This post is a continuation of my experience shadowing a shepherd. After spending the morning with Vincenzo milking 80 sheep, we set off on foot with his friend Antonio, guiding the flock to pasture.
It’s week four of the Anna Tasca Lanza’s Cook The Farm program and we’re focusing on shepherding and the value of food education.
Vincenzo was originally meant to take us out with the sheep but he is also tasked with making cheese today. Since that’s an all-morning ordeal, he asked his friend Antonio to show us the ins and outs of shepherding instead.
La squadra, the name I coined to refer to the squad that’s responsible for protecting the flock today, consists of Antonio and two black-and-white striped sheepdogs named Goia and Nerone, a mother-and-son tag team.
We prepare to spend three hours out in the fields, but rain or shine, the shepherd stays out out in the lush pastures for six, trying to keep his sheep close together. Without a shepherd, the animals would never find their way. Sheep are notoriously known for being dumb, defenseless and directionless. If left to roam freely, sheep face danger from their prey, tumble into ditches and fall off of ledges.
But keeping the flock safe is not a one-man task. Sheepdogs are a must, too. From what I’ve observed, anyone who cares for livestock has more than one dog here in Sicily. And not just any breed; they’re all border collies. Goia and her son Nerone are considered some of the smartest dogs in the world. This is not a typical family pet, though. These dogs are workaholics — without a job or purpose, they can become bored and destructive.
Sheepdogs must follow the rules: they cannot bark nor bite. They keep their heads low to the ground and creep toward the sheep, using intimidation to guide them. Moving 80 sheep in the same direction is a laborious task; Goia performs sharp turns and sprints like Usain Bolt to stop the sheep from breaking their circle.
The infamous bells also assist with helping lost sheep locate the herd. But only few animals have one draped around their neck because it costs £10 a pop. For a shepherd, that’s pricey. Vincenzo joked this morning, “When Antonio and I go out together, we put on our bells, so we don’t lose each other too.”
The sheep spend most of their day munching on green grass and wild herbs — just not thistles — that add sweetness and distinctive flavour to their milk and cheese. They have two feeding schedules since they prefer to eat in the cooler hours early in the morning and late in the afternoon, closer to sunset but never at night. We keep a close on eye them because sheep will eat anything they see — even poisonous weeds.
Frequenting small pastures can lead to ‘overgrazing’, destroying the roots and the growth of these valuable plants. Rainfall also affects how much a pasture has to offer. At times when fresh grass is unavailable, during the drier months and after snowfall, sheep are kept in the fold and fed a combination of hay, wheat berries and legumes.
One sheep’s body is composed of approximately 70% water, which means constant access to clean H20 is necessary. If the flock is nomadic, the shepherd must lead them to wealthy streams. Sheep can also receive water from eating grass that’s soaked with dew in the early morning.
Watching the sheep graze starts to feel repetitive. The one thing that never bores me, though, is experiencing the distress of an ewe whenever she’s separated from her baby (and vice versa). Loud “baas” echo in the valley, alongside meditative chimes, when a mother retreats to the back of the pack to search for her lamb. She inspects each small one with her nose until a familiar scent brings her happiness and security again.
A few of us are still recovering from food poisoning, so we request a little “time out” to lay under the shade of an olive tree and rest our legs. Totally unbothered by our decision, Antonio keeps moving with the sheep. He’s cute. He doesn’t say much, but when he does, a shy smile follows.
Nerone has had enough for the day, too. He’s still in training, learning the commands and tricks from his mother, but I know his lesson is over when his head settles comfortably on my REI daypack.
We’re pooped by the end of our three-hour shift. And I figure the sheep have had enough of the sun too when they finally come to a standstill. Some take refugee by cuddling up under shaded spots, while others just stare into the distance.
Along the trail back to Tenuta Regaleali, bright pink flowers shine against the blue, blue Sicilian sky — one of Van Gogh’s favourite subjects to paint. I thought these trees were something like Japanese cherry blossoms. Wrong. They’re almond trees blooming in the early spring. The pretty flowers grow between nuts remaining from last year’s harvest. We crack into one and taste; but this is a gamble and we lost. The bitter almond is native to Sicily and it’s anything but pleasant. It’s actually potent; reminds me of poison, which is why it makes sense that it’s used for food flavorings and in oils.
It’s noon and only half of a shepherd’s average workday is complete. Later, when we depart for the convent to pour a glass of wine and relax, the shepherd must return to the pasture with his sheep around 2 p.m. and milk again at 5 p.m. And he does this 7 days a week without any rest in between. Mondays and Thursdays are assigned cheese-making days, and as you see here, they’re harder to juggle.
My classmate Anna Fung summed up the day’s teachings perfectly in her latest Instagram post: “The work is peaceful, yet strenuous and the solitude welcoming, but lonely. His sheep require most of his time, effort and attention, and it’s some of the most thankless undervalued work I have witnessed here.” I can’t put it into words better than that.
When we finally meet up with Vincenzo, he is nearing the end of his cheese-making process. Behind a bright blue door in a Mediterranean shack smothered with vines, he uses the raw, unpasteurized milk that we collected this morning to prepare cheese for the Tasca family, owners of this third-generation vineyard, and their restaurant Le Cattive based in Palermo.
The sun is blazing out; as you walk into the shed, you’re overcome with a cold, eerie sense of darkness. There’s a small hall with a designated space to hang your coat and tuck away your boots. Off to the right, there are two rooms with great contrast.
The closest has no windows, offering more room for the deep grooves that are carved into the walls. Massive wheels, kissed by pastel palettes, plain and a few speckled with pistachios, occupy these cavities — and probably have for quite some time. Two other rounds bob in an oversized bucket filled with salted water in preparation for shelving.
The second room is lucky enough to have some light subtly spill in. There’s a basin with baskets of fresh curds still releasing their juices. Below, baby blue tiles collect pools of murky water. In the far right corner, next to a set of hanging tools with abnormally long handles, Vincenzo pensively slaves over a steaming pot of whey. He follows the same process as Fillipo from Caseificio Privitera, preparing pecorino and repurposing the whey to form milk curdles for ricotta.
He started with 5 kilos of milk and now ends with 10 kilos of pecorino and 5 kilos of ricotta. Those are magnificent 1:2 and 1:1 ratios with no waste involved.
As Vincenzo scrapes the last scoop of curds out of the pot, he offers us a taste with a huge smile plastered across his face. We’re all delighted — it’s salty and soft, yet full-bodied. Vincenzo explains that these curds are more cooked than the previous ones since it’s the last to be removed from the heat. He presents us with a sample of the very first curds so we can compare. And my god — as it touches your tongue, the cheese melts instantly. It’s like eating a cloud. I feel all comfy and cuddly.
He carries the very heavy bucket of ricotta over to the one token window, next to an empty Coke bottle and a generic supermarket calendar displaying the month of March.
We gather our belongings and find a space to set up a late-lunch picnic. Anna Feldman, god bless her soul, prepared prosciutto and formaggio panini for us, lacing some with a Polizzi Generosa pepper jam and others with her homemade tomato jelly.
We invite Vincenzo to sit and break bread with us but he refuses with a heavy heart. He has to find his sheep and continue grazing. His day is not over yet and as we learned, no good shepherd can afford to pause.