Romanian sheep folds: an ideal home

Emil is a success story. Having grown up in Gura Râului – one of the 18 comune that constitute Mărginimea Sibiului – and ‘beaten’ to school by his determined mother, he’s made himself a profitable building firm, has a pretty house in a smart quarter of Bucharest, drives a couple of cars, but spends as much time as possible in his south Transylvanian home, back in Gura, as it’s called (Gura means ‘mouth’, Raului means ‘of the river’ hence Rivermouth). Now in his early 60s, he looks comfortable in his portly skin, his voice is as soft as smântana (when not yelling across great tracts of mountain side for the fun of it) and his smile is seraphic.

Marginimea Sibiului lies immediately to the south of Sibiu city, on the northern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains; its lowest villages nuzzle up to the wooden foothills while the highest, Jina, sits like a crow’s nest overlooking the entire Transylvanian plateau. In the 1400s it was inhabited by people of Romanian and Saxon origins, and it’s not entirely clear who came first (of course the Dacians came first but that was in the Iron Age), but the Romanians as pastoralists and third-class citizens retreated (or were pushed) higher and higher up the mountains where they concentrated on sheep breeding and, not totally incidentally, on getting a good education. Talk to village elders and your ear will be bent with long lists of the great and the good who have issued from these lofty climes. The illuminati include academicians and politicians. As a result people from Marginimea Sibiului tend to think of themselves as a cut above the rest. And they claim that the Saxons, who arrived in Transylvania no earlier than 1100 (bringing the latest wool manufacturing technology with them in the form of industrial-sized looms, which they used to turn Romanian wool into clothes and rugs), took their best pastures. In turn the Saxons say that the Romanians benefited from their business acumen, and borrowed their fashions. Regional dress in Marginimea Sibiului comes in a smart but severe black and white, very different from the colourful clothes worn in other areas.

The Mărgineni have a reputation for being good at making money. Under the communists, Mărgineni shepherds were said to have acquired vast fortunes from dealing in milk and cheese; there is a joke that one of them asked Ceauşescu for a helicopter to oversee his sheep, and stories still abound about the palatial buildings and top of the range vehicles that lay hidden behind the forbidding double doors of Mărgineni homesteads far from prying eyes, in a time when for most Romanians a crippling austerity ruled their lives.

Whatever the truth, it’s hard to grudge someone like Emil his good fortune. His love of the place where he grew up, his enduring friendships with schoolmates, his keenness to encourage cultural enterprises in Mărginimea Sibiului, his pride in the achievements of the area’s many illuminati (large numbers of distinguished academics, politicians, lawyers and doctors came from here in the past), his openness, kindness, geniality, courtesy all speak in his favour.

I met him through the astonishing Corneliu Bucur, another larger than life dynamo who turned the open air museum in Sibu into an internationally admired institution that has won prizes all over the world. Mr Bucur put me in touch with an association called the Friends of Marginimea Sibiului, and Emil was one of its founder members.

Our first meeting came in a cold, hard, institutional building in Bucharest, as far from the haunts of sheep and wild thyme as I ever want to get. Sentimentality apart, the Friends were trying to set up all kinds of imaginative schemes to lure tourists to the area. I still don’t know if they’ll achieve anything other than great bonhomie, but it would be churlish to snipe at the welcome I received, not to speak of the free copies of books like Maria Sterp’s verse saga describing every sheepfold in the mountains around Jina.

The trouble with sentimentality is that it doesn’t really get you anywhere. If you want facts and figures, you’d have to look elsewhere: the Friends aren’t interested in scientific, legalistic surveys, I feel.

Emil Rudeanu’s great fondness for his birthplace got me a trip to another sheepfold. It was a blinder. Or to put it another way, it could have been a model for the Ideal Home of sheep folds. The stana lies up above Gura Raului, where its owner comes from, high on the mountains immediately to the south of Sibiu. On a clear day you can see the city glistening 10 miles away as the buzzard flies.  It stands on undulating ground with plenty of tree cover to shelter you from the wind and snow, with a magnificent view. As in many places where sheep graze the Carpathians, the mountain tops resemble English 18th century parkland. Maybe that’s why so many of us Brits have fallen in love with them.

The park analogy is inadequate, belittling much more magnificent spaces. On this grand eminence, breathing air that is so pure it makes you want to sing, you feel as if you could take off from the flat ledge where the stana and its turla, strunga and grajde perch, quite safe from being blown over, but close to eternity.  Edmund Burke, eat your heart out!

