Lambs to the Slaughter
March 22, 2012
Throughout northern Slovakia, and for all I know all over Europe, Italian salesmen are visiting sheep herders right now and assessing their flocks. The salesmen are picking out those lambs that are neither too big nor too small, pinching at their sides to feel for a good layer of fat, looking them over for health issues. The lambs will be marked, and the salesman and shepherd will schedule a day for a livestock truck to come take the select lambs of the flock.
The livestock truck comes to pick up lambs each year about a week before Easter. From northern Slovakia it’s 600 miles, 1000 kilometers, and 10 hours to Venice, 900 miles, 1,500 kilometers, and 14 hours to Rome, and 1,200 miles, 2,000 kilometers, and 22 hours to Sicily (not including the crossing of the Strait of Messina). Coming a week before Easter to load up the Slovak lambs will give them enough time to get the lambs to market in Italy where they will be served as part of the paschal meal.
Each year the shepherd, or bača, will have to make a determination about what to sell. Will the shepherd grow the herd this year? Does he need extra cash right now to rebuild his koliba, to buy equipment, or to deal with personal matters? Will keeping too many of the young rams cause too much inbreeding? Are the males and females in proper ratio? Does he have the capacity to deal with a larger herd? How strong is the local market for the sheep cheese and milk? Is the market price of lamb per kilogram worth it to him? He could, after all, rent out strong, healthy rams to other shepherds to add new genes to their flocks. The exchange that takes place between the bača and the Italian salesman seems to take place mostly in a buyer’s market however, which minimizes the shepherd’s options.
The coming of the Italians in the next few weeks heralds the coming of Easter and the coming of the sheep season that is to follow, putting wintertime behind us.
How The Sheep Spent Their Winter
The sheep in the herd, from the time of the first snow stopped grazing in the pasture and were moved indoors. Much earlier than that, in the early autumn, the shepherd stopped milking the sheep to allow them to gather extra strength for the winter and for giving birth. Some sheep were moved into barns and stables in the hills and others were returned to their owners for the winter.
In many instances part of the flock is owned by the shepherd, part of the flock is owned by people from the neighboring communities and is simply cared for and milked by the shepherd in exchange for an occasional payment of cheese to the owner of the sheep. With the dividing of the herd and moving them into the stables in the hills, the bulk of the shepherd’s work for the year comes to an end.
From that point on he need only protect his sheep and keep giving them hay, which could be done by keeping a boy stationed with them through the winter and keeping some dogs on guard while the shepherd spends his winter in a village in the valley below. Snow blankets the quiet Carpathian hills of Orava, Liptov, Kysuce, Šariš, and other regions, and if the year had been a good one, the shepherd gets some leisure time in the winter without the daily rigor of tending to several hundred animals. It allows time for other work as well as time to prepare for the season ahead.
The bača will not need to deal with the inconveniences of outhouses or washing himself and his clothes in a river or the loneliness of his nomadic lifestyle. He’ll have the comforts of village life – running water, gas, lots of people around.
With the advent of Easter the period of rest comes to an end and from Easter to September or October the sezóna begins – the season. The sheep season.
The Sheep Season
Seven days a week the shepherd will milk his sheep, lead his flock out to pasture each day and will bring them in for milking in the night. After each milking, he will make cheese both fresh and fermented; he’ll make cheese smoked and salted; he’ll even make a fermented drink from the sheep’s milk. He’ll raise pigs off the waste whey; he’ll raise dogs to care for the sheep; he’ll hire people from the local community – young and old – to come work under him as his work is labor intensive.
For a large part of the day he is working – he is awake early in the morning before the sun and often past nightfall. All day people will stop by looking for fermented beverages, looking for sheep cheese, inquiring about special orders. He might also spend part of his day, out in the community talking to people, like any businessman – producing, marketing, selling, bookkeeping, laboring seven days a week is the life of that romantic bača, perhaps the most idealized figure of all Slovak culture.
Caring for sheep is like caring for a company and the bača is like its CEO. It’s a small company with many barter opportunities, some cashflow, lots of responsibility, a slow pace of business, a few drinks here and there throughout the day, and lots of free publicity as people stop by to dip a cup into the soured sheep’s milk to sample as they watch the various processes that go into making cheese.
The daily work and stresses of the bača are a few weeks away. And there’s one bača I know who comes to mind who would not prefer a thing in the world to those stresses. He’ll yodel the day away caring for his sheep, out in the fresh air, far away from any house, any neighbor, but ready to welcome any visitor who comes his way. It comes so naturally to him and I smile because I know my friend will be in his element a few weeks from now after a winter feeling cooped up in the claustrophobia of a comfortable village.
Easter is upon us,
the sezona is too.
I’ll spend my day smiling
for that good Bača,
Eager to work the work
he was put on this earth to do.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.