Sheep-herding: an ancient Provençal tradition… with delicious results

Sheep-herding: an ancient Provençal tradition…

Sheep-herding on ‘bergeries’ – or sheep farms- has long been a part of the Provençal way of life. Today there are still many small farmers who make their living herding goats or sheep, making artisanal cheeses and producing delicious farm-raised meat.

Sheep Provence Grazing
Sheep grazing on my back yard in the village of Eygalières

Today, however, fewer and fewer farmers can survive on sheep and goat herding alone. Many of the larger farms also have fields of hay or other crops from which they earn an income. More common today are shepherds who tend or own a flock but don’t own a barn or land. These shepherds transport their flocks from one pasture to the next, paying a small fee to each farmer.

This is a wonderful deal for the farmer, who reaps the benefits of the natural fertilizer provided by the sheep. They, meanwhile, are more than happy munching away for hours.

Goats Grazing Provence Glanum St Remy
Goats grazing above the Roman archaeological site of Glanum in St Remy. A scene unchanged for 2000 years.

In autumn and winter, the sheep live off the green pastures of Provence, and in the summer they make their way to the Alps. Not such a tough life!

The sound of cowbells clanking and sheep softly bleating makes for a lovely and peaceful scene on a cool autumn day. Ideal for a lazy picnic lunch, so long as you can avoid the sheep grazing on your fine French cheese.

… with delicious results

Some of my favorite Provençal dishes start to appear on the menu at local restaurants in the autumn. Lamb shank in a hearty Provençal sauce with thyme, pumpkin soup… And of course all the cheeses at this time of year are very rich and robust, the product of the sheep and goats feasting on fields of fresh grasses.

It’s wonderful to visit a local farm and buy the cheeses direct from the farmer, but the best place to buy in France is from an artisanal cheese shop or a ‘maître Fromager.’ This is a sort of sommelier of cheeses, but more than just being a connaisseur of fine farm-produced cheeses, they actually continue to store and refine the cheese in their shop, a tradition called ‘affinage.’ Get in touch via our contact page if you fancy planning your own pungent experience. Here in Eygalieres we have Chez Emily (see picture below), which also does wine tastings, and in nearby Saint-Rémy, La Cave Aux Fromages is just as good!

Eygalieres Cheese Shop Maitre Fromager
Chez Emily – Maitre Fromager in Eygalieres

My clients always ask me, ‘How is it that everything just tastes so much better in Provence?’ In one sense, the answer is simple: long standing traditions and a rich terroir. The sun, the soil and the pride of local producers.

But it’s more than just that – so much goes into raising an animal on a farm, the precise mixture of fresh and dry grasses, and some grain in the diet. No hormones are given, and antibiotics are only used when an animal is truly ill, in which case its milk is not used.

Goats cheese farm
Goats reading for milking at a cheese farm

From Mistral winds caring the Herbes de Provence into the fields to lavender fields and fruit orchards on all sides… It’s a very special place which animals to thrive in.

Be a traditional Provençal peasant for a day

After a short winter the spring time is greeted with a wonderful Provençal tradition – La Fête de la Transhumance, where thousands of sheep, goats and donkeys are paraded through the town towards the alpine pastures, with shepherds, sheepdogs and minstrels singing and dancing along behind them! After the parade you can sit down with the shepherds, in traditional dress, to enjoy a sumptious Provençal feast. Truly one of the most beautiful traditional festivals in Provence.

Festival St Remy Sheep Shepherds
Fête de la Transhumance 2016, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

The transition from spring into summer (May/June) makes a perfect time for planning a visit. Alternatively, September/October is also superb, with the temperature pleasant and a less busy time of year. Please be in touch for more information on touring Provence in autumn!

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