We walked a quarter of a mile from where Emil left his car; as well as me, he had brought a friend along who turned out to be the brother of another shepherd whose flock I had encountered on the road four years earlier. At the sight of the sheep I had screeched to a halt, leapt out of my hired car and rushed across the fields to gibber at the hired hands, who must have been used to crazy English women going wild in their country. The incredible antiquity of that pastoral scene had made me want to follow the path I was now on. The sheep farmer’s name was Ion and he lived in the Margineni village of Rasinari – birthplace of politician and writer Octavian Goga and philosopher Emil Cioran and once home to more shepherds than you could shake a bâta (shepherd’s stick) at. I had tried to contact him at home but been put off by his wife who was brushing the ground in front of her gate when I turned up with Amalia, burning with (possibly rather competitive) anthropological zeal. On hearing that I wanted to talk to her life partner, she scowled and muttered something about him being out of sorts. A neighbour walked past and laughed, Drunk again, is he? Disheartened I gave up on Ion, but never forgot my chance encounter with the antediluvian scene of sheep on transhumance, one built upon years of other impromptu, and intensely romantic (if not Romantic, Neo-classical, Rococo as well as Medieval, in any case a non-farming art historian’s embarrassment of riches) sightings of sheep, donkeys, dogs, and shepherds in their cojoace (calf-length sheepskin cloaks, not too long, please note, otherwise the bottoms would get wet in the snow). Not to speak of their clopuri (pot-shaped hats made of felt).

It was the elusive Ion’s brother that joined us on our exhilarating drive up the corniche to Paltinis and on the short walk to the sheep fold. Dumitru (Mitica for short) was one of the most talkative people I’ve ever met. He and Emil had been schoolmates, and they were behaving like schoolboys now: two rather fat, jovial, energetic, enthusiastic kids yelling and screaming in the open air. Both had ‘grown up with sheep’ as they say in Romania: Emil told me that his mother had to come after him with a stick in order to get him to school – he far preferred being out with the flocks. But then as now, shepherding was a dead end unless you’ve got money and/or prospects – being an angajat (hired man) is regarded as the pits, something that ex-convicts fall back on, although, as I found out, that was a simplistic view. However you regard shepherding as a profession, Emil’s time with the sheep sparked a love of nature that has lasted all his life.

Yo, ho, huey, he shouted to the surrounding audience of fir and beech woods, of birch and hazel coppicing. His voice rose and fell like an opera singer’s, just a little bit flatter in pitch, but rousing all the same.

The stana belonged to a much younger man called Gheorghe, who came out to meet us, with a cheerful grin on his face. They were obviously old friends and he seemed genuinely delighted to have company. Gheorghe was born in Gura, which lay a little to the east and right of us, in the foothills. We could see its terracotta roofs on the way back to the car. The village lies close to Orlat, where the Habsburg army had trained local recruits to be border guards.  A Teutonic-style discipline is said to have rubbed off on Gura too; my anthropologist friend, Amalia, told me it was known to have a Germanic orderliness.

These good habits, which many Sibieni see as a positive Saxon legacy, must have filtered up the mountains too.  Gheorghe’s stana was as neat as an old fashioned hat pin. Everything was clean, tidy, well-organised, even the flies were missing. He even had a clump of daisies growing outside the coliba. It was an old wooden building on a stone base, built into the side of a slope, facing east.

It had two rooms, the second immediately behind the first, so you had to walk through the first like a hall to reach it. The first room was a kitchen cum storeroom cum cheese making room. To the left of the front door the rough concrete and rubble floor had been scraped away or left clear for a fire. There was no chimney but some rusty metal sheets helped to protect the flames from the wind when the door was open, and the door had to be open to let out the smoke.

Paleolithic meets Victorian mountain cabin, perhaps. Gheorghe had arranged everything so that everything had its place: there were shelves for bottles and jars, hooks for mugs, benches for piles of neatly folded woollen blankets, a lovely auburn and white plaid (specific to this area, too, not only Jina) among them. Outside, just beside the coliba entrance was a plastic bowl on a stand to wash your hands in (no running water, don’t forget), a water tub for drinking water (not sure how it was collected), and inside low energy bulbs had been wired into both rooms. They were powered by diesel-fired generator and Gheorghe said he didn’t use them very often. The back room was a bedroom with three beds arranged around the walls. There were three windows so it was light and pleasant under its low wooden beams. The beds were covered in an assortment of rugs and blankets, also the floor and the walls, which were trimmed with woven ‘runners’ as in many traditional homes. It looked inviting, picturesque and, though it pains me to say it, a perfect setting for Goldilocks and the Three Bears. (I must be getting tired!)

