The health drink that blew up the kitchen

When he came back he found the oven door blown off and the turkey on the ceiling
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EVERYONE HAS learnt something this last week in St Anton. The youngest has learned to ski, the teenagers have learnt to snowboard, my husband has learnt the German for "but surely five hot chocolates couldn't possibly have cost 600 schillings" and I have learned how to make kvass.

Now kvass, as I'm sure you know, is not an Austrian drink but a Russian one, once consumed in vast quantities by health-conscious Soviets, and in smaller quantities by discerning Europeans, mainly Germans. However, it was not in fact as kvass but as "brot tronk" (bread drink) that I was first introduced to this elixir by the friend we always stay with in St Anton.

She isn't Austrian, by the way, she's Irish. She met her husband, a dashing ski instructor with a girl on every piste, when she came out here to ski for the first time, and is now every bit as proficient on the slopes as he.

Not being much of a skier myself, we lost touch for a while. No, I'll rephrase that. I'm an absolutely useless skier despite spending a whole year studying at the University of Colorado - otherwise known as the skiing university, where lectures finished at noon and everyone, including the professors, disappeared into the mountains.

It's not that I cannot do it, it's just that I'm terrified of going fast, and, since the sole purpose of skiing seems to be to get down to the bottom of the mountain as fast as possible in order to go up again, there didn't really seem much point in my continuing.

"Why not try langlaufen, cross-country skiing," suggested my Irish friend in St Anton. She explained that she had given up skiing in favour of langlaufen because it was so much more peaceful than all that frantic toing and froing up and down the slopes.

So anyway, instead of kitting myself out in the complicated gear that you need for conventional skiing - Brobdignagian boots, extra gloves, sun block cream, packed lunch - and setting off at first light before the sun turns the piste to porridge, my Irish friend and I have a leisurely breakfast and towards noon prepare ourselves for a little gentle langlaufen.

I need special boots, but these are chic enough for Bond Street and supple enough for aerobics. Cross-country skis, too, are finer than normal skis, and because we're only going for a couple of hours we do not need to weigh our pockets down with iron rations. Besides, the track we are following has built-in refreshments. It winds through Hansel and Gretel terrain, snow-laden pine trees sloping to a partly frozen river and, at the end, a rude mountain hut offering venison sausages and coleslaw.

Expert langlaufers fly along at an incredible pace, but my friend and I take it gently so that we can talk. This year we discuss kvass. She's a great believer in its medicinal properties. Its organic components warm the blood. She holds with the anthroposophist view that it is because we eat so much over-refined food - white flour, white sugar, white rice - that our general health is deteriorating along with our moral fibre. Processed food chills not only the blood but the heart. Drinking a glass of kvass every morning will warm both.

The only problem is, you can't buy kvass in England. So, whenever I leave St Anton my bags are weighed down with bottles of the stuff, but they only last a week. This year she has found a recipe in an old Russian cookery book, and that very afternoon we settled down to brew our own.

It's a messy business. It's also extremely time-consuming. Basically you soak rye bread in water, stir in some yeast and a few raisins and let it ferment for three days. In reality you keep poking at it to make sure it's brewing properly, and when you do the rancid smell practically blows your head off. Straining the liquid from the foaming fungal mess isn't easy either, but I did it and tipped the dross into the biodegradable bin. Austrians are obsessed with recycling. Then we went out langlaufen again.

At this point I'll tell you about another Irish friend in London whose mother sent him a turkey one Christmas. He put it in the oven and went to church, but when he came back he found that the oven door had blown off and the turkey was on the ceiling. His mother had omitted to tell him she had secreted a bottle of poteen into the turkey's breast cavity.

Pretty much the same thing happened to my friend's biodegradable bin. The fermenting bread had blown off the lid and her kitchen floor, what you could see of it, was teeming. Fortunately we had three bottles of kvass to sustain us. Of course it's worth making. I shall do it at home in London, tipping the used bread into the river. Watch out for warm- blooded, warm-hearted fish.