Caveat: Readers, this is a long one, so grab a cup of tea. I promise, there’s a recipe at the end.
It was not just another hike in Italy’s Apennine mountains. Not when you’re leading 525 sheep through trails that have existed since Roman times.
Not when you’re climbing through pastures and ancient stone villages where tourism is as uncommon as Chinese food.
And certainly not you’re when you’re eating a second breakfast at 10 a.m. of foccacia, freshly made sheep’s milk cheese and Montepulciano wine.
In what was truly a unique travel experience, I spent nearly three days with a trio of shepherds, a half dozen sheepdogs and 25 friendly and generous people, hiking through mountains and small villages in the Central Italian region of Abruzzo, transporting sheep to higher pastures.
It’s a trip I’ve been wanting to take for several years ever since I first learned about the transumanza and how important it was to this region. Transumanza means “crossing the land,” and twice a year for centuries, shepherds did just that. Large flocks of sheep were traditionally led in a seasonal migration from the higher hills and mountains of Abruzzo to the warmer, coastal plains of Puglia. The wool trade was the economic lifeblood of Abruzzo, especially during the Renaissance, when fine wool derived from Abruzzo sheep was used for the ornate clothing worn by the Medici and other wealthy families in Italy and throughout the world. The transumanza died out in the 1950s after changes in land use laws, when farmers started housing their sheep indoors for the cold months.
The series of ancient sheep trails, called tratturi, stretch for hundreds of miles through Abruzzo, Molise and Puglia. On the largest trail, or tratturo magno, shepherds would take at least ten days to complete the transumanza and reach the plains of Puglia from the Abruzzo highlands. I got the chance to experience a mini-transumanza his year, when I signed up with my niece Ming.
The three-day transumanza hike is the brainstorm of Nunzio Marcelli, a sheep farmer and cheese maker who lives just outside the Abruzzo National Park.
He’s the owner of La Porta Dei Parchi in Anversa degli Abruzzo, and together with his partner Elettra Rinaldi, they organize the hike and run an agriturismo.
Nunzio, who, has an economics degree from a Rome university, decided that sitting behind a desk was not his calling. What he wanted instead, was to help revive a tradition that was in danger of dying out. “I didn’t want to be the last person to leave this area,” he said, referring to the exodus of young people from small towns and villages in central and southern Italy.
Nunzio knew nothing about raising sheep or making cheese. “I learned everything from zero,” he said, adding that he garnered a lot of knowledge from “i vecchi pastori,” or old shepherds. He’s also traveled as far as Afghanistan to learn more and to impart what he knows about cheese making to shepherds there. His cheeses, which include a juniper smoked ricotta and traditional pecorino cheese, have won awards and are served in the U.S. at places like Philadelphia’s Le Virtù and New York City’s Del Posto, two of my favorite restaurants. They can also be bought at Eataly in New York City and through his distant cousin, Bob Marcelli, who sells some of his cheeses and other Abruzzese products online here.
After rising at 6:00 a.m. and eating breakfast on the first day, we set off from the farm in Anversa with about half of Nunzio’s flock, or about 525 sheep. Nunzio offers the three day trip a couple of times a year – when his flock is moved to higher altitudes early in the summer, and when they’re ready for the return trip to the farm later in the season. Three shepherds, not Italian but from Macedonia, were doing the real work, while the 25 or so of us amateurs took our cues from them, whistling or tapping the sheep on the backside to lure any stragglers back to the path. The sheepdogs were essential too, corralling any stray sheep that wandered from the flock.
To call it a hike in many instances is a bit of a stretch, since we ambled at the leisurely pace of hungry sheep, who paused continually to nibble on wild herbs and grasses or drink water at a rushing stream.
Still, it was not exactly a walk in the park, especially the first day, which was nearly all uphill through a considerable amount of rocky terrain.
We walked through the scenic “Sagittarius gorge” up the mountain until we arrived at Castrovalva, a town memoralized by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.
Here’s also where we stopped for that second breakfast and took a break from the strenuous uphill climb.
