A fresh snowfall in the ancient spruce and beech forests of Slovenia leaves the trees heavily laden and glistening. (Mark Read/LPI)
Snow is falling on Perk Farm, high on the slopes of Matkov Kot; fine, powdery snow, silently adding to the white blanket spread over the farmhouse roof, the painted beehive and the woodstore with its neat pile of logs. The spruce and pine trees all around are weighed down, more snow than tree, and the steep mountainside that falls away beneath the farm is hidden behind cloud. The creak of my footsteps is the only sound as I make my way down to the barn.
'Živijo, pomocnica,' says Karel Krivec, the farmer, smiling and crinkling his eyes. 'Hello, assistant.' He is amused by my desire to help, tolerant as all Solcavsko folk seem to be of the outsiders who come and homestay at local farms, with their strange enthusiasm and astonishment at such simple matters as churning butter or making salami. He passes me a wicker basket of hay and shows me how to swing it on my shoulder. The donkey, overdramatising as usual, lets out a strangled, desperate bray before I scatter the hay for him and the two jostling bullocks, then wheel in several barrows of silage for Perk Farm's eight cows in their stalls and give the chickens their grain.
'Enough.' Karel puts down his pitchfork and grins at me. 'Breakfast!'
This is my fourth day in the little Alpine enclave of Solcavsko. I have spent them visiting different farms, and marvelling at the beauty of the three flat-bottomed valleys that make up this district, and the wooded slopes that rise abruptly out of them. Above is the dramatic profile of the Kamniško-Savinjske Alps: a towering rocky horseshoe, dusted with icing-sugar snow, which cuts across the southern sky. To the east, Solcavsko is enclosed by the cone of Mount Raduha, while across the north, the long, rocky bulk of the Olševa Mountain forms the border with Austria.
It's hard to believe that we are in the heart of Europe, only a few hours' drive from Trieste or Vienna. Historically, the area was so isolated by its ring of mountains that until 1895 only a footpath connected it to the rest of Slovenia. Deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army found this made it the perfect hideout - at the head of one valley the pathway passes through the 'eye' of a needle of rock, and from here foolhardy Imperial Army inspectors could be dispatched with a cosh over the head. To this day the valleys retain the magical feeling of a world apart.
The mountain farms themselves add to this aura, being run using farming techniques little-changed since the Middle Ages. In 1426, the Benedictine monks in nearby Gornji Grad recorded Perk Farm, with its pasture and forest, in their register. At that time Nicla Kokecz po Oroznovem- Perko was the farmer, supporting himself and his family by driving his indigenous cattle and sheep up to the high pastures in the summer and making cheese, butter and yoghurt. In the winter he fed his stock on hay cut and dried on the mountainside, and for a little extra income, he cut timber from the forest and floated it downriver - just as the Krivecs of Perk Farm do today. As I return from the barn, stamping the snow off my boots, the direct descendant of Nicla Kokecz, our kind-faced landlady Neža, is covering the table with dishes for breakfast - home-baked rye bread and pastries, piquant salami, homemade cheeses and eggs with deep orange yolks. The people of Solcavsko have embraced some of the advances of modern life - fourwheel drives, wi-fi, and the euro among them - yet the conveniences of the food industry have left them cold. Accustomed for centuries to providing for themselves, they have not lost the art.
'Why would I go shopping?' Majda says during my two-day stay with her at Majdac Farm. 'We have to buy flour, sugar and coffee... but everything homemade is more tasty!' She is right. All the food I am offered is layered with rich flavours. 'Eat up!' is the constant refrain. I savour štruklji (cream cheese dumplings), žlinkrofi (pork dumplings) and mushroom soup made with boletus and chanterelles picked from the forest. Hospitality in these valleys is a duty and a pleasure, and every landlady I meet wants me to try her specialities. Occasionally their generosity defeats me. At Majdac, the granny, Anica, sighs and tuts as she clears away the leftovers from a bounteous dinner. At last, she can restrain herself no longer.