will make a second pass through the grinder and into the sausage skins.A variety of cuts of pork were fed into the grinder, even this processed manually by the muscles of tens of thousands of revolutions turned over the years. To the pork was added some already-ground beef that the butcher had brought along, undoubtedly from the previous days work. A huge metal bowl held the mixed meat, waiting for the fat and spice.

Meanwhile, Alenka and her aunt Marjetka prepared the fat for the sausage. The slabs that had earlier been set in the freezer to harden were removed, and they set to dicing stacks and stacks of the pure white stuff into tiny cubes. Eventually bowls of cubed fat were dumped into the huge mixing bowl full of meat, where it was aggressively mixed by the bare-handed, blood-splattered butcher. Once the meat and fat were well blended, the matriarch of the house brought in the spice.

Chilled fat is sliced into tiny cubes to be mixed into the sausageGarlic water is strained and poured into the meat and fatPepper is added to the meat, fat, and other spicesI should pause here to talk a bit about grandma, her place in the household, and her overseeing eye on the day’s proceedings. In rural Slovenia, the family traditions of where family members live is quite simple. If you have a son, he will live with you forever, eventually taking over and inheriting the family business — a business that would likely be pigs or cattle, apple orchards, or vineyards and the winery — and as is the case with many farms, they’ve been more than one of these over the generations. And when he marries, the wife will move in with you. If you have a daughter, she’s expected to marry and move in with her husband and his family. This process repeats itself, and so most houses will have three or even four generations living in them at any given time. If a family outgrows their space, and can afford to do it, they will build another house for the younger generation to live in. That house will likely be on the same land, a stone’s throw from the first. Most of these farms and orchards are on land that has been in the same family for many, many generations, having been handed down over the years from the original settlers. These are families and lands throughout Slovenia that have stood the test of time through occupation and war with Italy and German-led Austria, became communist Yugoslavia after the second world war and until 1991, when the Slovenian people waged war with their own government and gained their independence and finally their own country. In 2004, Slovenia joined the European Union, and in 2008 were awarded the Schengen status, at which point the guarded border posts along the Slovenian border to Austria and Italy were emptied. Today you can walk freely between countries, as we often did wandering the back roads behind these farms; just 18 months ago you needed a passport to do that, and 18 years ago you’d likely have been shot for trying. How times have changed.

Which brings us back to grandma, the matriarch who has lived through it all. She calls the shots in this home. All of them. Is the test-pork ready to come out of the oven? Ask grandma. Is the fat done rendering? Yes—but better ask grandma. And when the butcher added a tiny handful more pepper to the ground mass of meat and fat than grandma had prescribed, 70-year old hands were thrown in the air in the way only a 70-year old matriarch can, and curses of “if the sausage is ruined, it’s your fault” trailed in the air behind her as she stomped back into the house. But far be it from me to question the wisdom of 70 years of sausage making!

Mixing it all by hand

So the spices went in—salt, pepper, cumin, nutmeg, and garlic water. Again, the butcher churned the mixture with his bare hands, ensuring even distribution of all the flavors. As a final test before the sausages could be stuffed, a dollop of meat was put on the stove and cooked up for tasting. And it was sublime. An exquisite blend of fresh pork and beef and spices, salty and fatty and completely delicious. Actually the family determined it needed a little more of this, and a bit more of that, and finally the meat was ready to get stuffed.

Alenka samples the sausageThe intestine that is used is deceptively long; an incredibly thin and strong membrane that at one point held, well, we all know what our innards are for. And if you don’t, I don’t recommend choosing now to look it up. This barely-a-handful of skin is carefully slipped over the ejector tube of the sausage grinder, and in a blatantly phallic gesture, is stretched and twisted onto the rounded steel shaft by the butchers gruff hands. I was probably the only one in the room holding back a snicker. Americans. Sheesh.

Sliding the cleaned intestine over the sausage filling attachment Alenka took on the task of rotating the grinder, something my shoulders would’ve surely cried uncle on long before hers did. Cranking and cranking and cranking away, while the butcher expertly filled the engorged intestine, never letting it split and perfectly coiling it into the most lusciously long sausage you’ll never see in a store. Once full, he pushed a sharp stake through the open end and twisted it closed, measured a link, twisted it over folding it back on itself, finally closing the loop with another twisted puncture on the opposite end. Like James Bond deftly and emotionlessly doing away with a tired villain, the butcher rendered sausage after sausage, dropping them into a bin where they awaited their fate.

