Osmica, or wine needs bush

A wine tavern but without neither a restaurant concession nor a licence to sell alcohol? Don’t worry, osmice are absolutely legal. In fact, their existance owes to a “legal need.” Namely, the winemakers’ need to sell surplus wine.

You will find them in the region of Karst (Carso) that lies in south-western Slovenia and just behind the border in the Italian povince of Trieste. They operate only for a few days in a year and can be set up at the winery’s premises, in a barn, at the owner’s house, etc. Next to wine, sold are cured meats, cheese and other home made delicacies. Live music may accompany too. This tradition can be indirectly traced back to the medieval or even ancient times and directly – to the days when the territory was under the Austrian rule.

Laws regulating wine production and trade were part of a European winegrower’s life at least since the early Middle Ages. In 1784, the Habsburg emperor issued a decree that granted his subjects with the right to sell self-produced wine, tax free, for a limited number of days in a year. This way, the farmers could empy their barrels to make room for a new batch. Later also sales of victuals has been permitted at such establishments. Similar laws exist until this day in several regions that once belonged to Austria-Hungary, but not only – the upcoming paragraphs will reveal pan-European connections.

[ language corner: Slovenian-English
    osem = eight
    osmica = an eight (sg)
    osmice = eigths (pl)    ]

Originally, the tax-free sales was permitted for 8 consecutive days in a year, hence its Slovenian name: osmice means eights. This moniker is still used today, even if the modern legislature now allows each osmica to be opened twice a year, for ten days each time. In Italy, where it is spelled osmiza or osmizza, the number of opening days depends on the quantity of produced wine.

Maps and schedules are published online, for example at osmice.info (slv) and osmize.com (ita), but the traditional way of finding them was scoping the countryside for bunches of ivy sprigs attached to doors, walls or fences. This was a sign that osmica is happening. Such bunches are called “fraska” by the Slovenes, which echoes the name used for osmica in the region of Friuli, frasca, and simply means “branch” in Italian. That in turn correlates with parts of Austria, where similar makeshift taverns are called BuschenschankBuschen being “branch” in German. Another, albeit not overlapping, Austrian term in use is Heuriger. Its etymology is also significant: “heuriger Wein” means “this year’s wine.”

The custom of adorning temporary pubs with branches goes well beyond the Austro-Hungarian realm and era. In many other German-speaking lands bunches or wreaths of twigs have the same advertising and word-formation functions. You will find Straußwirtschaften along the Rhine and Besenwirtschaften further south and up to Switzerland, while the dictionary explains that “Strauß” is “bouquet” and “Besen” is “broom.” Naturally, the former relates to twig “bouquets” and the latter to brooms made of branches used in tavern signage. These establishments are also seasonal but the local laws let them operate significantly longer than their Slovenian counterparts.

Across yet another border are the bouchons of Lyon. Today just a local word for a traditional restaurant, its root exposes their connection to wine trade in the past – “bousche” is an old French word for “branch.”

“Good wine needs no bush” is a phrase recorded in English since Shakespeare. It reminds us that the association of pubs with leafy bundles of branches is in fact a truly pan-European phenomenon. Some historians go as far as tracing it to the cult of Dionysus/Bacchus, the Greco-Roman deity of winemaking, whose symbols were both grape vines and ivy.

Laurel branches hung on gates or road signs can be also found in the Galicia region of Spain. They direct visitors to what is called a furancho (from a Galician word for the hole in wine barrel) or loureiro (you guessed it, “laurel”), the features of which are surprisingly similar if not identical with those of an osmica. Even further away, on the remote Canary Islands, there is another parallel tradition: guachinche.

All this ensures us that the Habsburg decree mentioned earlier just re-validated an already existing, much earlier tradition.

Surplus wine, home-made products, relaxed atmosphere, limited opening period – these are the common traits, but while the Spanish alternatives serve tapas, the dainties available along the Italo-Slovene border represent a different heritage. Take those hearty sausages, generous piles of sauerkraut and succulent roasts and stews; add how the decoration looks, how the accordion player plays… it all shouts Central Europe. We could be in Prague or somewhere around Vienna; swap wine for beer and you get Bavaria. But there are more links and connections. Olive oil, pršut (prosciutto), polenta – their presence in menus says a lot too.

Slovenia is a border zone. It was a part of the Austrian Monarchy, but it was also a part of Yugoslavia. Italy is literally next door, both the Alps and the Mediterranean are a few minute car ride away, while the Balkans and Hungary can be reached in a matter of hours. It is pehaps the most interesting location of any European state, would you agree?

So we are in Karst.

A platter with assorted cold cuts landed on our table together with a liter carafe of house red. Oh, and let’s not forget a dish of white cheese soaked in olive oil, and another one with pork cracklings (ocvirki). The rustic interior, live music and the chattering crowd contributed to the merry atmosphere of this bustling tavern in the village of Vrabče, where my Slovene friend Nik brought me after googling which osmica is opened that night.

As if that was not already way over our tummy capacity, we then ordered a true bomb – kmečki krožnik, or “rustic plate.” It consisted of a zrezek pork chop and a pečenica sausage sitting on a mountain of potatoes, cabbage and turnip. Each slow mouthful was a test of endurance. Faithful to my sweet tooth self, maybe out of courage because certainly not out of hunger, I opted for one more thing. Štruklji are a Slovenian classic: filled dough rolls, available in both sweet and savoury incarnations. Mine came with strawberry sauce and sprinkled with sugar. When and where is the next osmica, please?