Heaps of sheeps

Transhumance n. the seasonal migration of livestock to suitable grazing grounds [C20: from French transhumer to change one’s pastures, from Spanish trashumar, from Latin TRANS- humus ground]

The above definition comes from the Collins English Dictionary.  Transhumance seems to have been around as long as animal husbandry.  It is practiced wherever the seasonal conditions mean that it’s better for livestock to move to a different place.  For example, think of the alpine pastures that are rich and lush in the summer, but are under a thick layer of snow during the winter.  Or think of the coastal plains of the Languedoc, which grow lush during the winter but dry out during the summer months.

The village of Vendres is situated close to the coast, just beside a lagoon, and there is a lot of grazing land around it – the ideal area for a flock of sheep!  Grazing plays an important part in maintaining the ecosystems of the somewhat marshy lands, and in reducing the fire hazard that un-grazed land would present during the hot summer months.

For the past twelve years, the village of Vendres has been celebrating the occasion of the transhumance of the sheep with a fete.  The neighbouring villages of Lespignan and Nissan have also joined in, and so the Fete de la Transhumance has evolved into a three-day event!  I went to Vendres last Saturday, to enjoy a day at the Fete de la Transhumance!

The highlight of the day was the procession of the flocks of sheep through the village, accompanied by riders on horseback.  First though came the marching band!Closely behind them were the horses…

…and then came the shepherds and the sheep!  I’ve seen sheep before, but seeing a huge flock of sheep arrive in a village is something I’d never experienced!

The sheep seemed to be going round in circles, pushed one against the other, with the whole flock moving very slowly towards where I was standing.

The man standing to the left in the above picture was holding a branch, with which he blessed the sheep by sprinkling holy water over them.
Finally, the sheep made off down the road, but there were sheep as far as I could see!!

More shepherds and a couple of sheepdogs brought up the rear, and everyone followed them down the road and into the village.

We took a shortcut to get to the Place du Lavoir where a small market and a communal meal had been set up.  To my surprise, the sheep came right past that square – once more it was wall-to-wall sheep!!

By the old lavoir, the open-air wash house, barbecues had been set up, and people were preparing salads on long trestle tables.  On the bouledrome next to the lavoir, tables and chairs had been prepared for 600 people – they were expecting a crowd!!

Come 12.30, the tables were pretty much filled up and people were queuing to get their lunches.  The atmosphere was great – lots of laughter, families meeting up, strangers making new friends, children running through the rows!  Some people had even brought table cloths for their tables, along with real wine glasses!

On my tray I had the following:  green salad with tomatoes, onions and olives, grilled lamb with boulangere potatoes, a slice of sheep’s cheese, a slice of apple tart, a piece of bread (very important, we are in France after all!!) and, also important, a quarter of wine (in a plastic beaker).  Everybody else’s trays were the same, by the way!!

The food was all very good, and there was plenty of it!  The lamb was locally raised and the cheese was produced with milk from the flocks we had just seen.  The apple tart was divine!

The market stalls next door to the bouledrome had a variety of items on offer: wine, honey, plants, cakes, hams and sausages, cheese, knick-knacks, etc. My favourite pretzel lady was there too!!

It’s definitely a fete I’ll be going to again – the meal alone is worth the trip!  Keep your eyes peeled for details of next year’s Fete de la Transhumance.  You’ll be able to find details on http://www.ladomitienne.com

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Something sheepish

The sun was shining in St Chinian when I set out a few weeks ago for Boisset, a little village in the hills up above Minerve.  There had been rain the previous day and the forecast wasn’t good, but the sun was there all the same :-).  The reason for my visit was this:

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The Fete de la Rouge du Roussillon celebrates a rare breed of sheep, which is still being kept in Boisset.  It’s as good an excuse as any for a fete!  The approach to the village is breathtaking, as the road winds along hillsides and overlooks steep drops, but don’t worry, there’s enough space for cars to pass one another.  The fete was being held on a piece of land just next to the church, and for some reason the church at Boisset is a little distance outside the village.

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From my vantage point the village is not even visible, but it is there, hiding below on the right.

