Cycling in Nockberge, Austria or What a Difference a Week Makes

It’s been a bit more than a week since our trip to Istria but we’ve managed to change the scenery completely the last weekend. We ended up in the warm embrace of the Austrian Alps.

It was unseasonably hot throughout the last week (thanks God, we needed it) and even in the Alps it was fantasticly warm.

We went on a cycling trip, this year’s first, and it was wonderful. Although, were I asked the next day, I’d have some other words rolling off of my tongue as I could feel very well the difficulties and aches of sitting down.

A view over the mountains and pasture in Nockberge region in Austria

The Nockberge region is obviously meant to be known for sweeping curvy roads and painfully steep ascents. It is also a home to delicious meat, especially beef, and the Zirbe trees. The essential oils of their wood exude characteristic smell that is famed for its (scientifically proven, no less) health benefits, above all improving one’s sleep. Last but not least, there’s also the intoxicating brandy made with Zirbe cones to be tried.

The houses that we passed are proverbially well taken care of. The Austrians, like their neighbours the Germans and the Swiss, take caring for their property very seriously indeed. The lawns are all manicured (I can happily report the modernisation has found its way to the remotest of valleys: we saw two lawns being mowed by a robot!) and blossoming plants of all colours and shapes are boxed onto balconies, decorating the terraces and the garden borders.

There was no one in sight, although the day was very fine. It seemed as if everybody had lunch indoors at the same time but once we reached Ebene Reichenau it was as clear as day: there was a Dorffest going on.

A village fest in Nockberge, Austria

The countryside is typically Alpine, of course. Lots of greenery and dense woodland. Lots of water too: many streams heading downhill in a bouncing rhythm over the rocks provided a noisy companion during our laborious progress upwards.

Refreshing sight of a sream rushing down Nockberge, Austria

We saw the busy bees on the way. Check the neatly piled stacks of wood behind the beehives: the winters are cold and long around here.

Everything is neat and tidy in Austria

We met some cows lazying in the grass …

Cow resting in the meadow in Nockberge, Austria

… and a horse now and then.

We reached our peak in good time.

A romantic view of a church atop Nockberge, Austria

Within 15 minutes, after we returned to the valley and rested over coffee before considering a late lunch, the clouds locked out the blue sky and it started to rain. Really good timing, I said.

Pizza treat in Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria

Some Italians run a pizzeria by the main road in Bad Kleinkirchheim. I can’t remember when I ate the whole pizza all by myself. No leftovers this time.

The Weekend of Doing Nothing

I’ve finally warmed up this weekend. Up until Friday I was constantly cold partly because of the weather that stubornly refused to bring the warmth (at least this is a natural fact, something that can’t be controlled, so what the hack, right?) partly because of the office air-conditioning already turned on ignoring the actual outdoor conditions (simply bloody too much). So, a sunny and warm weekend at last delivered the long desired comfort.

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I enjoyed it very much. Contrary to everybody else who’ll be going on and on about what they’d been up to this weekend my reply to the eminent question of What did you do over the weekend? will be simply Nothing.

We drove to the Croatian coast for the weekend, true. Left the town pretty early on Friday, a rare indulgence, true again. We had a lovely late lunch of fresh fish on the way just on the edge of Karst. The nearer we got to the coast the warmer it was getting. The early evening was the colour of antique gold. We had a glass of amaro before we called it a night.

On Saturday we slept late, later than usual at least, and had coffee in bed. We drove to Umag, the nearest town, for breakfast …

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… and shopped at the local market. There are all kinds of vegetables and fruits in season right now, some of them our favourites: fresh cherries, crisp peas, sweetest carrots, young soft cabbage heads, fragrant strawberries, the not-yet-too-bitter radicchio verde, fantastic lettuce and whatnot. After that, we took a short stroll through the old town.

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We stocked up with a stack of magazines and newspapers at the newsagent’s and grabbed a fresh loaf of white bread at the baker’s. The one that we always crave for back home.

Then, we did some work around the house but nothing too exhausting. We enjoyed the sun and the warmth and the calmness of the day. We took a really long walk along the coast and admired the macchia and pine trees and the sweet up-coming smell of the summer.

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Before we turned in we had a glass of local pelinkovac, a remarkable wormwood liquor. One would assume we’re heavy on the alcohol but rest assured the quantities we had were purely medicinal.

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On Sunday, I went for a morning run and when I returned my man had already laid out a sumptuous breakfast. Afterwards, we read. And we read. We lounged in the sun and read. I podded the peas and then read some more. We were delighted by the birdsong and a tender breeze.

We cooked risotto primavera (simplified but nonetheless delicious) for late lunch and watched the tranquility pass us by.

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During our drive back home I watched the moon moving slowly over the sky of dying light. It was huge and deep yellow.

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Come to think of it it was no nothing at all.

It Rains Cats and Dogs

Woohoo, Ice Saints, you brought it on all right! It’s been raining for the past few days like crazy. In this part of the world, the 11th, 12th and 13th of May are presided over by the three saints, St. Boniface, St. Pancras and St. Servatius that bring us what are most-likely the last cold days of the season (typically, bad weather and cold are the norm of these days). For tomorrow a significant drop in temperature is forecast, so, folks, St. Sophia might be kept busy as well. After that, it’s all roses, right?

