Our little trip to Romania started off in the Hotel Concrete! Actually it was a very smart hotel made of… yes concrete – well recommended. Then our minibus we had hired arrived with two young Romanian ladies- Timmy and Ginger- who were going to take us to Prince Charles’ holiday pad in the Carpathian mountains. Oh dear, after a two-hour drive we were lost and the only way to the other side of the mountain, to get to Prince Charles’ small farm, was to negotiate the mountains following forestry tracks in a minibus!!!!!!!! The best part of this saga for me was my new role in becoming the rally driver of the minibus- yippee what a drive! Must have driven 10-15km over the mountain while not really knowing where we were going, it was a huge space and no one to ask for directions.
Eventually we did find a lone mower who did agree that, somewhere along the dirt track and to the left was Princes Charles’ place.. not much help really. Then we met a huge timber lorry- how the hell do they get these forty tonners up here? If they can do it surely we were safe in the minibus? Actually, as it turned out, another 500 metres and we came across a stoned track which did lead to Charles’ farm. What a place he has- a lovely traditional Romanian farm with one building painted in a gorgeous blue and white wash. However, we were late for the cart ride…
The cart ride had been booked to show us the mountain area but, having already driven through it, we asked to go and see the shepherds who live in the mountains throughout the summer instead.
Luckily for us our cart driver (who incidentally had a good supply of palinka which he was quite liberal with) knew quite a few of the shepherds and he took us to a place where they had a fold (an area to keep the sheep safe at night). They had all the necessities they required- food on the hoof, firewood and a home! Home was, well Nigel first thought it was a dog kennel, but there was a very good reason why they had five individual shacks- the fierce sheepdogs stayed outside and the five men slept in these shacks spaced evenly around the sheepfold. Why? Because of bears! There are loads of them in this area of Romania and they like mutton (and also adore pork).
While we were there two of the shepherds slaughtered a sheep, not for themselves but for food for the dogs as, believe it or not, there wasn’t a supermarket just down the road- this was real self-sufficient life. As I looked about one couldn’t help noticing how resourceful these men were- every modern throwaway item had a use, even old tractor tyres which were converted into feeding troughs. How wasteful and unresourceful we are in western european countries.
So, why do these men spend a whole summer tending their sheep flocks? To make sheep’s milk cheese. Apparently the sheep are milked three times a day (hundreds of them), and that’s why you need so many shepherds per flock.
The milk is then processed by curdling it and then draining the whey out. After most of the whey has come out the rest is pressed out in their novel stone press. Before we left we were given some to try along with some palinka (a double distilled spirit and a favourite tipple for Romanians). The cheese (which was really fresh) was excellent and I wondered why we don’t do this at home but I don’t think many men would tolerate the lifestyle.
This shepherds’ fold wasn’t just for sheep, there were pigs and chickens too, all of which were being kept as fresh supplies for as and when the shepherds needed it. The pigs ate all the leftovers including the whey and the chickens had the leftover leftovers of crumbs and dust but, what with so many insects about to eat, they didn’t need much.
As we travelled back we’d come across cattle roaming the hills, almost all of them had bells around their necks (as did the sheep) to aid the drover or shepherd to find them should they wander too far from sight. The cattle were mostly milking cows and yearlings and the drovers collect them from the village in the morning (1-5 cows per house usually) and drive them up the mountain using bullwhips to crack the air. In the evening they are brought back down to the village. Amazingly the cows walk along the street and, when they come to the house they belong to, they walk right through the gate and into the cowshed without any assistance- the owners just standing by the gate ready to close it when all their cows have put themselves to bed.