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The Milk House: Sheepish in Sardinia

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 July 2018

Southern Italy can be a tough place to live. My girlfriend is a hardened product of its streets. She rode the public bus two hours to school each day while ignoring the perverse catcalls of nefarious men (and once a slap in the face from an old woman).

Often, when walking home, she would be followed by strangers who threatened her as a means to entertain themselves. Her brother had a knife held to his throat when he was 12. When you park a car in her hometown, a thug comes up to you and, if you don’t pay him a euro, he will smash your windows.

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When I called her at her parents’ house last New Year’s Eve, I could hear loud banging sounds in the background. Instead of fireworks, the youths were throwing small explosives under the cars that drove by.

Only the strong make it in southern Italy.

This last week, my girlfriend and I attended a wedding in Sardinia, a small island toward the bottom of the Italian “boot.” The day after the ceremony, we rented a car and headed to the mountains on the east coast. As we climbed the narrow passes, the landscape became both picturesque and rugged.

The ground was rocky, dry and grew only shrubs. If the citizens of Italian cities had to be resilient to survive, so did the animals in its countryside.

Occasionally, a small, thin cow with long horns would amble in front of the car or watch us from the shoulder with dull eyes as we passed. There seemed to be little water and limited grass, and temperatures often reached 100ºF in the summer.

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I later learned it was the Sarda (Sardinian) cow, a rare beef breed which was the only cattle that could handle the difficult mountain conditions. Much more common were flocks of scraggy-coated sheep, usually surrounding a weather-beaten shepherd who also watched us as we drove by.

In the middle of the barren landscape, we came across a sheep farm that sold homemade cheese. My girlfriend wanted fresh ricotta. I wanted to see the farm.

“The people around here are going to be cold and distant,” she said. “They won’t offer to show you around.”

“Tell them I’m a columnist and want to write about them.”

“They won’t be impressed.”

We rang the door of the shop and waited until it was opened by a blank-faced girl in her 20s. She didn’t say hello but, instead, went behind the counter and waited for our order. I made my girlfriend translate as she looked over their selection. I asked the girl how many sheep they had? (100). How did they milk them? (By hand).

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How many times a day? (Twice unless it was hot, then once). What breed did they use? (The Sarda sheep – the only one on the island). Did they use only their own milk? (They took the milk from local sheep and goat shepherds with small herds).

I cleared my throat and nudged my girlfriend.

“By the way,” she said in Italian. “My boyfriend is an American columnist.”

The girl behind the counter looked at me with the same dull eyes as the cows we passed. Then she gave us the bill.

Milking sheep and goats by hand is a tough way to add fresh dairy products to the diet but, in tough places to live, it is often the only way to do it. Mankind starting milking sheep before cows and, although there are only about 100 dairy sheep farms in the U.S., they have a strong presence in Mediterranean areas such as southern Italy, where the climate is too hot for dairy cattle.

Having a higher solids percentage, sheep milk includes more fat, protein, vitamins and minerals than cow milk and, with smaller fat globules, is easier to digest. With such high levels of fat and protein, the milk is well suited for cheese and, in fact, many of the most popular Italian cheeses are from sheep.

In the airport on the way home, I suggested we grab some McDonald’s, but my girlfriend reminded me we were still in Italy and therefore should eat from an Italian vendor. I conceded to her logic and offered to get a couple slices of pizza. Only when I came back to the table with the tray did I realize what had happened.

“Look,” she said. “They gave you the worst piece of pizza. And see, they didn’t even bother to heat it. They knew they could get away with it because you’re not Italian.”

“That’s awful,” I said. “That’s racism.”

I had expected her to be ashamed of her countrymen but, instead, I found her pointing her finger at me. “You deserve it for not being strong enough,” she said. “You’d never survive here.”

Honestly, I don’t know how the sheep do it.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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