Apropos the rain, here’s a funny thing I noticed in Gioia magazine:

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I checked the web and I can report that, yes, a Raindrop Cake is a real thing. It seems it’s turning into something quite popular. I find it rather strange though. But who am I to judge? Let people eat whatever they want, I’ll have a slice of my rhubarb pie as soon as it cools down a bit. Wanna see?

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This is a great dessert! The ingredients are a no-nonsense and what people usually stock at home. Thus, it’s doable even on the rainiest of days when the last thing you’d want is a run to the store. It’s basically down to butter, sugar, flour, eggs, baking powder and lemon zest plus topping. I use a recipe from this entry by The Wednesday Chef with some tweaks. That recipe never really worked for me as a crostata because for some reason the dough doesn’t get firm enough but I tweak it into a pie that is just marvellous. My version of that recipe would read like this (I hope The Wednesday Chef doesn’t mind):

Preheat your oven to 180°C. Mix together 150 grams of sugar with 150 grams of softened butter. To this add 2 eggs, the grated peel of a lemon, 200 grams of flour (depending, you might need up to 50 grams more) and half a packet of baking powder. Pat the dough out in a buttered spring-form pan and cover the dough with jam of your choice (we sometimes thin the jam with a glug of brandy over low heat before spreading it on the dough). Bake until golden-brown and the jam is bubbling, 30 minutes. Cool to room temperature before eating.

Sometimes, like today, I use fresh fruit instead of jam. Although I was planning to use up the bergamot jam (yes, I’m still in the citrus compulsive-obsessive period) I decided to employ the pretty rhubarb stalks before they withered.

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I usually poach the fruit quickly before arranging it on the dough. I tried it several times with either apples, peaches or quinces to a great avail. There’s lots of room for playing with the fruit if you’re willing: you can add vanilla, rose water or spice it up with brandy or cointreau while poaching it). But using jam is plainly and straightforwardly rewarding too.

I couldn’t care less if it rained for another whole day. With a slice of this pie on my plate (and a number of them to follow) I’m on the safe side.

Before & After

Whenever I have a couple of days off I take to flipping through outdated newspapers and magazines. I find it unfair to not consume the editions that I selected myself in the first place: unfair to authors and unfair towards the money spent on them. Doing so, I usually notice some things I missed before, or see them with a fresh pair of eyes.

You know, how there are places around the world that everyone longs to go to? Venice, New York, Paris, Rome, Cairo, Sydney to just name a few. The places that have grown for centuries and developed a certain type of attraction, a vibe in a modern language, but managed to keep and maintain the connection with their history, residents, visitors. Places where locals tend to be annoyed by hordes of tourists.

I come from a mid-sized Mittel Europa town and have never really understood the anti-tourist lament. I never believed it existed, actually. Mostly, I thought it more of a PR move. Until I started on purpose to try to sense my vacation destinations as if I lived there. It’s a whole new attitude, people. I recommend it highly. Not only does it make the travelling and staying in a foreign place more humble and modest (and therefore the richer in experience), perception of your hometown changes: you evaluate the pros and cons more self-confidently and you gain the understanding of that before mentioned lament. That not only exists but is true and by all means completely (mostly) justified.

As travellers the humans act as conquerors. As if the fact that we can afford to travel gives us the right to expect that everything must be done to serve us. I used to despise the fact that on a Sunday every shop in Vienna is closed. I thought them downright crazy to leave the thousands of strollers on died-out shopping arteries unattended. Recently, I started to appreciate that fact. Let them have their way, its on them to have it their way. It is I who should adapt.

So, when I spotted this:

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Paul Signac Maisons du Port, Saint Tropez, 1892; taken from Sotheby’s ad in FT Weekend 30 April/1 May 2016

I reached for my phone to find this:

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My iPhone shot of the place on 2 October 2011

What do you think? Did this place survive and earn the notorious reputation because of the tourists or in spite of them? What changed significantly is the density, quality and value of the moored fleet. The old town hasn’t changed that much, has it? I bet the locals lament over stupid tourists all the time.

The Simplest Tastes

We knew what lay ahead so we actually planned that meal the day before. We had bought the ingredients and before we went to bed I fixed the marinade and he prepared the meat. We had bought the already boned chicken thighs so only the skins had got to be removed. No hard work. The marinade ingredients were mixed together before everything was put into a glass container with a tight lid and stored in the refrigerator.

So, the following afternoon, after the whole day of fixing, tidying, clearing and cleaning, both indoors and outdoors, he made the fire and manned the grill while I prepared the crisp spring green salad to go with the meat. We were lucky to get our hands on Gernika peppers, so they were grilled alongside the meat.

I’m happy to report that in true David Lebovitz spirit we didn’t fuss about the authenticity of the recipe. Genuinely Korean or not, this dish was fantastic. Tasty, spicy, tender. I omitted the sesame seeds for the simple reason I stock none and added a tablespoon of concentrated tomato paste to the marinade. To me, to us, it was the perfect inaugural adventure in Korean food.

Chicken bulgogi, ladies and gentlemen:

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And the green accompaniments:

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The day was rounded off with an easy and delightful walk by the beach. Everything around us turned pink and seemed to glow in warmth although it was quite chilly.

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Man, the sun setting was a pure joy to watch.

For the recipe please go to Chicken Bulgogi by David Lebovitz. His photos and descriptions are marvelous.