Those who are faithful readers of this blog know there are few things that give us more pleasure than a day spent with the cows (read about last years outing here). Last weekend we enjoyed just such a day, made even better by being with dear friends.
The Santuario di Oropa sits high in the pre-Alps of Piemonte (region of Biella) at an altitude of some 1,100 meters (3,610 + feet). Its long history dates back in lore to the 4th century AD. In fact the first mention of simple churches in Oropa, dedicated to the Saints Mary and Bartholomew, occurred in the 13th century. (San Bartrame’ is Piemontese dialect for St. Bartholmew.) The present series of buildings were begun in the first years of the 17th century, with work continuing to this day. The most recent basilica was consecrated in 1960. Our friends told us there is a saying in Piemonte to describe something that is never finished – ‘it’s another Oropa.’ There is a good, brief history of the Sanctuary, which is an important pilgrim destination here (in English).
However, it was not as pilgrims that we visited the sacred site – it was as cow fanciers, in particular to get to know the Pezzata Rossa di Oropa, one of sixteen minor cattle breeds recognized by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture. The standard for the breed calls for a ‘red’ coat with white spots. In fact, there have been breeding changes over the years and, in addition to the standard, there are now all white Pezzate and black and white Pezzate.
During the summer months the cows live with their herders on the high fields of the pre-Alps; it is too cold for them to remain there through the winter, and the Festa we attended was held to celebrate their return to civilization. The herds are brought down a very narrow road and driven into a large field where they are tied by chains to a flimsy wire fence.
That’s not a cane in the young woman’s hand, that’s the rather delicate shepherd’s crook that all the herders carry. Every now and then when a cow goes in the wrong direction she receives a little whack on the fanny with the crook along with a shout telling her what to do. Getting the cows to approach the fences in the field sometimes took a bit of effort. The crook was freely employed, as was simple strength.
As in Scotland, dogs are central to controlling the herds, though the dogs at Oropa were very different than the border collies we have seen demonstrating herding techniques (sheep! geese!!). We asked one of the herders what the breed is and the succinct answer was, ‘bastardi.’ They certainly were bright and attentive to their work, though sometimes they looked a little goofy.
Each herd wears its own identifying collar for the occasion. The old collars are made of wood, new ones of leather, and many are ornately decorated.
Cows weren’t the only beasts being brought down from the hills. There was a fine collection of sheep, interspersed with goats, that were put in a field across the road from the cows. I should mention that almost every single animal was wearing a bell – what with the shouting of the herders, the clanging of the bells and the bellowing and bleating of the animals there was a fine cacophony.
You may be wondering why the cows were all tied up in that big field. The reason is that each herd was judged, and a prize awarded to the herd deemed to be in the best condition after a summer spent up on the mountain. I’m ashamed to say I was thinking about lunch and missed the prize presentation, but I did get to the stand in time to catch a glimpse of the winners. It seemed to be a rather low-key part of the event.
There was ample opportunity for the many photographers present to take pictures of cows – and you can’t tell me the cows weren’t posing.
Did someone mention lunch?? It wouldn’t be an Italian festa without a good meal. The featured specialty was polenta cuncia, one of the world’s great comfort foods (you can find a recipe for it here). Basically it is a fairly finely ground corn meal cooked with either water or stock with the local cheese, toma, stirred in at the end. It is rich, hearty and extremely satisfying. The Oropa iteration was dressed with a couple of tablespoons of melted butter, a fine improvement. It took three ladies to serve the polenta – one to glop it in a bowl, one to add the butter, and one to stick in a spoon and hand it to the hungry pilgrim, along with a napkin.
For me one of the best parts of an event like this is looking at the people. The cowherds were extremely kind in letting me take their pictures. These are men whose families have probably lived in Piemonte for centuries.
There was a lot more going on during the festa – a large array of vendors had local (and some not so local) crafts for sale; there was an excellent exhibit of tractors, old and new; there was a photo exhibit in a tram car that for decades carried sick people from Biella to Oropa for blessings and cures; in the church there was a display of preseppe (creche scenes) from all around the world (my favorite: the one from a nearby village made from marzipan); there was music. If you would like to see some pictures of these things, in addition to more pictures of the animals, please click here (for a slide show click the icon in the upper right that looks like a couple of small rectangles).
The weather was glorious, one of the few sunny days Oropa enjoys each year; it was warm, the crowd was happy, and the animals seemed to be too. It was just so much fun – and exhausting – for everyone.