Alenka grinding while the butcher feeds the sausage skinFingers are an all-too-common victim of sausage making. Fortunately none were sacrificed today.The sausage is massively long, but will soon be trimmed down to size

The first long link completed, tied off and ready to be cut down to size

The butcher deftly pokes a wooden stick through the sausage skin, twisting it into place and forming perfect linksA box ful of sausages, awaiting their final treatmentThe head cheese sausage, called tlačenka, was assembled even more quickly. Bits of meat from the head and offal were cooked and then ground in the same hand-crank grinder, but deposited into a bowl where it was mixed with a liquid gelatin, then pumped with a massive syringe into plastic tubular bags. Once the gelatin has set, the plastic skin will be removed for serving, and the gelatinous cylinder sliced and served—to the few who will partake!

Head meat and offal are ground for the “head cheese” sausageGelatin is mixed into the meat, which will quickly set

The mixture is injected into plastic tubes with a monsterous syringe

Very little of the animal went to waste today, and the delicious results of koline will be immensely enjoyed by the three generations in this household, and any of their friends or family fortunate enough to find a place at their dinner table—yours truly included.

Sausages hung for the smoke houseSausages hanging in the smoke house, where they will sit for days behind a locked door

Parting image…a view of the workshop, where decades of koline have occurred A very special thank you to the Jarc family for inviting me into their home to document their koline, and of course to Alenka for checking my facts and keeping my writing honest!



Museum Kebl (in Slatina)

Just up the road from the house where I watched the Koline (the ritual conversion of one big fat pig into many big fat meals—more on that later!), is a little museum honoring the old ways of Slovenia. It’s simply a house that’s been converted, with a variety of traditional accoutrements, into a testament of the way things were. There’s an album of old photographs in the bedroom, which houses a surprisingly short and narrow bed with the probably necessary inclusion of a raised edge so as you can’t roll off the bed onto the cold stone floor in the middle of the stone cold night. The windows are small, designed to allow a maximum of heat retention, with the obvious disadvantage of allowing a minimum of natural light insertion. Oil candles and old paintings adorn the walls.

A surprisingly small bedThe kitchen features a wood burning stove, which is still commonly found in older homes today—but now in conjunction with a modern gas or electric oven. The heat from the fire warms the stove-top, the ovens and the room. Temperature control is limited by sluices that guide the heat to each segment, and by simply knowing your cooking surface—knowing the cold from the hot spots, so you slide the pan around the stove-top as you need more or less heat. The kitchen table featured an interesting addition I think would be welcome in most comes today—a deep “drawer” that was meant for the baby to lay in. Imagine that… you go into the kitchen to prepare dinner, pull out the kitchen drawer and plop the little tyke in. Brilliant!

The wood-fired stove

The dining room had a common wooden table and chairs, with place settings of metal bowls, and candles for light. In the corner, as was common in every dining room, a large flower-adorned crucifix overseeing the family activities.

Dining room, complete with metal dishes and a crucifix

The largest room in this house (although in a working home, it would be in a different building), was the wine-making room. A massive wine press dominated the room, centered in a huge stone vat (well over 10x10 feet in dimension) and a two-story tall screw carefully carved from the trunk of a single tree with a monstrous counterbalance stone on its end that would have been slowly twisted, lowering the weight of an even more massive beam of wood on top of the vat of grapes. Today this is handled by modern machinery, but back in the day the display of ingenuity to crush mass quantities of grapes was more than impressive. It beats having all your friends over to jump up and down barefoot in a tub of grapes to crush them down as I saw in Spain twenty years ago—although perhaps not quite as much fun.

A massive wooden screw to lower the weight onto the grapes

The wine press vatFinally upstairs in the attic were displays of common sewing and leather-working tools, reminiscent of an era gone by, but surprisingly similar to the tools used today.

Leather working tools



Le Petit Café

I have a favorite café in Ljubljana. OK, let’s be honest… my girlfriend has a favorite café in Ljubljana, has taken me there on both of my visits to Slovenia, and so by association, it’s now my favorite café in Ljubljana. It’s a French shop with a French motif, the coffee is fabulous and, well, what else do you need to know.

A delicious Flat White at Le Petit Café

Le Petit Café in Ljubljana, Slovenia


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Farmers Market on the Vodnik Square in Ljubljana

After a morning of stuffing ourselves on breakfast at Prenočišče in Kamrica, we made our way into Ljubljana to visit the big indoor/outdoor market. Indoors are stalls selling mostly fresh meats, cheeses, olives, breads and nuts; outdoors is where you find the fresh fruit and veggies, souvenirs, baskets, and on this particular weekend, the weekend before Easter, many traditional and seasonal offerings.

Ljubljana Market in April

Slovenia is a predominantly Roman Catholic nation, and being the weekend before Easter, there are several homemade specialty items for sale specific to this high holy day, including butarice (bundles of greenery to be brought to church on Palm Sunday for a blessing; also called presmeci, depending on the region in Slovenia), painted eggs, and various seasonal pastries and breads. The butarice sold here in the city have many man-made additions, such as the brightly painted wood curls you see below, making them more vibrant but also giving them a slightly artificial and manufactured feel. Out in the countryside the presmeci are more likely to be entirely natural, and mostly green.

