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Shepherd’s Delight

I was standing in a group of men, a dozen or so, watching, in an off-hand way, a pot of mutton stew cooking. It was a massive pot, 11 kilos of meat, slowly stewing over an open fire, high in the hills of Abruzzo, outside a mountain refuge for climbers.

I had arrived late for lunch – most had been here since the early hours - and the stew had been cooking already for 6 hours. This was, I was told, a traditional dish of the mountain shepherd and I could see why. Simple, made from the ingredients at hand: sheep, wild herbs and tomatoes, and that was all. But it needs long slow cooking with the added flavour of an open fire.

All very appropriate as the pastures just above us are subject to ancient grazing rights, along a trail that stretches way down south to Puglia. Much is as it always was; the herds of cows ands sheep are still there, brought up to graze on the pastures of the Campo Imperatore during the summer, the only difference being that animals from farther afield are now brought up in trucks rather than taking the long journey north by foot. The ancient trails and the rights that go with them are disappearing. What a loss.

As the mutton continued to simmer I was taken on a trek in search of a local mushroom much prized in these parts – the prugnolo. To find these small field mushroom you must search areas of darker grasses, crouch low and delicately prize apart the leaves…..

There was much excitement when we found some and I had the pleasure of eating some raw – a unique flavour that lingers in the mouth for a long time.

Others I later discovered had foraged for wild asparagus – tiny thin strands, delicate and full of flavour.

Several hours later we ate a meal fit for kings. Fresh fettuccine with wild mushrooms and asparagus followed by mutton stew.

I paused to think that we have lost this tradition of eating what is simple and close to hand. And of course when did you last eat mutton, or even see it for sale in the supermarket? We lack the patience to cook such meats slowly enough. It was delicious. We have lost something in our race for fast living.

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