Monday, November 11, 2013

Fête des Bergers, Aramits

This blogging thing is time-consuming, and while I'd love to be spending more time on it, after long days spent in classes or in making sausage the only thing I really want to do with the computer is use it to read silly books and play Lexulous and keep up with my paid freelance blogging. Posts like this, with pictures I took back on September 21st and 22nd, get shunted to the side. I helped Florence and Frédéric at the booth they set up at the annual Shepherd's Festival in Aramits; I'd read about it and had hoped to be there for the transhumance, the moving of the sheep from the upper mountain pastures down to the lower valleys, but that was Thursday and I didn't have a car. So when Florence asked if I wanted to join them for the last two days of the festival, I was quick to agree. Saturday afternoon's festivities started with a parade through the village, led by children carrying bells normally worn by the sheep, and followed by costumed children and dancers and a living history of local farming machinery, starting with horse-drawn mowers through spindly putt-putting tractors from the 1930s to the latest in shiny John Deere functionality.

We were fairly busy at random intervals, but not when the sheepdog trials were going on, or when everyone ate lunch, so I had some time to walk around and see what the other vendors were selling. There were a handful of cheesemakers there, and I tasted most of their products, which I later regretted because it messed up my digestion something awful. But I did like the duck rillettes with foie gras, and bought a small can for later celebration (it's still sitting on my shelf, waiting for the proper occasion). The gluten-free bakers were there, and the woman selling the flaky apple-filled tourtière pastries from the Landes region, both of whom I chatted with, having met them at the garbure festival in Oloron-Sainte-Marie a few weeks earlier. I bought the chocolate-chestnut brownies this time.

The sheep cheese I ate was good, but the goat cheese wasn't stellar. Of course, it had been sitting out in the hot sun for a few hours by that point, but the bitter edge wasn't due to overheating of the finished cheese, rather to probable overheating of the curd when the cheese was made. That's my theory, anyway. All of the cheesemakers at this festival were in selling mode, and I didn't find anyone who was interested in talking to me for any length of time. I'd still like to spend some time visiting a sheep-cheese business, but it's just one of many things on my list at this point, and not something I'm focused on fitting into my schedule.

Aramits is part of the Béarn region, but the Basque and Landes regions to the southwest and northwest also share the sheepherding tradition. The dancers and musicians seemed to have a Spanish influence, to me, and I found out that the stilt-walkers came from the marshy Landes region, where a person needs a bit of height to get above the swampy fog and locate the flocks.

On Sunday, the day started with a mass held on the same sports field where the sheepdog trials were held, and it was a glorious morning for an outdoor service, with the rising sun getting hotter and hotter, so that by the end of the mass everyone was holding their bulletins and hats and scarves tilted to the left to shade themselves, and the white robes of the priest were blinding against the green grass.

Half of the songs were in Béarnais, which I couldn't speak, much less pronounce. Towards the end of the mass one particularly familiar hymn had half the audience suddenly singing in parts, rich harmonic chants that made me shiver. At about that time the sheepdogs were brought onto the field and they started rounding up the flock that had been wandering about randomly. The sheep seemed glad to see the dogs, and gathered around one of them in a big rotating circle, like the eye of a woolly hurricane.

Cade mati e cade heste
Qu'abet poumetut de-s da pa
Aquet pa blous aciü l'apreste
Boste ma, boste ma
Yesus, moun Diu, lou darré die
Enta-us bostes rays pots biéne léu
Balhats a touts, après l'Oustie
Boste Céu, boste Céu

Henri d'Aramitz, also called Aramis, was one of the mousquetaires béarnais that inspired the work of Dumas, and there were quite a few people walking about the fair dressed in feathered hats and swords. Athos and Porthos were also born in the Béarn region, but d'Artagnan came from Gers, just to the north. Have I mentioned more than a dozen times yet how absolutely cool it is to be in a place where history is all around, where people I once thought were only literary legends actually lived, where the buildings are made of stone that was quarried hundreds of years ago? Well, it is cool. Though that morning it was rather hot, and I did not envy the modern mousquetaire in his layers of clothing. At least the sheep would be sheared later, and could get rid of their clothes.

