IT IS hard to imagine how anyone with a little foresight could ever starve in Slovenia, in south-central Europe, where I spent the last week.
My abiding image is of fruit-laden trees and vines, with plums, walnuts, apples and pears underfoot on the trails I walked, the only creatures availing of them being red admiral butterflies.
Food for free, indeed, and no need to search for it. Wild sunflowers, full of seeds, on the roadsides. Wild marrows in the undergrowth. I was enchanted by Slovenia, seduced by her autumnal fecundity. The weather was glorious, the harvest scenes reminiscent of Keats.
Eastern Europeans are experts at preserving, pickling and drying. A poor man would only have to walk the rural roads with a stout bag in September and, given enough Kilner jars, he could preserve enough to sustain him through winter. The forests were full of mushrooms. Sometimes, through the trees, I glimpsed foragers, stooping and picking.
Having harvested a bag of parasols to bring home, I tried to dry them on the sunny window sill of one of my rented farmhouse rooms and then in the back window of my rented car. However, they par-cooked and became so fragrant that the car started to smell like mushroom stew. No amount of wrapping would mask their redolence. Not only would I shortly smell like a forest fungus myself but would be a subject of attention for drug-sniffing dogs at every border I crossed.
I can’t imagine a dog being able to detect marijuana if it was wrapped in decaying parasol mushrooms. Their pungency, delicious when they are cooked in a risotto, is so powerful that it would send the entire crew of a customs post rushing outside for air. And so I left my parasol stash, unwrapped, beneath a wayside oak, hoping a passing wild boar might enjoy the treat.
One farm at which I stayed kept domesticated wild boar and roebuck and the roebuck steaks served at dinner were succulent, gamey, and excellent with the red wine. The mountains farms are neat and tidy as toy-town constructs with their perfect woodpiles against the gables and all cultivated with parallel rows of vines on the slopes. It was harvest time, with teams of pickers everywhere. Many farms produced bottled ‘chateau’ wines for sale while all produced wine for domestic consumption. Overnighting at farm-guesthouses, one was proudly plied with home grown fare, breakfast and dinner included at under €30 per night.
“Try our white wine ...”, the farmer’s wife would smile like Mrs Doyle in Father Ted. “But our red is also good, so you must try that too.” The upshot would be the delivery of two squat half-litre jugs of local ambrosia, one (ala Keats) “Tasting of flora and the country green” and the second of “the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim”.
Suddenly, such evenings would become suffused with a deep, rustic glow and, before sleep, the walking of the day combined with the heartiness of the meal, the silence of the night and the stars over the forested hills would induce a soft and sweet euphoria.
There were few birds to be seen, most still in hiding for the moult, as in Ireland. Up in the sky, there were the big gliders, the eagles, kites and buzzards but, unfortunately, most often seen through the windscreen as I sped along the fast motorways.
I travelled to Marshal Tito’s birthplace, a small village in Croatia named Kumrovec. Tito was no Stalin. Rather, he was a bon viveur and, within socialist principles, allowed those he ruled to enjoy the fruits and wines of their labours. Perhaps this explains why Slovenians and Croats are much warmer and friendlier than, say, Czechs or Slovaks, whose personalities were soured by Stalinist state-control.
I headed for the sea, fondly dreaming of golden Adriatic beaches and a warm sea. But Murphy’s Law intervened. As I left the sun-blessed mountains, it began to rain. Through the downpour, the Adriatic was a grey line, with hazy patches of islands. When it cleared for an hour toward sunset I headed beachwards and jumped from a rock into the water. Freezing! How lovely our Irish September, with the sea still warm.
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