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Walking with sheep

A 180 km trek is nothing to the sheep of the Lot Valley during their annual Transhumance. Nick Harman pulls on his boots and falls in behind

‘They aren’t moutons, they are brebis,’ explains shepherd Frédéric Lestang in the heavily accented, semi-patois French of the Lot valley. As we talk his dogs fall back through our legs and chase along any straggler ‘ewes’ from the 700 strong flock we’re driving down a narrow stone-walled path. The ewes pack together tightly as the walls funnel them in but they maintain their pace, clearly happy to be on the move.

Which is just as well as they’ve just begun a journey of fifteen days, one which will see them leave behind their winter pastures in the Lot valley and ascend 180 kilometres to the dormant volcanic slopes of the Cantal. Here fresh grass and wild flowers watered by the melted snow will feed them summer long while their pasture back in the Lot burns away in the heat. Frederic himself will live in a ski lodge alongside his flock until late August before they all descend in time for the ewes to give birth to their lambs, the ‘product’ that makes the money.

Behind us is a motley crew of walkers of all ages, skipping as they try to avoid the natural waste products dropped by the flock ahead of them. This is the Transhumance 2013, a sustainable and ancient practice newly restored to life that anyone can join in with for a morning, a day or even the whole fifteen day journey.

We’d left our initial starting place, the little village of Espedaillac, to the sound of accordions and long speeches and fuelled by wine, beer and chunks of barbecued lamb. The brebis had surged out of their pen like a woolly tsunami, all baa’ing loudly and clanking the bells they wear. Brilliant late afternoon sunlight soon replaced the earlier clouds and we began to regret wearing so many clothes as the walking became more demanding.

Each stage of the transhumance is calculated to be about right for an averagely healthy person as well as for the brebis and each ends with a welcome party in the village stop. After eating and drinking a coach is provided to take the walkers back to their cars. All walkers can book a stage ahead of time and be helped with a selection of B&B, hotels and gites.

The Transhumance project has only been running a few years but already it’s a great success, an example of how different government, tourist and agricultural groups can work together to create an event that is good for everyone and is great fun too. I spoke with village mayors along the route, as a well as with shepherds and fellow walkers, and the mood was consistently upbeat; one couple had even come all the way from Colorado, USA to take part.

Walkers can take time out from the stages whenever they want to visit the remarkable medieval towns and villages dotted all over the Lot. Places such as St Cirque La Popie, a town perched as if contemplating suicide over a steep drop into the Lot valley below, its streets and small shops populated by self-professed artists. Andre Breton had a house here and the views he had down into the valley are giddying, as no doubt were the surrealist friends who came to visit him.

Also nearby is Figeac, another of the transhumance stops, with more lanes snaking past houses built back in the distant past. But if all this antiquity gets a bit much though there is the Champollion museum, a modern masterpiece created from the shell of the house where the man who cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone was born.

Everywhere in the region you can eat well; this is the land of duck, saffron, cheese and in season, gorgeous truffles and ceps. I started my mornings with the local Rocamadour goats cheese drizzled with honey, a treat only to be enjoyed in the region as it’s best eaten at just six days old and doesn’t travel.

But I certainly travelled and after a few pleasant hours of walking on that first evening, taking in lungful’s of clear air filled with the aroma of emerging leafy growth, wild garlic and herbs, we crested a rise and suddenly we were on the edge of a drop with a view that had me stepping back involuntarily. Far down below us we could see the monastery of a village, shrunk to train set size by the distance.

‘That’s where we spend the night,’ said Frederic as the flock began the almost vertical descent down string-thin paths used for centuries by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The path was soon churned up by the sheep ahead and we found ourselves careering downhill  slightly out of control, boots sliding on boulders as round as marbles, frantically waving our arms and grabbing onto trees, as well as each other, to remain upright.

After fifteen minutes we landed, marching proudly behind what I was now beginning to consider ‘our flock’ and delivering hearty ‘bonsoirs’ to French villagers as they emerged from their houses in the gathering twilight to see us pass by. The younger ones gawked in amazement and the old ‘mamies’ and ‘papies’ smiled broadly, no doubt remembering seeing the transhumance back in their youth.

In the monastery grounds a traditional band had struck up old songs, the barbecue was grilling lamb and chicken and stalls were serving  the local delicacy ‘pastis’, a  saffron pastry not the drink, which was being quickly sold to hungry walkers. I sat myself down gratefully on a bench by a trestle table and greedily filled my plate with lamb chops, their fat crispy and rich and the meat beautifully pink and moist.

A large plastic cup of red wine from Cahors to the south made it a meal that was the equal of anything I’ve eaten anywhere. Sometimes the meal that you’ve earned with your muscles tastes better than anything else in the world.

I rested my weary legs, felt healthier than I had in an age and began looking forward to getting back to my hotel, and then next morning after a good breakfast with that goats cheese figuring strongly, getting back on the trail and walking behind the brilliant brebis once more.

The Transhumance will take place again next year  www.transhumance.info/participez/

Thanks to www.tourisme-lot.com and  www.valleedulot.com for their invaluable help

 This piece appears on Foodepedia

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