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Italian transhumance: a journey to discover a pastoral tradition

Italian transhumance, the droving of livestock from the hills to the valleys, is a millennial tradition that in 2019 was recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But what does this amazing migration that among many other things lead to one of the most popular Italian dishes consist in? And most of all, how has it changed with the advent of technology? 

September, let’s go. It is time to migrate. Now in the lands of Abruzzo my shepherds leave the folds and go towards the sea: they go to the wild Adriatic that is green like the pasture of the mountains.

This is how Gabriele D’Annunzio’s poem I Pastori (The Shepherds) goes, where he accurately describes Italian transhumance. A name with a clear Latin etymology, that contains a millennial tradition, made of shepherds and flocks, of migrations from the hills to the valleys, of uses and connection with the earth.

That of moving livestock towards places more suitable to the winter time is a very ancient tradition, old as time, and that in Italy can be dated back to prehistory. In Alto Adige, specifically in Val Senales, there is the oldest Italian transhumance trail, which apparently dates back to pre-historic times. 

Stages of the transhumance

There are two main stages in the transhumance process: the monticazione and the demonticazione.

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Nuova Irpinia

The first term indicates the initial phase, which happens at spring time, when the livestock and the shepherds move from plain pastures to mountain pastures where they will spend the summer.

Au contraire, the second terms indicated the fall stage when the shepherds and livestock move back to the valleys to spend the winter time there.

The life of a shepherd during the transhumance

In ancient times, the constant travelling affected particularly the lives of shepherds, who followed their livestock and could not rely on the structures that modern farms can provide. During the transhumance period, in fact, the life of a shepherd was strictly related with nature and with animals, with all the positive and negative aspects that that may entail. 

Given the lack of stables, milking or foraging or milk cooling systems, even the dietary aspect was complex to handle. Shepherds took with them dry meats o that could be easily stored, seasoned cheeses, as well as water and flour to take care of themselves.

Transhumance in Italy

Although transhumance is a tradition popular also in France and Greece, Italy is the country where this tradition is most present, being practised from the north to the south in almost every region. 

At the center, the regions more interested in the practice are Abruzzo and Lazio, where the key role is played by the town of Amatrice, which is historically interested in the transhumance of livestock that comes from the areas nearby. And it is right there that, thanks to the practice of transhumance, a signature dish of Italian, specifically Roman, culinary tradition has come to be: pasta all’amatriciana.

amatriciana-italiantraditions

In fact, the story goes that pasta all’amatriciana was invented by shepherds during transhumance. As previously said, shepherds would usually take with them meat that could be stored for a long time, such as guanciale, seasoned cheese, such as pecorino.

By combining these two ingredients, with pasta initially made with flour and water, comes to be what has evolved into what we today call pasta all’amatriciana – with the addition of tomato sauce. 

Italian transhumance today

Being a millennial tradition, Italian transhumance is practised still today and in 2019 it was recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. From a zoological standpoint, even modern studies have confirmed what generations of shepherds have been saying all along, which is that pasturing according to the season is only a good thing for livestock.

Viaggi e Miraggi

However, given the advent of technology, very often road transportation is employed for some areas, using specific trucks to transport animals. Despite this, however, the traditional idea of transhumance remains a timeless image, which makes anyone who thinks of it – at least for a split second – get in touch with nature and with the most ancient traditions.

Featured image: il Gambero Rosso

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