Stalking the Black-Eyed Villnösser Brillenschaf Sheep
The most terrifying ride of my life was up a slick, steep mountain road in Alto Adige. Alto Adige is the northernmost region of Italy that touches Austria and melds with its language, architecture, and mountainous geography. This little-known region to the usual American tourist is prosperous, picturesque, and culturally stimulating. Before its annexation from Austria-Hungary as part of the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919, Alto Adige had been part of the Austrian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire for centuries. The identity of the region has been tugged between Austria and Italy ever since its annexation, a dual identity that is seen on everything from road signs to cultural heritage sites.
Alto Adige itself is divided into two other regions, Südtirol, or South Tyrol in the north, and Trentino in the south. The closer one gets to Austria, the stronger the Germanic influence is. In the northernmost parts of Alto Adige, the Austrian culture can be seen as the primary one, while the language and culture of Italy is definitely secondary.
The field trip that took a class of 26 and I to the Dolomite Mountains of the region was part of the curriculum of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, a school in Piemonte, Italy. Our journey was to begin with a monster of a man at odds with his traditional wear of embroidered, tan leather lederhosen, and end with the rare Villnösser Brillenschaf sheep breed with black fur “glasses” framing their dark eyes and black-dipped ears.
The man was burly, tall, straight out of a German-Austrian fairy-tale that could involve lumberjacks fighting giants, and he was our driver. We stood huddled in a damp group at the bottom of a hill, ready to be transported to the top of the mountain to see the sheep and learn about them. The charter bus we usually took could not go up the mountain, because it was too big. We were ushered into two large vans. The driver of mine was Herr Lumberjack (he was not a lumberjack, that I know of; but for lack of a name, this is it). I regret that I didn’t take a photograph of him, but he was a bit intimidating even with embroidered lederhosen. I felt – we all felt – we were in sure hands up this mountain road that grew steeper every ten feet, and which a charter bus could not hope to climb.
The road was much like other frightening mountain roads: unpaved, steep, narrow, and sans guardrail. I was not nervous at first, but the road was longer and steeper than we thought. The rain came down heavier and our breaths fogged the windows as we climbed in altitude into cold clouds. The hairpin turns were stomach-churning when Herr Lumberjack stopped, backed up a few inches towards the cliff – and a few more for room to turn – and looked back, grinning widely through the hand-wiped back windows to determine how much further he could go (answer: not another inch).
Looking over the edge from up high in a large van, my stomach dropped. It seemed from the high vantage point that the road’s edge was exactly at the tire’s edge. The trees were cut back at intervals, and the cliff of the mountainside fell away to reveal beautiful, jewel-toned landscapes, wet and saturated with color. I snapped a few hurried photos when I wasn’t gripping the headrest in front of me, because it was safer than closing my eyes and less frightening to look through a lens. All the photos turned out blurry; and talk about a photo not doing the real thing justice.
When the last switchback was so narrow that the inching, maneuvering wheels were too close even for our driver; when there was actually not enough room to turn at all; when Herr Lumberjack’s face was serious in concentration and not grinning manically; and when we were all sweating and silent from nerves was when we stopped to walk the rest of the way to the top. My legs were shaky, and the gravel slippery when I climbed down to solid ground from the steamy van. The air was cold, colder on the top of the mountain, and our breath came out in foggy, hot puffs. We hiked to the top.
We were greeted with a beautiful pastoral scene. In the dipping center of two hilltops was a small, wet wood cabin. Scattered between and up the vibrantly green hills was a small flock of sweet, white sheep, all with black glasses patterns circling their eyes. We walked with restraint, eager to see the peaceful scene with the stormy backdrop while not frightening the animals. Threatening, grey clouds opened to a steady, cold drizzle as the shepherds told us the history of the sheep. We huddled under shared umbrellas.
The Furchetta company, named after the mountain chain, tends to one of only two flocks of this breed of sheep, which is the oldest race in Alto Adige. It is seemingly a mixed breed with its black markings on white fur, and so had a tough time surviving during the Second World War when Hitler was bent on eliminating anything not of “pure” race. The Villnösser Brillenschaf was nearly eliminated, and about 400 survive today thanks to the shepherds and farmers of companies like Furchetta. The particular breed is also a Slow Food Presidia, which both protects and promotes it.
Furchetta’s main product is cooked lamb prosciutto, which we had the pleasure of eating at lunch only an hour later at a restaurant in the foothills; but the farmers also realized that the high-quality wool was often going to waste. The price of wool has dropped significantly in recent decades and producing wool products is expensive. Furchetta strives to capitalize on the fact that, because the Villnösser Brillenschaf breed has extra-oily wool, its heat-retention and water-wicking properties are superior. The high quality and excellent taste of the prosciutto and various lamb salumi have encouraged chefs of Michelin star restaurants of the area to purchase the meat.
I would like to experience a little adventure like this for every food I eat. The harrowing ride into the clouds and the perfect scene at the end, offset to biting cold and wet weather with the promise of a full, hot meal at the end, were stimulating. The memories of the Villnösser Brillenschaf sheep and how we arrived to see them in their mountain environment connect to the meal we ate later, a meal whose memory would have already faded had it not been for all the elements of the experience.