With brightly-luminous blue eyes and a twinkling grin, bare-chested, bearded Sergio was one of the shepherds showing sheep flock (450 in the herd, 50 goats included) at the four-day Rassegna degli Ovini (Sheep Show) at Campo Imperatore (“The Emperor’s Plain”), high in the Abruzzo mountains.
All the herds – in temporary wire fences – were guarded by noble-looking white Maremmanno shepherd dogs, some with anti-wolf collars which looked like some sort of medieval torture gadget. The dogs warily encircled the herds of goats and sheep, tingling bells on the necks of some, others with clanging larger bells.
Sergio bounced his grandchildren Georgia and Piero on his knees, seated on a stool behind their camper as he chatted with friends and a stream of well-wishers. Daughter Morena served snacks and drinks to visitors and I chatted with her brothers Alfredo and Mirco, both working the herds with their father, “since we could walk”, they told me. And Sergio, too, started scrambling the mountains with his shepherd father as a young tot.
When I asked the brothers if they could imagine a different life, they shook their heads in unison. “We need the air, the freedom, nature all around,“ was how Alfredo put it. When querying about the difficulties of a shepherd’s life today, papa’ Sergio immediately targeted two issues: “Taxes – too many” and “Water – too little,” for increasingly sizzling summers require water transport to the herds with cistern trucks. “That’s expensive,“ he told me and when I replied, “..and that’s a reason pecorino is getting so expensive..?“ He nodded agreement with a resigned shrug.
For over fifty years now, Abruzzo has celebrated her shepherds and their swiftly-disappearing pastoral traditions with the four-day event. Jagged mountain peaks like reclining giants encircle the “Emperor’s Plain” where clutches of peaked white tents sidle up to the fenced herds of sheep and goats with their vigilant Maremmano guardians, stretched out and panting.
Parents with children by the hand wander from fence-to-fence, photographing unusual goat breeds, asking the shepherds about wool or cheese production. In the corner of one “corral,” a clutch of furry white balls draws the children: young Maremmano pups. In an adjacent fence, sheep were being tagged and marked: just sold to another shepherd.
Visitors meander from the fences to the peaked white tents for tastes of pastoral – and not only – Abruzzese goodness. Pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheeses of endless varieties lead the culinary litany – aged in hay or in grape leaves, rolled in cumin or sesame seeds or chives, aged three months or a year – or longer (if you like the bite). At a couple tents, you can taste goat’s milk cheeses, too. Porchetta is never missing at a central-Italy festival. At Gianluca’s stand, we ordered porchetta sandwiches with a robust vino rosso locale.
A nearby stand offered paper cones filled with salami, capocollo, dried sausage nibbles to carry around and munch as you strolled stand-to-stand.
One stand’s goods please the eye as well as the palate: garlic braids intermingle with red chili pepper strings, pale green mountain oregano bunches, purple Tropea onion bunches. Donkey milk beauty products at the next stand!
Pastoral music backdrops the festivities: a young couple play organetti and a tall mustached bagpiper in traditional costume puffs on the traditional shepherd’s bagpipes, la cornamusa.
In the afternoon, awards were presented to rassegna shepherds and Alfredo climbed the improvised stage to receive a prize in the name of his De Paulis family. Time for a quick photo with his wife and tiny daughter before they moved their herd out, heading back to Paganica, hours away.
…and soon, other shepherds and their herds moved out, too, for they had long treks ahead. The sharp bark of Maremmano sheep dogs blended with tinkling, clanging sheep bells and goat bells as the herds became white flecks on the massive Abruzzo mountains. The Abruzzo shepherds were returning to their solitary mountain life of “the air, the freedom, nature all around.”