Apis Mellifera Carnica – the Gentle Bee
I went to Slovenia with no preconceptions, I set out on the trip with a very open mind. I didn’t know if there were any particular foodstuffs that were traditional to the region except gingerbread. Of course, it is world famous for its extremely gentle bees, the Carniolan honey bee (Apis mellifera carnica), but that was that. These two items go hand-in-hand anyway, because to make a good gingerbread, you need good honey. So Slovenia, bring it on – tantalise my taste buds, titivate my senses of sight and smell. Give me a sensory tour of your food products. I was not to be disappointed.
Our first morning in Ivanci was a meet-and-greet session starting at the village fire station. Here, we were offered Prleška Tűnka which is chopped pork, preserved in lard, spread on rye bread and topped with sliced spring onions. After a sizeable breakfast, I was not particularly keen to partake at such an early stage of the day, but with eyes bigger than my stomach, I soon overcame this reluctance. It was delicious. Not at all greasy, which was what I was expecting, and it went very well with the spritzer we were offered to wash it down with, along with various honey-based liqueurs flavoured with sage and cherry. These were very strong and distinctive. Somewhat surprising then to be enjoying them at around 10 o’clock in the morning.
Our first day was a walk around the village boundary. The distance was around 10km in total, with various stops of particular local interest including the village cemetery with its family plots, the village church which was commissioned and consecrated in 1991/92 respectively, dedicated to St John the Baptist and our first view of beekeeping in Slovenia. At each stop we were plied with Prleška Tűnka, some small sweet buns, spritzers or water and the lovely liqueurs enjoyed earlier in the day. The walk was a lovely opportunity to start to get to know our hosts and our fellow visitors from Romania.
After our walk it was lunch time and we all settled down to a delicious chicken soup with dumplings accompanied by a salad and rye bread. The salad was dressed in a pumpkin oil dressing which I thoroughly enjoyed. It transpires that pumpkin oil is a very popular product in Slovenia and also, apparently, in parts of Austria. It is also used in a potato dish rather like colcannon but without the cabbage and instead of the butter and cream. Both the salad dressing and the potato dish were featured on a daily basis at one or two meals each day, namely lunch and dinner.
Day Two was a delight for the gourmand, especially if the gourmand was an apiarist as well. We visited Clement and his bee house. Situated in a beautiful apple orchard on a hill, the bee house contained around 50 colonies of bees. The whole layout of the bee house meant that all the necessary equipment, from hives to the finished jars of honey, was all under the one roof. All very simple and sensible. Clement very kindly showed us how his honey production was carried out and we were able to taste the delicious results, straight from the amber flow from the extractor into the bucket. On leaving the bee house, we went up to Clement’s own house where we sampled his wife’s baking skills. Small buns made using honey were very moreish and plentiful.
Later that day we went to a new cheese-making dairy set up in 2010 with an EU grant and assistance from local businesses. The cheese maker was originally a vet but decided on a career change. She makes cheese from cow, goat and sheep’s milk. Various flavoured yogurts are also made. To assist in the continuing funding of the enterprise, the cheese maker has an adoption scheme where one can adopt a goat or sheep to help pay for its upkeep.
All the milk is locally produced, unpasteurised and chemical free. The cheeses ranged from a parmesan-type hard cheese, through to feta-style and cottage/cream cheeses. Interestingly, pumpkin oil was utilised with the feta-style cheese with the addition of pumpkin seeds and the result was a very refreshing, tasty product.
Following this visit, we went to meet the Celec family who produce the traditional Gingerbread hearts from an old family recipe and which includes chestnut honey. The family has been making gingerbread commercially since 1937. Originally set up by Jožica’s father-in-law, the business now includes the third generation, namely her son, Damjan. The recipes for the various gingerbreads are generations old and are continually being developed but not so much as to lose the authenticity of the finished product.
Our next ‘foodstuff’ visit was carried out the following day when we visited the Mura River; specifically the Isle of Love where the last remaining floating flour mill still operates. At one time, there were 700 similar mills on the river in that particular area. Made of Oak and Larch, the fact they were floating meant they could be manoeuvered to where the current could best be utilised. Waterwheels have been used for centuries to power mills of various sorts, including the generation of electricity, and seeing the mill in operation does beg the question why more mills are not in operation in other areas, including the UK where they are sadly lacking.
Following the visit to the Mura, we went to visit another apiarist who has 700 colonies of bees. We visited him at his largest apiary which would ultimately become an apitherapy centre. Semen’s bee house was built on the basis that the therapies would be carried out surrounded by bees. The facing wall of the house, which was beautifully decorated with pictures depicting deer and hares (both of which are hunted in the appropriate season), was the outer wall of all the hives. The therapy includes the sound of bees, and breathing in the smell of the hives. Internally, on either side of the hives, were treatment beds where you could watch the bees whizzing in and out. Adjacent to the two bee houses on site were around 50 hives which were more familiar to the UK bee keeper and it transpired these were nuclei destined for France. The range of honeys produced by Semen was vast, from delicately flavoured flower honey to very strong chestnut and buckwheat varieties.
Our final epicurean delight was a visit to Marco’s father’s vineyard where we sampled the fruits of the vine. Marco and his father run the vineyard together and the results were very pleasant on the nose and tongue. I found that wine in Slovenia was predominantly white which was a welcome change for me. Also on offer was the ubiquitous mead or one of the other liqueurs we’d enjoyed throughout the week.
My lasting impression food-wise from the trip was of a generosity rarely seen now in the UK. The food was always wholesome, delicious and unfussy, and it reminded me of when I was a child in the Somerset countryside during the sixties. The sense of community was huge and it was a pleasure to see old and young enjoying events together although, I am sadly led to believe, this is now dying out. The younger generation are more inclined to move to the cities or abroad for work or because it is ‘more exciting’ than being at home.
It struck me that bees and honey are very central to Slovenian country life. Of course, bees are essential in pollinating crops from apples to oilseed rape, grapes to buckwheat and all things in between. Interesting also that the Slovenian word for honey is med. Fascinating then that many words in our vocabulary which start with ‘med’ are all to do with healing and the healing properties of honey are vast.
Maggie Duncan, May 2015