A friend of mine recently called and asked if I wanted to go to the transhumance with him in the village of Toujouse, about 15 minutes away from where I live in the Gers. Puzzled, I asked, “What’s the transhumance?” , thinking maybe it was a long distance race and we’d watch the winner cross the finish line – I wasn’t that far off. Transhumance ( from the French, transhumer – to change ones pasture) is actually the seasonal migration of people with their livestock between summer and winter pastures, in this case sheep, hundreds of them.
Transhumance is a practice that dates to neolithic times, when there was a natural symbiosis between man, animals and the seasons. In France, large Roman sheep farms have been discovered from the 1st century AD. Pliny the Elder is known to have remarked that in Narbonne 100,000 sheep converged to graze, clear and fertilize meadows. During the middle ages, transhumance became an economic practice linked to the buying and selling of lamb for consumers as urbanization increased the need for meat and the 19th century saw it linked with the rising demand for wool. Flocks of sheep were no longer used to clear the land.
Today the transhumance serves an agricultural, environmental and cultural purpose. Sheep are used in place of machines to clean pastureland and fertilize vineyards. A cloak of folklore was created by villages who want to shine a spotlight on their heritage and encourage local tourism. The Musée du Paysan Gascon (Gascon peasant heritage museum) in Toujouse offers is a very popular, day long celebration of peasant life in the Gers, couple with the arrival of the sheep from the Haute Pyrenees, which is what my friend and I attended. The festivities began at 9 in the morning and ended at well past 11 in the evening. By the time the sheep arrived there were over 700 people lining the roads into the village. Three hundred sheep and goats were brought through the village streets by the very charismatic Basque shepherd (berger) Stéphane Iriberri, the rock star of the transhumance circuit. Stéphane travels a total 190 kilometers, 16.4 kilometers per day, 16 days of walking from the mountain village of Val d’Azun in the Haute Pyrenees. HIs final destination will be the village of Aillas in the Gironde départment of the Aquitaine. Stéphane lets his sheep, goats, a donkey and his Pyrenean mountain dog feed and rest under the shade of oak trees across the road from the museum. He will be given dinner and a place to stay for the night before he starts off again in the morning. A truck carrying lame sheep parks nearby.
There are 300 people left by the time dinner is served. The day has been full of old-fashioned activities: demonstrations of sheep sheering, wool spinning, wood turning, armagnac distilling, blacksmithing, knife sharpening and weaving that has kept everyone interested for hours. The meal which costs 18 euros is a full menu consisting of an apéritif, soup, chicken with vegetables, salad, cheese, a slice of Gason Pastis dessert tart, coffee and armagnac. After the meal traditional Gascon games are played and the crowd thins out even further. Stéphane watches from amongst his flock. A party welcomed him and a party will see wish him au devoir in the morning. My friend and I have enjoyed a truly unique experience.
To find out the dates for next year’s transhumance or to make reservations for next year’s meal visit [email protected] or call 05-62-09-18-11 or 06-78-79-31-36 after the first of September.