About an hour outside of Trieste is an incredible stretch of land that saddles both the Italian and Slovenian border. Accessible by city bus from the centre of town it’s a winding and fantastic ride along the steep shores leading out of Trieste as you climb onto a plateau above the city. The tiny village of Prosecco is hidden up here along with a throng of other tiny hamlets and the border to Slovenia is only a few kilometres away.
Farms and vineyards
So, with a little help from our friends at the Trieste Tourism office, we made our connection for Sales on the Karst (Carso in Italian) plateau. With the bus to ourselves, we wound our way through the beautiful woods, farms and vineyards of this unique territory.
Finally, at our stop the bus driver told us to walk up the road about 1/2 a kilometre to reach our first osmiza (farm restaurant) of the day.
It was an absolutely beautiful sunny day with fresh crisp air carrying the scents of the forest and pastures passed us as we walked down the country road.
Diverse piece of geography
The Karst is an amazing and diverse piece of geography with no available ground water but a very extensive network of caves beneath it. The land is rugged and fairly flat with a fairy tale quality to the open woods. Trails wind all through the area making it a hiker’s dream and a mountain biker’s paradise. Farming here is very difficult due to the lack of water and soil conditions but for some, hard work pays off with exceptional olive oil, great wine and some of the best honey in the world. Bird watching is excellent here as well and the variety of flowers, wild herbs and plants are unique to the region.
Within no time we reached Bajta-Sales, a large agriturismo with a restaurant. It is the biggest in the area and came with two thumbs up from the bus driver so we were stoked!
Apart from getting some fresh air away from the city streets, our goal was to visit one or more osmize (plural of osmiza). The word osmiza comes from the Slovenian word osem, meaning eight. Previously, by law, farmers were allowed to open their doors and sell their farm fresh cheese, prosciutto, salumi and wine for eight days a month. In rich tradition, large bundles of fresh bay leaves are hung on the sign posts for each osmiza that is open along the country road. Operating hours have since expanded but the bay leaf tradition remains and so does the possibility of eating some seriously good local food.
Freezing from hunger
At Bajta-Sales, absolutely freezing from hunger, it was time for lunch and we jousted for a seat closest to the fireplace. A litre of the house red Terrano started the warming process and for an antipasto, a board of farm made prosciutto with a fantastic plate of pork tongue served cold and marinated in honey, wine and onions. Next, we both looked forward to trying the legendary jota (pronounced yota) a soup made up of pork, beans and sauerkraut, slow cooked to a thick hearty meal. Served in a bread bowl with a bottle of the wonderful Karst olive oil it was exactly what we needed.
Sasha and Irena
After lunch we were ready for a nice country walk but first, we slipped next door to the butcher shop. Immediately we were greeted by two women Sasha and Irena who kindly offered to help as they worked.
I told them we had just eaten next door and loved the food.
“Everything we serve at the restaurant is produced here” exclaimed Sasha from behind the counter while arranging a rack of pork ribs in the fridge.
Farm raised pigs
It turns out that the farm raises and uses all its own pigs, in turn feeding the restaurant and other patrons wanting any number of choice cuts of excellent pork. Back legs excluded of course because they would be reserved for making prosciutto. Like the famous San Daniele prosciutto, the Karst version is mild and full of flavour, due to excellently raised pigs and perfect ageing conditions as we would soon see. Prodding a little further I asked whether we might have a look at the ageing room for the prosciutto.
“Sure,” Irena said “I will take you down”
Flipping on a set of lights we descended a set of stairs further down than expected, to a deep basement with a high ceiling. In the first huge room, their estate made wine was ageing in barrels and bottles including the excellent Terrano we had as well as their sparkling rosé.
Prosciutto ageing room
With the lights turning off behind us another set of lights illuminated a large hall to a wooden door that led to the prosciutto ageing room. An impressively big room, all the legs of ham hanging from wooden racks were from the farm and prepared in the shop above. Some of the legs had thick layers of mould on them and were deep in the ageing process and others had just been hung. There was guanciale (pig cheek) curing amongst the legs as well and a few pieces of pancetta but I didn’t see any salumi.
The salumi room
“The salumi room is farther down,” Irena said with a smile and with that flicked off the lights and we walked briefly in the dark to the next set of lights which led to an old original cellar of the building that was recently renovated into a large event or tasting room. In the far corner of that room, a set of stone stairs led to another great old door that again had another set of steep stairs leading down into darkness. Waiting for Irena to turn the light on at the bottom of the stairs we crept slowly down into the salami ageing room. An actual deep Karst cave it was damp and cold with all natural walls and a wooden hanging rack built into the stone.
Batman’s salami cave
Rows of salami of different types and sizes hung and ageing, gathering their beneficial mould and turning into pure magic. We were about forty feet under the restaurant now and in what looked like batman’s salami cave. As we ascended back up all the stairs out of the darkness, turning off and on lights as we went, we finally emerged out into the sunny butcher shop. What an amazing place with all its farm-raised products and subterranean secrets, we didn’t want to leave.
Nevertheless we purchased a nice chunk of coarse country salami and following Irena’s directions waved goodbye and walked off to find a trail down the road that would lead us to our next stop.
A large bunch of bay leaves
The trails are well marked so we found it easily and really enjoyed walking off our lunch through these unique woods. Back on a quiet road a telltale sign of a large bunch of bay leaves had us walking up a lane to another small osmiza with some tables outside in the sun facing a picture perfect farmer’s field. A few locals were sitting about drinking and chatting as we slipped in to place an order.
Terrano and Malvasia
Another glass of Terrano and a glass of Malvasia white wine made on the farm set us back one whole euro and it came with a complimentary snack. Frittelle con l’anima (fried dough with soul), being small pieces of bread dough with anchovy inside and then fried golden brown, were handed to us along with the wine and we made our way back out to the sun for more fresh air and the end of the sunshine.
It was now early evening and the sun was fading quickly. We had another good walk to get us back to a bus stop for the ride home so we finished up quickly and said arrivederci to the farm dog as we walked down the country lane into the sunset.
A short but cold wait had us back on a now much more crowded bus back to Trieste. Coming back down off the plateau, down the windy, steep hillside into the city, the sun was just hitting the ocean for a colourful end to the day.
Into the mayhem
Walking off the bus and back into the mayhem of a busy city we both realized how much we needed that change of pace and the Karst was the perfect answer. Amazingly friendly and kind people, great food, fantastic wine all living in a region that seems to be a little secret up there in the corner of Italy.
The Karst is a place we can’t wait to return to but next time we will bring our mountain bikes and have more time.