Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
May 25, 2022
Bookmark and Share

Mangia Bene

    The wandering life of the sailor is sometimes described as a nomadic existence, but it is more akin to that form of Mediterranean pastoral life hardly seen these days, transhumance: the movement of shepherds and their herds from winter grazing plains to summer pastures in the hills and back again.

    Mediterranean transhumance traditionally involved only the shepherds, not the women and children, who seasonally shifted their lives between lower-level grazing lands and mountainous pastures. In the sixteenth century, Mediterranean transhumance was limited to the Iberian and Italian peninsulas and the south of France. In Anatolia, North Africa, and the Middle East, transhumance merged with nomadism.

    The transhumant routes, about twelve yards wide, bore different names, called canadas in Castile, camis ramaders in the eastern Pyrenees, drayes in Languedoc, carraires in Provence, and trazzere in Sicily. In Apulia, then part of the Spanish dominions, King Alfonso V of Aragon, "the Magnanimous," organized these transhumant sheep routes (there called tratturi), the connecting tracks (called tratturelli), and the resting pastures (called riposi) in 1442, making them privileged and compulsory for the shepherds--toll roads, in essence. Peasants, vines, olives, and especially wheat could not encroach on these routes. By 1548 the royal grazing lands in the Apulia represented about half of the 870,000 acres. The flocks moved through land rented to and tended by the peasants for six-year periods. The flocks naturally fertilized these fields and accordingly wheat yields reached record levels in Apulia. As a result of high wheat yields, macaroni production increased as well.

    Summertime saw the animals moving into the mountains to graze. This transhumance usually came into conflict with the mountain people who resented the movements of people and flocks through their lands, interfering with their lives. There rarely was armed conflict though, because these sheepwalks, sometimes up to 320 feet wide, were regalia del Principe, royal lands, and severe penalties could result from any interference including the death penalty after 1575. The shepherds and their families, not surprisingly, ate lots of lamb and there are a great variety of lamb stews on the Italian peninsula that can sometimes be called spezzatini, which simply refers to the stew, or named after the vessel they are cooked in such as calderotto or caldariello.

    Transhumance existed in Spain, where in the north the rabadanes, professional Castilian shepherds, moved their sheep using slings and long crooks, packing only their mules and cooking pots. Shepherds roamed with their flocks through the summer pastures of the vast empty plains of Extramadura, La Mancha, and Andalusia. Spanish sheep were cross-bred with sheep imported from North Africa, and these sheep were more important to the Spanish economy than olives, grapes, copper, or even the treasures of Peru, the economic historian Roberto Lopez has argued. Castilian wool was inexpensive and, with the drop in exports of English wool, the thriving Italian textile industry looked to Spain to fulfill its needs for raw material. In the hill country of Castellón in Valencia, goatherds would boil their stew in a copper pot over an open fire.

    Transhumance was also a major factor in the economy of sixteenth century Provence. In Arles, the flocks of the Camargue, and especially of the Crau, moved along the Durance valley into the high pastures of the Oisans, the Dévoluy, and the Vercurs.

(Photo: sheep in Frayssinet in the Lot region of France)

    Transhumance doesn't much exist today, many people having settled into a semi-sedentary life, such as the former transhumants of the little villages of the Akdag Mountains west of Denizli in western Turkey. One tribe, the Gökçeler Köyu, still tends its sheep, following old shepherding routes high in the mountains and make a living from their exquisite kilim weavings. The food of the Gökçeler Köyu is simple but earthy food, such as the grilled ayabalik, trout from cold mountain streams, or a spinach and rice dish simply called "spinach."