International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
'If you eat,' she bursts out, raising her palms to the sky, 'I can live!' Her daughter, Majda, roars with laughter. 'This is our mother!' She slaps her thighs. 'Look what she has done to me!'
The hearty meals have a practical purpose, of course: life on a mountain farm uses up a lot of energy. Neža at Perk Farm remembers walking to school as a child: an hour and a half down in the morning, and three hours back up the mountain after school. Even today, many of the children at the village school will be up early to help feed the animals and milk the cows. 'I began to help with the milking when I was six,' says Majda, beaming. 'I love these animals!'
THE snow has stopped, and the sky above the rocky peaks is a soaring blue streaked with high cirrus cloud. I'm setting off to walk the circular path up the Logar Valley, one of the three that make up Solcavsko. There must be wind far above, but here the air is still and sharp. Great tits chirrup beside the trail, hopping from twig to twig, little showers of powder spraying out as they land.
The air is cold in my lungs, but the sun beats down on my back, and as I climb through these festive, glittering woods, I find myself smiling irrepressibly; it is all so absurdly beautiful. In the summer, there is a longer trail around the valley, blocked by snowdrifts at this time of year. Yet even the shorter path seems strenuous as my boots sink into the snow with each step. By the time I return to the valley floor, I am happy to sit awhile on the terrace of another farmhouse, Ojstrica, sipping Laško beer and turning my face to the sun.
A more effective way of getting about is on cross-country skis, taking the 12-mile track around the valley. The following day I do this, gliding smugly over areas where I would have wallowed hopelessly on foot. The 'schuss, schuss' of the skis as I slip between the trees is evocative; I picture Neža and her classmates swishing down to school on winter mornings, fiery-cheeked and bundled up in knitted hoods. Vistas of pine trunks, straight and serried, stretch out on every side. When, in mid-afternoon, the sun dips behind the mountain and my skis suddenly criss-cross ice-blue shadows, I am reminded of the more sinister snippets of local folklore my hosts have passed on: the wizard Fida, who lived in a cave above the valley and sold his soul to the devil, and the evil little spirits, parkeljni, who rattle their chains as they lie in wait for naughty children. No wonder Neža said that she found the woods frightening. Even without rattling chains, their sheer size is unsettling. In Slovenia, untamed forest still exceeds land that has been brought under cultivation.
Solcavsko people know these woods intimately; in practice, they are huntergatherers as much as agriculturalists, reaping a rich harvest from the forest: berries, mushrooms, herbs and flowers. My hosts at Majdac farm show me a list of a dozen different plants - including balm mint, dandelion, dog rose, thyme, nettles and two types of violet - that make the delicious tisane that is offered instead of tea.
At a neighbouring farm, Žibovt, I join host Martina Policnik and her friends for a huge meal created largely from foraged ingredients. Sitting in the dining room, the Alps spread out before us, we polish off course after course: wild garlic soup, dried pear dumplings, mažlni - a sort of round sausage - served with rowanberry jelly, venison and wild Jerusalem artichoke mash. Finally, a yoghurt panna cotta and blueberry compote sprinkled with mint arrives; light and refreshing, it slips down my throat almost of its own accord.