‘Butarice’, a common offering to bring to church on Palm Sunday

These individually hand-painted hollow eggs, from the Bela Krajina region of Slovenia, have patterns drawn on them in wax before painting, keeping the tint from certain parts of the shell. Through this process, intricate patterns can be layered onto each shell, providing each with its own unique fingerprint. Choosing a favorite is like choosing an ice-cream flavor; you’ll always wonder if you picked the best one! But finally I selected two to bring home, unique souvenirs from an ancient land.

Painted Easter Eggs at the Ljubljana market

Salami and sausage are a Slovenian staple, and if you live in the country you probably make your own, in a process called koline (more on that later), or at a market like this one, you can choose to buy from any number of vendors—all of whom have crafted these pork offerings themselves and are now in the market to sell them. Many varieties are available, each salty and delicious in their own unique way, and if you look closely at the photos, you’ll notice the dedication of these farmers through the common sacrifice of a finger or two!

Lovely salami on display at the Ljubljana marketA vendor slices off a sampleAnother salami sample… notice something missing?

The indoor market is between two segments of outdoor plazas, so we ventured there next. The selections of pork, chicken, beef and more is fantastic. Gorgeous cuts of fresh meat, more salamis to choose from, and dried or cured hunks of ham as well. Massive selections of nuts and dried fruits, green and black olives, soft buttery cheeses and more make this market a true cornucopia of edible life.

A vendor selling nuts and dried fruit at the Ljubljana marketA huge display of walnuts, which are a common ingredient in the Easter specialty bread, ‘potica’More meat on display at the indoor market in Ljubljana

Outdoors on the other side, overlooked by the Ljubljana Castle, are the vegetable and fruit stands. This April was unseasonably warm, undoubtedly contributing to the exceptionally gorgeous selections of lettuce, tomatoes, asparagus and more on display. Apples, oranges, strawberries and the like, much of it from local Slovenian farms but also wares from as far away as Spain.

Ljubljana Castle overlooking the market

A local vendor displays a variety of vegetables for saleOranges in the Ljubljana marketA pile of baskets for sale at the Ljubljana market

If you plan a visit to Ljubljana, I highly recommend spending at least part of your time in an apartment with a kitchen instead of a full-service hotel, so you have an excuse to explore the market and make your selections for a fabulous lunch or dinner.

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Arrival, and Breakfast at Prenočišče Kamrica, in Kamnik

My journey to Slovenia is a long one. This is the second time I’ve traveled there, and both times it’s been on mileage awards tickets through American Airlines. One of the awards-rules is that you have to leave the U.S. on American equipment, so that limits your options (meaning I can’t take, say, a British Airways flight from SFO to LHR on points). Since there are no AA Europe-bound departures from SFO, I have to make a connection somewhere else in the U.S. Then to further complicate things, there are no direct flights into Ljubljana on a One World airline from London (only a connection through Budapest), which means if I want to actually fly into Slovenia, it’s a four-flight journey. Ugh. Therefore both times I’ve flown into Vienna instead, where my girlfriend picks me up and we drive to Slovenia.

We wanted to visit the Ljubljana market on Saturday morning, as that’s the best day of the big indoor/outdoor market in the Slovenian capital. Arriving Friday evening into Vienna and being at the market in Ljubljana in the morning means there’s some driving to be done. So we hit the road, stopping in Maribor for a burger (served on exquisite bread, I must say), and eventually stopped for the night in a little town just outside Ljubljana called Kamnik.

The place we stayed is a “Penzion”; basically a Bed & Breakfast, called Prenočišče Kamrica. A small house with a few rooms, where the owners live and serve you breakfast in the morning. And oh, what a breakfast it was. Several kinds of ham. Prosciutto. Salami. Fresh tomatoes, cucumber and peppers. Cheese, bananas, apples, hard boiled eggs, a loaf of fresh bread, jams and jellies and Nutella, and of course, just-made cappuccino’s.

I do love Europe. More photos after the jump.

Lovely breakfast at Prenočišče Kamrica

Lovely prosciutto on bread with tomato


Hard boiled egg

Sweet, lovely Nutella

Prenočišče Kamrica

Prenočišče Kamrica is a lovely B&B, comfortable rooms at a fair rate that close to the capital. The small town of Kamnik is very cute, and the breakfast here is a hell of a way to start your day.

Prenočišče Kamrica
Trg Svobode 2
Kamnik, Slovenia
+386 (0)1 831 77 07

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