I was huffing and puffing all the way up the mountain and was seriously beginning to doubt whether I could continue for two more days, let alone the rest of the first day. Fate intervened and almost made a decision for me. Just as we were starting another ascent, my hiking boots literally fell apart, the sole separating from the rest of the boot. Nunzio attempted to wrap some cord around my boot, but it was too risky to continue climbing with such a makeshift solution. Instead, Elettra, whose shoe size was the same as mine, came to my rescue, driving me back to her apartment in Anversa, where she had a closet-ful of hiking shoes and boots for me to try. The hand-made pair she handed me fit like they were made just for me. There was no way I could fink out now.
And boy am I glad I didn’t. The rest of the trip was a rare opportunity to participate in an experience that demonstrated the beauty of nature, of human generosity, and of my own abilities to appreciate both with a bunch of strangers who soon became friends. And the food was pretty darn good too. There were plenty of cheeses, meats, pastas and desserts too, all along the trail and at each stop we made for lunch or dinner. All washed down with local wine or beer (more on that later).
One morning, Domenico, who was a participant on the trip several years ago, but was now employed to make sure we and the sheep stayed well and accounted for, offered us his traditional concoction to get the day started on the right foot: freshly made ricotta cheese mixed with some grappa and a bit of sugar. I was doubtful at first, but became a quick convert.
Another important member of our group was the horse Dollaro, who gave the children an occasional ride, but who more importantly came along in case someone was injured and needed relief from walking. Fortunately, I never needed to succumb, although I was grateful to lighten my burden and sling my backpack on his saddle more than once. At one point in our ascent, Domenico saw I could use a helping hand, so he instructed me to wrap my palm around Dollaro’s tail and let him pull me up the mountain. I thought it was crazy, but Domenico insisted it wouldn’t hurt the horse, and it sure helped me through some tiring climbs.
The trip was literally an assault on all the senses. The sheep trampled through fields of wildflowers and nibbled on nepitella, an herb that is kind of a cross between mint and oregano and is part of the reason that the cheeses and meat derived from the sheep are so distinctively delicious. It’s what terroir is all about. As ethereal blue butterflies flitted about, the aroma of nepitella wafted through the air, and I was determined to buy some seeds upon my return to the states. I found them online here and you can read much more about nepitella, or calamint, here in my friend Adri’s blog.
Yellow ginestra plants were also in full bloom, with their sweet fragrance hanging in the air as we walked other paths.
Amid the sounds of bleating sheep, tinkling bells and barking dogs, you can also add the sounds of a centuries-old rushing waterfall we paused to admire, a waterfall that still powers a grain mill we saw in action.
Cows mooed as we walked by and the sheep grazed in the distance.
The countryside scenery was spectacular and we stopped one night right near this lake.
We also detoured through a couple of towns too, including Villa Lago, where two members on our trip attracted attention with their horses.
But it was nothing like the attention that the sheep attracted when we reached Scanno, a picturesque medieval town.
The sheep entered the town through a narrow arched stone stairway. The pushing and shoving and fluidity of their movements reminded me of salmon trying to swim upstream through a narrow gateway.
Please look at this short video to give you an idea. I promise it will put a smile on your face.
Once in Scanno, there were more surprises in store, like the wedding taking place in the central piazza:
And the bagpipers playing traditional Abruzzese music:
Like many Italian villages, you’ll invariably find a group of men sitting in the town’s piazza solving the world’s problems:
And you’re likely to get a glimpse of a quietly elegant woman dressed in traditional garb:
If you want to spend a little money on jewelry, Scanno jewelers like Di Rienzo’s can help you pick out just the right piece. They’re noted for their filigree work and other traditional pieces like this L’Amorino, that brings good luck to brides on their wedding day, as well as to their families:
Back on the trail, we still had some territory to travel before reaching our final destination, the piano delle Cinque Miglia. We hiked through woods, with the crackling sounds of leaves and branches beneath our feet, and made our way to a spot where the winter snows still had not melted, even though it was June. Domenico led us to a cache of a half dozen beer bottles chilling in the snow. It was another surprise set up for us, and we were happy for the cold and unexpected refreshment.
