Thanks to the region’s rich pastures and incredible variety of fodder together with a favorable mild dry climate, sheep-farming in Abruzzo has flourished for centuries. There are already references to this ancient tradition back in Roman times, but it was under the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, when King Ferdinand I of Aragon sat on the throne in Naples, that sheep-farming reached its peak. To get an idea of how important this noble art was in those days, suffice it to compare figures then with figures now.
While today the number of sheep in the whole of Italy struggles to reach 4 million, during the golden age of the transhumance, Abruzzo alone could boast five million sheep. Money paid by the shepherds to use the rove roads and pastures was the largest source of revenue for the state. At that time the mountains of Puglia were completely uncultivated and offered ideal conditions for the passage of flocks of sheep.
The decline began in the twentieth century. During the Fascist period, the desire for self-sufficiency prompted the government to introduce incentives for shepherds to shift their sheep by train. This meant that the pastures around the ancient sheep tracks could be converted to agriculture. From that moment on, the number of shepherds and sheep started to decline. The practice of transhumance on foot was replaced by truck transport. A journey that once required weeks and took even longer on the way back when the sheep were pregnant, could now be covered in five hours. Yet not even the conveniences of modernity could prevent people abandoning an occupation that was so demanding and dependent on the rhythms of nature.
The weak market for wool brought further crisis, with the boom in man-made synthetic fibers in the immediate post-war period causing the price of Italian wool to drop. Many people resigned themselves to abandoning their lives as shepherds and looked for other jobs.
The tradition managed to hang on in just a few isolated mountain areas. Castel del Monte, once the center of this activity, Scanno and Capotosto, are the three villages where traditions have survived best. Present numbers can’t compare with those of the past: Castel del Monte once had 3,000 inhabitants and 70,000 sheep, now just 600 people live there with only a tenth the number of sheep.
The legacy of this glorious past is a cheesemaking tradition which is enjoying a revival. Canestrato of Castel del Monte, an aged pecorino with a strong flavor, is one of the many excellent cheeses produced in the Abruzzo mountains. When it was originally made it would be prepared every day in the morning before shepherds set off with their sheep. Since the rhythms of the transhumance did not leave much spare time, the cheese had to be easy to make and keep for some time. After being filtered and boiled, the milk is curdled with lamb’s rennet, inserted into moulds and pressed. The name canestrato derives from the word canestra meaning wicker basket (the baskets are made by artisans on the River Sangro and the cheese is left to mature in them for up to a year). About forty people are involved in the Canestrato production chain, either making the cheese themselves or supplying milk to the local cheese factories.
On August 5 each year for the past half-century a big local festival has been held on the high ground of Campo Imperatore to celebrate sheep farming and its cheese. All the flocks of the region, a total of 20,000 sheep, are gathered in the one place. Joining in the festivities can also be an opportunity to taste unique cheeses and find out more about a traditional activity which has long been part and parcel of local culture.
First printed in La Stampa on August 2 2005
Adapted by Ronnie Richards