The chatter between the three friends was so intense that I amused myself by petting the puppy, a six-month old Ciobanesc with a gentle, slightly calculating disposition (what was I good for, he must have wondered), and making careful approaches to its mother, a much larger, gruff looking bitch who looked at me under sceptical brows, but consented to say hello after a while.

A few hundred yards below us stood the strunga and turla, the milking ‘parlour’ and its corral. A shepherd led his flock towards us over a well-grazed lawn: Gheorghe was due to start smuls, but our arrival distracted him and he insisted on making us bulz, mamaliga wrapped around a chunk of branza de burduf and cooked in the cinders of his open fire. He also gave each of us a brimming mug of jintita, very rich and creamy curds and whey, something like Central Asian kermiss but without being fermented.

I wanted to know how many shepherds would go on transhumance from Marginimea Sibiului this year. Gheorghe thought about 20. He himself would head north for Blaj with his 800 head, but only in November, whereas most had told me they would make tracks on or shortly after St. Dumitru’s Day (14 October). I made a mental note to try and keep track of him; he looked like good company and if all else failed…

The bulz was delicious and all the more enjoyable for watching Gheorghe make it. First he prepared mamaliga in a cauldron which he hung over the open hearth with a cleverly placed wooden arm that slotted into the wall.

When the mamaliga had boiled and he had patted it into a round pillow, drained it and put it out onto a plate, Gheorghe brought out a branza de burduf. This is mashed cas (sheep’s cheese and cheag lamb’s rennet – from the first boiling) forced into a sheep’s stomach. A bit like a haggis. The one Gheorghe placed on the table in front of me looked so much like one of the featureless marble heads by Brancusi that I had to say so. Was this an art historical break-through? Could the suant, smooth-surfaced Muses, First Cries and Births of the World have come from seeing a bag of cheese? Surely I couldn’t be the first to have noticed the similarity.

Only Emil had the slightest idea of what I was talking about, so I babbled to him incoherently for a minute or two, until the excitement subsided. Perhaps the Burlington Magazine could live without an article on this subject.

As I feverishly tried to photograph the burduf before it disappeared into the bulz, Gheorghe expertly undid the stitching at the ‘neck’ end of the ‘head’ and cut into the cheese with a cutter made from a piece of fine wire attached to a bent ash twig. It was a wonderfully simple, inventive piece of kit, like a small bow that was permanently pulled back to its point of greatest tension. Gheorghe had varnished it a rich red brown colour to make it easier to clean. I thought of chic London cooking shops where he could sell such an item for a mint. I must have been hallucinating again (hunger) because I also saw it as a model for Brancusi’s Nocturnal Animal.

It wasn’t the only thing of beauty attached to the stana: outside was a low stool made from a log that Gheorghe had cut in half and sawn off the side branches to make the legs. It worked perfectly. Dumitru tried it out to show how strong it was.

I didn’t want to betray any allegiances, but the atmosphere in Gheorghe’s sheepfold was so calm (no bawling and throwing crowbars at dogs, at least not while I was there) and so well-ordered that I felt it would be much nicer to stay here than anywhere I had yet seen. But we had to leave; after Gheorghe had stuffed a wadge of branza de burduf into a fistful of mamaliga three times, wrapped them round into the shape of a rugger ball and cooked them on the fire, we gorged ourselves on one each, and after a suitable pause, said our goodbyes. I got Gheorghe’s mobile phone number and asked him if he’d mind my contacting him again. He said no. We hoped he’d finish the milking before dusk.

Emil and Dumitru whooped and sang their way back to the car, listening for their echoes and making themselves bate from dead branches found along the way, and we rumbled our way down the sandy paths to the asphalt, filled up our water bottles from a spring beside the road and trundled back to Sibiu.

The next day Amalia came to see me. She was curious about the stana visit; she had been invited but couldn’t go because of work. I told her how tidy everything was. Ah, she said, that’s because Gheorghe was from Gura Raului. What difference does that make, I asked. It’s a very German village, said my sage friend, tapping her nose with a finger. It’s close to Orlat, the village where the Hapsburgs trained their border guards. The orderly influence rubbed off; it’s a known fact. I wanted to find out if Gheorghe’s artistic bent had created any other wonders: was he a budding Brancusi?

