Alarms echo down the hall of the convent at 6 a.m. UGH. I grunt, stretch and aggressively pull the blanket over my head as a sign of refusal. It’s still pitch black outside, so it takes me a moment to process the wake-up call and build excitement. The day’s itinerary from Anna Tasca Lanza’s Cook The Farm promises to be one of our best: We’re shadowing a shepherd.
We reach to the estate just as the sun begins creeping over the hill. A brisk wind blows and the sky turns into a pastel palette. Our shepherd is late, but this doesn’t surprise me. Everyone in Sicily moves on “island time”. It makes me chuckle — everyday, there are sweet, little reminders of home.
A rickety car with a roaring engine swings around the bend, kicking up monstrous clouds of dirt in its track. It carelessly seems to gain momentum as it approaches us. Then it comes to a sudden halt. Without wasting a second, a hooded man in his 30’s stumbles out of the car, apologizing for his tardiness and briefly introducing himself as Vincenzo.
Before we could even respond with our names, he disappears into a dark, clammy shed and returns with a funnel and bucket in hand. “Andiamo,” he pants, marching off. That’s Italian for “let’s go!” This man means business.
For a short guy, Vincenzo walks way too quickly. When we finally catch up to him, he’s separating the flock of sheep into two groups. In one pen, three mothers protect their newborns, watching our every move with caution. One of the babies is just a day old; proven by the residual placenta staining his coat. He’s only now learning to suckle and demands as much nutrition as possible, so his mother is left untouched. But in the other fenced area, roughly 80 ewes with more mature offspring patiently wait to be milked.
The sheep here are of the indigenous breed Comisana, valued for its high milk yield — about 200 liters per lactation. They are easily recognizable by their medium-built frames and cute reddish-brown faces.
When Vincenzo yells, they robotically filter up a ramp. Once the first sheep reaches the top, Vincenzo pulls on a lever to trap its head in a gate. This contraption makes it possible for one ewe to be milked at a time. The only way out is through this milking station, which stands between them and “freedom” (a paddock on the other side). The small window ever-so-slightly peeks out at the field, purposely designed to prevent “sheep FOMO”.
The ewe is poised on a stand, making her treasures easily accessible. Vincenzo reaches his hands between her legs, pulls her heavy udder out and begins squeezing above her bulbous teat. With each movement, a long squirt of milk splashes melodically into the metal bucket. A few kick their back feet while Vincenzo works, but he doesn’t even flinch. Without looking, he yanks and retracts like clockwork, chatting away.
He finally explains why he ran late this morning and we’re all floored. This gig at Tenuta Regaleali is actually Vincenzo’s second job. Every morning, he rises before five to tend to his own flock of 150 sheep. Then, he comes here to care for these. Once they roam the pasture, covering roughly 20 km in distance, the sheep return to the wooden shed in the afternoon for a second milking session. And as you’d assume, he finally returns home to milk his ewes once more before heading to bed. So, everyday, Vincenzo milks over 230 sheep by hand. TWICE A DAY.
“I learned to milk at 8,
but no one taught me how to whistle.”
It’s the only life he’s ever known. At 8-years old, while his father was busy working the vineyards, his uncle taught him how to milk cows. “But no one taught me how to whistle,” he laughs. “The earlier you learn the better.”
His cramped, crooked fingers move like a machine, telling that tale impeccably. Vincenzo now suffers with tendonitis, often losing sleep at night and relying on medication to carry on. Still, he dedicates his life to his sheep — even the ones that aren’t technically his.
SH! Vincenzo cuts the small talk abruptly and draws our attention to the heart shape that fills his palms. “This is what every perfect udder should look like.” We all marvel in silence. It really is flawlessly symmetrical.
But like our boobs, all udders are different — and Vincenzo knows every single one of his sheeps’. He knows the curvature of their udders and the right pressure points to extract liquid gold. He knows which mothers need to reserve their milk for their young. He knows when one has a fever, or shows signs of infection, and requires time to heal.
(The health of your animals is extremely important when dealing with unpasteurized milk to reduce the risk of pathogens responsible for diseases like listeriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, Q fever, and brucellosis. But as I explained in my previous post on cheesemaking, pasteurization strips away all the flavour. So artisanal farmers pay very close attention to the temperature of their animal’s udders to prevent ruining their product and spreading disease.)
Vincenzo offers us a flimsy plastic cup of raw milk. As you tilt the glass, foam creeps toward your upper lip, kissing it softly and leaving you with a milk mustache. Got (Raw) Milk? Yum. More for later. It’s weirdly warm and comforting; reminiscent of your childhood. You’re transported back to the days when you were small enough to fit in your mother’s arms; coddled, having your share before bed. No kettle or microwave needed. Because it has more fat, protein, and vitamins than that of cows and goats, it’s sweeter than any other milk I’ve had.
Close the deal — I’m officially a raw-milk enthusiast.
Now, Vincenzo rises off his stool and hands the hot chair over to us. I’m nervous as hell. I very lightly yank on the sheep’s teat and nothing comes out: a sign of failure. Vincenzo grabs my hand, showing me the amount of pressure I should be using and where to massage (just above the teat and down). I feel as though I’m hurting the ewe, but that’s just when it begins to work.
Vincenzo sticks his hand in the collection bucket, running his index finger through the foam. He lightly rubs the teat with frothed milk — it acts like hand cream, moisturizing the sheep’s skin.
In a matter of seconds, drips of milk drench my hands. I miss the bucket quite a few times, squirting my friends and soiling my sweater. Vincenzo teases me that if anymore spills, flies will attack me in the pasture. We both laugh, telepathically agreeing that I am not cut out for this life.
The sheep becomes impatient:
1. Because I suck at milking.
2. Because she is unfamiliar with my smell.
Vincenzo shoos me away and explains that the sheep need to be calm to release their milk — and that sense of tranquility comes with a steady schedule and consistent people. He and his sheep have formed a relationship of trust over time. This friendship and his skill is not something you develop overnight.
Each time the bucket is filled to the brim, Vincenzo transfers its contents to a travel container — that way, the milk can easily be transported to a kitchen. Whatever dregs are left back are given to the puppies, Nerone and Jack, who happily make it disappear.
An hour later, we wrap up with five kilos of fresh, unpasteurized milk.
We wash our hands with dish soap, scrubbing away a sticky layer that formed on our palms.
It’s 8 a.m. The day has only just begun for some while Vincenzo has completed so much already. Usually, he’d now take the sheep out to graze but today, he has to make cheese. Because that’s a half-day ordeal, he calls his friend Antonio to cover him in the pasture.
We say hello to him and goodbye to Vincenzo, knowing that we’ll see him soon. (When we finish shepherding, we’ll likely catch him at the end of his cheesemaking.)
There’s a recurring theme here because Sicilian men waste no time. As Vincenzo drives off, Antonio hurries us along. He’s ready to get his flock on the road.
Continue Reading: A Day In The Life of a Sicilian Shepherd: Pt. II, Shepherding