We stopped for lunch at an agriturismo, and it was to be my final meal with the group, since Ming and I were leaving a bit early to make sure we got our rental car back to Rome in the daylight. But not before eating a meal that included these zucchini preserved in oil – a wonderfully delicious way to use up some of that bounty growing in your garden. See, I told you there was a recipe at the end.
Grazie mille to Nunzio for his vision, to Elettra for her friendship (and hiking boots), to Domenico for his kindness and to the numerous people who befriended me and offered conversation and a helping hand (and a walking stick – thanks Marjorie) when I needed it.
It was a trip that allowed me the luxury (and necessity) of slowing down and enjoying the voyage, not the destination. It was a chance to learn more about the traditions of a region, to really observe, to really feel in synch with nature and with my fellow travelers. It was a trip made even more special because my dear niece Ming eagerly joined me in the adventure. It was a trip that will stay with me for a lifetime.
If you want to participate in a future hike and are skeptical because you don’t speak Italian, fear not. Even though nearly all the travelers were Italian, many spoke English, as do Nunzio and Elettra. You don’t have to stay in a tent and sleeping bag either, if you don’t want to. The first night is spent at Nunzio’s farm, with options to stay at an agriturismo or apartment the second and third nights. For more information, click here. There’s even an “adopt a sheep” program where you can buy sheep products, like wool, meat and cheeses. Funds go toward preserving the natural environment and raising awareness of the need to preserve time-honored traditions surrounding sheep-raising.
5 pounds (21/4 kilograms) large zucchini, preferably 2 to 3 pounds (900 grams to 1.4 kilograms) each
1/2 cup (70 grams) kosher salt
3 cups (750 milliliters) white wine vinegar
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
5 garlic cloves, sliced crosswise
3 or 4 small fresh hot red peppers, or to taste, sliced crosswise
1/2 cup (125 milliliters) extra virgin olive oil, plus more for topping
Cut the zucchini crosswise into 3-inch (8-centimeter) pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise, then cut out all the seeds and spongy pulp from the center. Slice each section crosswise 3?16 inch (41/2 millimeters) thick. (A mandoline or other manual vegetable slicer is helpful for this.)
Make layers of sliced zucchini and salt in a large bowl, then toss well. Macerate for 12 hours to draw the water out of the zucchini. Drain the zucchini, then squeeze a handful at a time to remove excess water.
Place the zucchini in a heavy nonreactive pot and add the vinegar and 1 cup (250 milliliters) water. The liquid should barely cover the zucchini.
Bring to a boil over high heat. Stir to redistribute the zucchini, then reduce the heat to medium and cook until the zucchini slices are cooked through but still whole, about 5 minutes. Do not allow them to break apart. Smaller zucchini will take less time.
Drain the zucchini and put them in a large colander. Top them with a heavy weight, such as a pot filled with water, to squeeze out the liquid. Let the zucchini drain under the weight for 15 minutes.
Lay several clean kitchen towels on a table covered with cardboard. Arrange the zucchini slices on the towels, spreading the slices apart. Let dry at room temperature until they feel a little leathery and are no longer damp, 24 to 48 hours. They will shrivel considerably.
Place the zucchini in a bowl and toss with the mint, garlic, hot peppers, and the 1/2 cup (125 milliliters) olive oil. Taste for salt and let the mixture marinate at room temperature for a day.
Transfer the zucchini to a 1-pint (1/2-liter) glass jar. Pack them in tightly, pushing them down with a fork or spoon to remove any air gaps. Top with olive oil so they are completely submerged. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 weeks before sampling to give the zucchini time to absorb the seasonings.
Bring them out of the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to serve them to allow the oil to liquefy. Return any leftover zucchini to the refrigerator, topping with oil so the zucchini remain completely submerged. If kept submerged in olive oil and refrigerated, the zucchini will last for up to 6 months.