Tous pour un, un pour tous!

There were a few sheep in a pen at the entrance as well, so that people could learn more about the Basque-Béarnais breed, and about the patou, the big Great Pyrénées dogs that guard them. The cutting dogs, the ones that were competing in the herding games, are the noir et blanc breed, border collies originally from Scotland. Dozens of those thin whippy dogs were trotting about at the heels of the beret-and-vest-wearing shepherds, but only the two guard dogs were at the fair, the rest of the presumably still up in the mountains with the flocks that hadn't yet come down. The pair in the pen had a litter of puppies with them, stumbling cutely over their own outsized paws in games of chase-the-tail and hanging onto the dangling dugs of their mother for a quick snack, until they all fell asleep in the shade.

The little puppies grow up to be big, big dogs. I was startled to see how easily they blend into the flock; from a distance it's amazingly hard to tell the difference between the sheep and the dogs. Presumably this helps them fool the wolves into thinking that there's no guardian about, or perhaps that the flock is nothing but big, big dogs.

The little dogs are more obvious, running chest-flat against the grass in response to the whistles and shouts of the herders. Border collies are quick and smart. One of the demonstrations had a dog separating a mixed flock of ducks, geese, chickens, and guinea hens into their own species-specific groups, and another show required a dog to drive the ducks over a small wooden bridge. The sheep-herding trials were the usual: bring a flock back that you can see, go find the flock that you can't see and bring that back too, and get them all into a wooden pen in the middle of the field. I didn't watch much of those trials, because the sun was still fierce and I hadn't brought a hat.

After the sheep had been run around the field for most of the afternoon in the trials, the poor things finally got to drop their fleece in the shearing demonstrations. A movable platform with electric shearing scissors was set up, but there was also one man doing it the old-fashioned way, with long sharp clippers. There were several dozen children on the field who were allowed to chase the already discombobulated sheep around for a bit after they were sheared, and before they were driven back into the holding pens. I asked one of the herders what they used the wool for, and he said nothing, really - there aren't enough flocks in the area to produce a commercially viable quantity for washing and spinning and weaving, though there are some people who are trying to bring that back as a local industry. Some of the wool is used for insulation in house- or barn-building, but most of the wool is burned, unless there are individuals who want to keep and use it.

As the sun went down Sunday evening and the last of the exhausted sheep and children were being rounded up, the vendors started breaking down their tables and the shepherds came back with their trophies and their dogs. There was one woman in the herding competition, in a long dress topped with a traditional vest, but I didn't get to see her compete; I think she took 3rd or 4th place. She bought a new walking stick from the vendor next to our booth, a man who carves and polishes twisted branches that he strips of the vines that make them twist and curl. In the booth on the other side, the sheep-bell vendor was trying to pack up his goods, but there were too many children still wanting to pick them up and swing them about, making a rather noisy end to the day. The shorn shivering sheep got herded back through the fairground to the pastures on the other side of the road, the last of the tractors was turned off, and everyone who wasn't already at the buvette, the drinks tent, headed over in that direction, and Florence and Frédéric and I were right behind.

Que cau minjar tà viver, vesti's tau hred; urosament que tà béver, n'i a pas besonh d'aver set
(You must eat to live, and must dress if you're cold; luckily, you don't have to be thirsty in order to drink)
- Béarnais saying

I am used to seeing a lemon wedge floating in a glass of light beer or tucked into the top of a beer bottle, but I wouldn't have thought of the demi-citron, a popular drink here made of half beer and half sweetened fizzy lemonade made with sparkling water and lemon syrup. Or you can have it with peach syrup, or raspberry, or strawberry, or mint. Or you can stick with the local sweet white Jurançon wine, which is what I did. I was absolutely starving at that point, even after all of the saucisson I'd been nibbling on that afternoon, so when one of the vendors brought out the half-wheel of sheep's-milk cheese he'd been using for samples and started cutting thick wedges to share around I threw caution to the winds. It was so, so good. Alas for aftermaths! I haven't even tasted the smallest nibble of cheese since. Sometimes it's so hard to give things up and leave them behind.

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