That evening I wondered how many farmers from Sibiu county received subventions in 2011? What did they amount to? How much can they get per sheep? How much for their mountain land, to keep it ‘clean’? I knew this was an issue between landowners and the graziers – the graziers feeling that they should receive the money because they – or their sheep – do more good to the land by keeping it shorn and fertilising it regularly. But there are so many questions to answer: how much does a farmer like Gheorghe earn? How does he make ends meet? Will he turn his enterprise into a bigger ‘unit’ like some others have done, does he have children who want to take on the sheep themselves, or will his flock die out with him. I realised I didn’t even know how much of the land was his and how much was rented. Most sheep farmers who graze the mountains in this area rent their land from the local council or from private owners. Very few have land in their own names, apart from their ‘gardens’, fraction of a hectare next to their village gospodarii (farmhouses).

He talked about new dairy and meat factories run by ‘Arabs’ (an umbrella term that Romanians use to include Turks and Middle Easterners in general), and told us that a Saudi company had tried to open a firm in Sibiu county but was refused permission – I couldn’t discern why. Gheorghe corroborated what I’d read and heard elsewhere, that Romanian sheep farmers have started selling live lambs to Arab meat factories which ship them home from Constanta (in fact they started doing this right after the 1989 Revolution). Gheorghe sells a part of his lambs to such a firm, this time in Timisoara. I wondered how much of the market goes this way. He said there was a thriving Arab food factory in Sechindeal. I knew that a Chinese businessman had bought sheep in Oltenia to the south of the Carpathian Mountains – the Romanian farming scene, which a lot of British people imagine nostalgically as being small and medieval is incredibly diverse, and it’s changing all the time. I wanted to check it all out.

You can’t live on subventions, Gheorghe told me, bursting the foolish bubble I’ve been walking around in for weeks, ie that the EU, that monster-or-angel (I can’t decide which) somehow has a magic wand that could save Europe’s small farmers – defined variously as subsistence, semi-subsistence and is there another level? – from penury and destruction. How easy it is for a lazy researcher to accept what other people want you to hear. It’s also because I don’t want to believe that the traditional farm will vanish, and want to believe that schemes like Natura 2000 and micro-regions such as Pogany Havas and one in the Fagaras Mountains (?) are a beginning of a way forward for the world as a whole, not a desperate attempt to save something that is doomed.

Gheorghe missed out on the grant this year, and said that the admin was very slow. Did the Sheep Owners’ Association help him? ‘Not really’, he looked rather pissed off about it, curling his lips. But it seems the market for lamb, sold live, is growing. There have to be worries about their welfare, during transit as well as the methods used to killing them, but I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that death by abattoir is better than having your throat cut. And as an avid meat eater I feel I’m on a sticky wicket by criticising the people who provide me with food without knowing more – how it feels to be a lamb facing slaughter.

Empathy with the animals, with the farmers and workers who raise them, not to speak of the environment and the carnivorous animals who are protected species (so shepherds whose flocks are attacked cannot legally kill them) puts me in a quandary which it’s hard if not impossible to sort out. I could of course turn vegetarian but if we all did that would not the landscape change out of all recognition, losing its beautiful balance – in the best Romanian cases – between wild forest, pasture and cultivation? I had come to Romania to search for answers, and all I found were more questions.

There had to be other people looking for solutions other than, a) turning the entire landscape – apart from seas, open cast mines, quarries and cities, oh and golf courses – into factory farms in which the animals never saw the light of day, and turning the rest into featureless prairies, b) letting the world starve. And other than a cataclysm, which, as I thought gloomily to myself as the arguments tipped one way and the other like a boat about to capsize, is already happening but ‘we’ – the rich part of the world – just don’t want to see it.

Meanwhile, the weather has changed dramatically in Romania (in the mountains it’s gone from a heatwave to snow within a few hours), and three of the five shepherds I’ve been in touch with are already on the road, heading west and north.

Lots more pictures to come – owing to prior commitments, I’ve had to leave Romania for the present, which is why I’m able to update the blog. But I’ll be back again, either at Christmas or in the new year, and meanwhile hope to find out how the shepherds are getting on, not by carrier pigeon but mobile phone. They recharge their batteries wherever possible on the road and at their winter destinations some of them have chargers attached to car batteries.

Sibiu, 22 September 2011

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