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I arrived just around midday, and the fete was already in full swing.  The first thing I did was to say hello to the Rouge du Roussillon sheep, since they were heading the bill.  And before you ask, the rouge in the name refers to the reddish-brown head and legs of the animals.

I’ve not been able to find out a great deal of information about this breed, as not a lot of history appears to be known.  It is certain that there have been “red” sheep in the Roussillon for around 200 years, and it is thought that the ancestors of the race might have been brought over from North Africa at some point. Up until about 30 years ago it was estimated that there were at least 10,000 “red” sheep between Narbonne and Perpignan and the hills beyond, but the decline of the population was rather rapid.  In 1981 the last shepherd to raise this race sold his flock, and ever since then conservation efforts have been made to preserve the breed, both in France and in Germany, by a number of dedicated individuals.  The Rouge du Roussillon is a multi-purpose race: it produces fine wool, and good meat.

As part of the fete there was a sheep shearing demonstration – and I managed to shoot a little video.  For e-mail subscribers, please go to the site to watch the video.

I am always amazed at just how calm sheep can be whilst they are being shorn.  They struggle a bit when they get on the platform, but once the shearing begins it’s almost as if they are putty in the shearer’s hands.  The lady who was doing the demonstration was being very careful and took her time.  Look out for her shoes, they are made of felt to avoid any injury to the animal.  The black stuff you see dabbed on is an antiseptic – the clippers must have nipped the sheep a little, despite the shearer’s careful attention.PICT7072

Back to more serious matters though – which of course means food! It was midday and I had to get something to eat before it all sold out!!  There were several stands, offering a variety of yummy things!  I had seen that a whole lamb was being spit-roasted at one stand when I arrived at the fete.  When I went to look for food it had pretty much all gone, but they were grilling other bits of meat.  Don’t you just love the contraption for turning the spit??  Unfortunately there was nobody pedaling!

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P1040921Then there was a stand which offered lamb sausage sandwiches (sausage in French bread), but since I’m not eating bread for the moment I gave that a miss.  The savoury cakes and such from a caterer in St Pons  had sold out, but there was the stand selling fish…

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…  well, you could buy the trout fresh out of the tank, take it home to cook and eat it, but for eating sur place they had prepared other things: ecrevisse (crayfish), which are like miniature lobsters, truitelle, which is very small trout, prepared like whitebait (the fish are about as long as your middle finger), and accras a la truite, deep-fried fritters made with trout rather than the usual salt cod.  No prizes for guessing what I had for lunch – of course the accras won! And I’m sorry, you won’t see a picture of what I had, as holding the camera with one greasy hand whilst holding the food in the other proved just too tricky :-)!

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After the food there was more entertainment!  First a visit to the church, which dates back to the 12th century! It is very small, but then a village of around 27 inhabitants would not need a very large church.

The church had certainly seen better days, but there are still two splendid crystal chandeliers, and you can tell from one of the altars that they must have been very proud of their church once.  But what’s with re-painting the statue of St Michael? Who ever thought that bright-red would be a good colour for his lips??  It seems to have faded a little since the last time I saw that statue a few years ago, but still!

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A couple of stands had been set up inside the church.  One was a historian who was selling the books he had researched of all the villages which had once belonged to the Seigneur of Minerve.  I couldn’t resist the book about Saint Jean de Minervois, and will be reading all about that in due course!  At the other stands paper things like cards and drawings were for sale.

Back outside the church there was a display of weapons and armour, which would have been used by knights in olden days.  The helmets were beautifully shiny, and the one which was not (i.e. slightly rusty) reminded me that originally these items were all made before the days of stainless steel, and required hours and hours of polishing to maintain them looking good.  And these replicas were made in the same way and I imagine require the same TLC!

There were guys who were going to give us a demonstration on how these “tools” were put to use…

…and there was music!

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I spent a most enjoyable afternoon at this small fete!  Make sure you go if you are in the area when it takes place next year.  Just one thing before I leave you – this sculpture stands by the church – any ideas what it might represent?

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Goodbye Boisset, til next year!

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