Loud shouting and the sound of the accordion can be heard on St Stephen’s Day in Stara Fužina and Studor, and then, on New Year’s Eve, the local people in the Upper Bohinj Valley, i.e. in Srednja vas, Češnjica and Jereka, once again welcome the new year masks or otepovci.
They remind us of carnival masks due to their fur coats, or even of the famous kurenti, laufarji and škoromati (traditional masks in Slovenia). Otepovci come to wish people happiness, joy, fruitfulness and health in the coming year. The masks are also not very scary, like some of the other masks intended to scare off the winter are, but they are more or less funny.
Young men used to put on these masks to have some fun before joining the army, and their arrival at the houses of local people was usually rewarded. This ritual is slightly different today because young men are not obliged to join the army anymore. The group of masked men normally includes the so-called “baba” (woman) and “voča” (man, father), “fehtar” (beggar) who collects the money, and “metlar” (broom-maker) who uses a broom to clean the house of bad things and play with children. Depending on the size of the group, the characters include “mat” (mother), “ta mlada dva” (the young two), hunter, chimney sweep and new year.
The only person who doesn’t wear a mask is the accordion player because all the masks like to dance in the houses. Their arrival is usually very loud and this noise resounds around the village so that the children can hardly wait for the masks to come. The house owners welcome them and offer them their best sausage and brandy. If owners do not let them in the house, they usually play some jokes on them.
In the past, one farmer did not let otepovci enter the house, and he had to later dismantle his carriage that had been put on the roof so that he could get it to the ground. Otepanje is a fun holiday custom, which proves the humour of locals and the connection among local communities. In the past, otepovci used some masks to make quite a lot of fun out of certain people or characters that were not very popular
among the locals. This custom is quite popular in the Upper Bohinj Valley villages and is also very interesting for tourists and visitors.
Alpine dairy farming, which began in the 13th century, and the related cheese-making was the foundation of Bohinj farming throughout history. Few fertile areas, long winters and short summers were the reason, why locals mostly focused on raising cattle (cows, goats, horses, sheep). Milk and dairy products were the basis for staple food for a long time.
BOHINJ PEOPLE DEVELOPED ALPINE DAIRY FARMING TO PERFECTION
Data indicate that, in the past, approximately forty Alpine dairy farming settlements were active. They were divided into hay plateaus, middle, and high plateaus. In spring, shepherds began to graze their animals on hay plateaus, which were the lowest. Then they herded them to middle and high plateaus, and in autumn, they did the reverse towards the valley. Because of the high level of dependence of the agrarian economy on Alpine dairy farming, individual shepherding remained the preferred form in Bohinj up until the second half of the 20th century.
This meant that every master had his own stable and Alpine shepherd on the plateau. The shepherds lived a very simple life on the plateaus. Their homesteads differed. The ones on lower plateaus were made of both stone and wood, and had a separate barn. On higher plateaus, the homesteads were made exclusively of wood, covered with shingles, and resting on supports called “mares”. They had an open fireplace, a storeroom, and a modest bed.
CHEESE-MAKING AND TRADE
Until the middle of the 19th century, cheese-making was organised in a way, where every shepherd would process milk into dairy products on the plateau itself. First it was butter, later also quark and cheese. These were not only for use by the Bohinj people but also for trade. They sold butter to Trieste in exchange for wine and salt. They did not only trade in butter, but also in cattle and wood products. Among various dairy products produced on the plateaus, a speciality was the Mohant cheese. This very piquant cheese is still considered a speciality in Bohinj today.
HOW CHEESE-MAKERS’ COOPERATIVES CAUSED PROGRESS IN BOHINJ ALPINE DAIRY FARMING
The turning point of Bohinj Alpine dairy farming and cheese-making were the ‘60s and ‘70s of the 19th century. The credit for the major progress of the time goes to the priest of Bohinjska Bistrica, Janez Krstnik Mesar. He gave the initiative for the creation of cheese-makers’ cooperatives. So in 1873, the first Bohinj cheese-makers’ cooperative came into existence, which was the first of its kind in all of Carniola.
The arrival of the Swiss cheese-maker Tomas Hitz, who often visited Bohinj and helped with advice, brought about a kind of cheese, which is similar to the Swiss Emmental cheese – the Bohinj Cheese. Positive development continued in the first half of the 20th century, despite the catastrophic two world wars. Even during both wars, the best cheese-makers were sent to be educated in Switzerland. After World War II, the plateaus were nationalized. The Bohinj people nevertheless eagerly started to rebuild the cheese-making settlements.
Despite this, cheese-making was slowly in decline. The number of Alpine dairy farmers diminished year by year. Today, only a few are still alive. One of the solutions that could revive them is tourism.
HINTS AND USEFUL LINKS
you can learn more about the cheese-making and alpine dairy farming traditions on the Tourist Cheese-Makers Trail
we recommend you take a guided hike to Bohinj plateaus