At Škrubi in the Topla valley near Crna, Carinthia
A Carinthian friend of mine asked me, "Have you ever eaten `klocovi nudlni'?"
Instead of replying I rather took a ride there.
Who has, for God's sake, ever eaten `klocovi nudlni'? Have you?
Carinthia was bathing in sunshine. Snowdrops were popping up in Crna. However, about a winding mile into the Topla valley, driving along the Meza creek, the winter greeted us: "Welcome!" The spring was abruptly over, with everything covered in snow, the parking lot in front of an old house by the road was even ice bound. Podpeca 65, an old house enclosed in wood, with a beautiful old balcony, the toilet behind the house so that one can, after an extended stay, stretch his legs, a terrace where sunshine finally shows up after a long winter, and posters with whiskey stickers to show what Peter at Škrubi loves. The house has been known as Škrubi for over 100 years - it even appears under that name in the Geographical Atlas of Slovenia. From behind the bar one can peer into the kitchen where Škrubi, wearing a large apron, dances around the pots, happy that another hungry guest has come astray into his forgotten valley.
Small and large `grumpi'"Welcome! It is a real winter over here, isn't it?! Immediately after All Saints Day the sun disappears and shows up again after the first week of February." A strong handshake by Peter Lence, with gray beard and cheerful smile, a chef at heart but not by education, even though he travelled all the way to Burma to learn how people cook elsewhere, and to Goljat at Brdo, and Sister Vendelina in Repnje, so that he can delight his rare guests who dare to come below Peca, on the winding and rundown Carinthian road.
"Are you in hurry? Ah, good. I think I'll be able to provoke you to come again. Do you know the joke about a husband who asked what is going to be for lunch today? "I don't know," she replied, "the sticker has fallen off the can..." And we laughed, as is customary with Peter at Škrubi. Standard fare, as you might find other inns, wouldn't wash here - who would drive over there for a Vienna steak and thawed out French fries. "For someone to come over, the food must be something special. Even though the guests are rare. And locals are afraid of police. A single man used to drink half a case of beer, now he barely dares to have one bottle."
In the dining area next to the bar, there's a festive covered table, with a candle, napkin and a large wooden tray. On the tray, thin slices of homemade rye bread, with an almost black crust and a taste a spoiled city dweller would call sour, and a small pot of fat. "These are `grumpi', small `grumpi', because we have large `grumpi' as well. The large ones are from something I dare not name since it is not nice to tell the guest that it is from the meat leftovers." Small cracklings were mixed into fat which has sinful smell of roast pork. Next to it there were two small wooden spoons, pepper and salt. To tease him a little bit I told him what Jozko Sirk, a well known innkeeper from the Italian side of Brda, thinks. There is no table salt on his table, as no visitor ever says to a painter in a gallery to add a little bit of red or green to his painting... But the Carinthian innkeeper didn't remain without words: "I never ask the guest if it was good. I know it was!" A proof of this is also Škrubi's substantial figure which, he says, is a little short... "I improvise a little bit all the time. But don't worry, I always try it myself first."
The centenary is approachingAs we had greased our dark bread so thickly with cracklings, he brought us a short measure of brandy. "I wonder if you can guess what is it made of." Of course we didn't even as we were licking all over. It was honey brandy but not as sweetish as usual. When Škrubi was in Ljubljana and tried a honey brandy at a booth he was sick for three days... "They use the worst brandy and to disguise how bad it is they add a few of spoons of honey to cover the bad taste with sweetness. But this honey brandy is really from honey, from the hardest one which can't even be ground. Therefore they soak the honeycomb so that honey ferments and then distil it twice."
Milan Kamnik was singing "Is there anybody happier anywhere" and Škrubi gave us some reading to ease the wait for `zupa'. There is no menu at Škrubi, instead there are menus from his mother and aunt from the high school in Ljubljana from 1937 and even some from his grandmother who started to run the inn soon after 1900 when she received permission to sell alcohol. There will be a centenary soon. A porridge soup, rice and blood-sausages with sour turnip and potatoes, stewed plums... Škrubi, who was asked to help even in Hotel Union in Ljubljana when they had month of Carinthian cuisine, now adds his own experiments to this. Young beech leaves used in a salad, for example.
Or he takes prime pork, makes a pocket in it and fills it
with dried plums with almonds in addition. He likes fruits,
generally. He wraps a banana with crispy bacon and offers cranberry
sauce on the side. But cranberries are hard to find these days around
Peca. "When one can get them, they are expensive as hell."
He apologized about the wine, he had only red `Bizeljcan' and white Riesling. Once he had some guests from Maribor over the New Year and they explained to him in detail which wine he should order from the upper, and which from the lower Protner winegrower. Afterwards, he had several half-litre bottles of sweet Traminer left over. "I paid 1,500 tolars for a bottle. If I offered wine for such a price to my regulars they would kick my ass..."
He managed to select Oskar somewhere from his private stock, Merlot barrique (1997) vinted by Oskar Simcic - Martinjak from Brda, and poured a glass for himself as well. "I think it will match the pork and sausages well!"
When he was cooking at the Union hotel, a well known Slovene-London cook Marjan Lesnik rebuked him: "Low fat cuisine is this not!" Our meal at Škrubi certainly wasn't low fat either. After the fat with cracklings and strong grandmother's beef soup with pancakes so thick you could stand a spoon in it, a `koline' followed: a fried sausage, a boiled sausage, `mavzlje', sauerkraut and a bread dumpling. It is beyond me even now how I managed such an abundant meal but I do know that for the following two days I had only salad... We, city dwellers, spoiled, whatever.
`Nudlni' and `nudlci'`Mavzlji' are filled with the same stuff as blood-sausages, just without blood. By the way, in Carinthia people fill blood-sausages with baked blood, which we in Styria prefer to eat on the slaughtering-day. Buckwheat porridge, barley, rice, marjoram, pork head meat, but excluding the brain which is not popular these days, are the main ingredients of `mavzlji' or `mavzeljni', wrapped into pork membrane and fried crisply. "In the past, blood-sausages and `mavzlji' were made to use all the leftovers. It's different today, of course. Instead of pork ears I would rather use a nice piece of roast meat which I then grind into a sausage, with thick chunks that can be felt under the teeth."
Since rum and cinnamon had already started to smell from the kitchen during our `koline' meal we quickly had another shot of honey brandy and were ready for the `klocovi nudlni'. "`Nudlni' are sweet, but `nudlci' go into soup." Even though Škrubi also makes `klocovi nudlni' with cracklings. And it's served with a large plate of `nudlni' with cracklings on one side, and with dry fruit sauce and rum on the other side. "I like to play with flavours. At first guests are reserved, they are afraid, then when they finally take a bite they are sorry they didn't do it earlier."
A filling in the pockets of dough, a scholarly description of
Škrubi's `nudlni', is made of dried pears, the best of which are those
dried in a special oven fired with wood since they are not as dried out
as those processed in the bread oven. He briefly boils them, removes
stalks and seeds, and grinds them. He pours over a sauce made of dried figs,
plums, apricots, enhanced with rum and finally powders them with cinnamon.
A bomb of calories! But when, instead of saying farewell, he said:
"Next time I'll make something else. But for dessert it will be
`klocovi nudlni' again," we happily nodded.
Newspaper Vecer, Cuisine, 7 February 2002 (in Slovenian)
reproduced and translated by permission of the author