Lands of Transhumance
The sheep move forward, burdened by cowbells, urged by dogs and joined by a few goats, or a donkey. A gentle breeze rises from the pastures and the valleys, while the sun beats down on the river of animals. The shepherds check on them, their face harsh and tanned, and keep moving forward, on foot or on horseback, among the plains and mountains they know all too well. Having descended in October from the Apennines to the plains of Sabina, and then south till Rome, it is now time to climb back up the mountains for the summer season: this is the transhumance, a phenomenon which has always characterised this land, a land of shepherds, of men who know the rhythms of the animals they share it with.
But the women know it too, especially when it comes to parting ways with their husbands. Leonessa’s shepherds, when they got closer to Mount Terminillo, used to say their goodbyes at the place known as ‘lu colle Sparticóre’, the hill of heartbreak. Shepherds cross the Sella di Leonessa mountain pass, then Mount Terminillo with its Votive Temple dedicated to St. Francis, Poggio Bustone known for the skill of its sheepshearers, and they reach Rivodutri, with its fertile marshlands of Lakes Lungo and Ripasottile, remains of the old Lacus Velinus and natural reserve of great natural value. Having crossed the old border between the Kingdom of Naples and the Papal States, they are now in Greccio, with its franciscan sanctuary embedded in the mountain, and at the foot of the wonderful San Pastore Abbey, and thence rest at the Tancia inn, along the Tancia Road: for centuries, the mountain pass of the same name, near Monte San Giovanni, has represented the only natural passage between the Plain of Rieti and the Tiber Valley. The shepherds are hence in Montenero, at the heart of Sabina, headed to Rome.
This land has a long tradition linked to pastoral practices and to the products that the local people have learnt to make from their precious animals. It is impossible not to think about the sheep from Terzone, one of Leonessa’s six quarters, or Albaneto: the local breeds are mostly the Vissana and Sopravissana. Everyone should try the traditional sheep ‘allu callaru’: the deliciousness of this recipe is a proof of the quality of these animals and of the pastures they are raised on. But the most famous product of this land is cheese, like ricotta and pecorino; the latter is a symbol of Central Italy and is employed in several centuries-old dishes. Rieti’s D’Ascenzo cheese factory, that has been making sheep milk cheese only for generations, is well aware of its potential; and so were Roman legionaries in ancient times, in whose marching pack, like in that of shepherds, there was always some pecorino cheese. Today, when it is not consumed with honey or fava beans, it is part of the amatriciana and gricia pasta sauces, which originated from two other mountain towns in Rieti’s province: Amatrice and Grisciano.
However, we should not forget that transhumance does not involve only sheep, but also cattle and even horses. Every year, in June, you can be lucky enough to see Manlio Fani’s 140 beautiful horses cross the region, from Ponzano Romano in Southern Maremma to Terminillo’s green pastures.