Cheese Special: Reviving an Ancient Tradition

18 Sep 2009

Cheese, Slow Food’s international exhibition of quality cheese, began today in Bra, Italy. For the next four days visitors to this city in northern Italy will have the opportunity to taste cheeses from around the world but also learn about the issues surrounding the dairy industry and artisan cheesemaking traditions from across Europe and beyond.

The program of Milk Workshops, a series of discussions exploring topical subjects, started today with Modern Herders – Seasonal Livestock Migration: A Disappearing Tradition. Herders from Italy, Bulgaria, France and Romania joined a panel of experts to discuss the modern-day problems of continuing the ancient practice of seasonally moving livestock from pasture to pasture (transhumance).

The discussion revealed the great similarity between transhumance in different countries and regions, despite variations in timing and the distance traveled. Herders move livestock such as cows or sheep from pasture to pasture for different periods of the year, normally from the lowlands in the winter to the mountains in the summer. Often the animals are native breeds selected over hundreds of years to be perfectly adapted to long journeys and the local environment.

While these traditions are often recognized for their cultural, social and historical value, the speakers also emphasized the environmental importance of transhumance. Zootechnician Michael Fino described it as a very sustainable practice, as without grazing the mountain meadows would be taken over by infesting species in just a few years, and thus lose their rich biodiversity. Meanwhile down in the valleys the grass is harvested five or six times for hay during the summer, providing feed for the animals during the winter.

“Transhumance is not just folklore,” said Fino, who explained that around 500 families in the northern Italian regions of Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta still practice the tradition and that it has a significant impact on the local farming economy. In these mountainous regions, the malgari (herders) bring their whole families with them up into the Alps for the summer.

Denis Fourcade of the Béarn Mountain Pasture Cheeses Presidium described how cheese made during the summer, while the sheep are grazing on the mountain pastures, is very special. He also indicated that due to its unique characteristics it was attracting interest from more and more young people who were discovering that producing and selling this cheese could be a profitable way of life.

In general the speakers were positive about the numbers of young people who were returning to the practice of transhumance. Despite serious difficulties such as land rights, hard-to-obtain authorizations and permits for passage, lack of distinction by the authorities between herders and farmers and unfair competition from intensive agriculture and European Union food safety regulations, the overall conclusion was that modern technology and tradition were coming together to help keep this important practice alive.

The Modern Herders workshop was moderated by Cinzia Scaffidi, Director of the Slow Food Study Center, with participation from zootechnician Michele Fino and Paolo Viano of the University of Valle d’Aosta, and herders: Carmelina Colantuono from Molise, Italy, Atila Sedefchev from Bulgaria (Karakachan Sheep Presidium), Denis Fourcade from the Pyrénées-Atlantiques in France (Béarn Mountain Pasture Cheeses Presidium) and Marian Popoiu from Braşov in central Romania (Brânză de Burduf Presidium).

Click here to view the full program of Milk Workshops and other activities taking place at Cheese until Monday September

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