A moo-ving experience: la fête de la transhumance

Aubrac Square

An adapted version of this post was published in Tiens! Magazine, a webzine about southwest France, in March 2011 along with some of my photos and sound clips.

The small town of Aubrac in the eastern Aveyron is subject to an invasion every year during the penultimate weekend in May. Hundreds of cows and thousands of people descend (or, perhaps more accurately, ascend) on this granite-built bourg set in the sweeping landscape of the Aubrac plateau.

Ancient tradition

This is the fête de la transhumance, an ancient tradition that almost died out but was resurrected 30 or so years ago.

The Aubrac is more than 1,000 metres above sea level (highest point 1,469 m) and is noted for its freezing weather and heavy snow in winter. In summer, it’s a different planet and the lush grass is ideal pasture for the local Aubrac race of cows. At the crossroads of three départements (the Aveyron, the Cantal and the Lozère), this is about as rural as it gets in France.

Between 13th October (La Saint-Guiral) and 25th May (La Saint-Urbain), the cows over-winter in stables further down the Lot valley. By the end of May, they are longing for their freedom and for the verdant pastures, studded with wild flowers and crossed by clear streams. Then the herds are decked with headdresses of holly and wild flowers and hung with cowbells and are driven up towards their summer pastures.

Formerly, the cows were kept during the summer in burons, or stone byres, which can still be seen today, although most of them are now ruined. Teams of buronniers, or cheese-makers, lived in the high pastures throughout the summer. They milked the cows twice a day and made Laguiole cheese (not unlike a strong cheddar), which gained appellation contrôlée status in 1961. The days of the buronniers are long gone, but the cows still roam the high plateau.

Modern fête

We went to the fête at Aubrac in May 2007 with our Troisième Age club. Setting out at an unearthly hour on a Sunday morning, our coach climbed for 2 hours towards our destination. As we approached Aubrac, the thermometer showed the temperature dropping sharply. By the time we got there, it was 1°C and the wind chill factor made it seem even colder – this was the end of May.

You could barely move for the crowds, who piled into the square at Aubrac, everyone jostling for position to get the best shots of the herds as they came through. And when they came, it was everyone for him- or herself. They weren’t taking prisoners and there were no health and safety regulations here, either, stipulating barriers between the public and the herds. I was almost eviscerated by a stray horn as one herd careered around a corner, excited by the noise and by the prospect of a tasty meal of fresh grass.

You can hear what it sounded like – but be warned, someone uses a French gros mot (swear word) in this sound clip.

The Aubrac race is particularly pretty, with pale beige coats and Walt Disney eyes fringed with improbably long lashes. The fête included a competition for the best quality animals and a ‘guess the weight of the bull’ contest. He was a pretty imposing beast, but fortunately seemed placid and unimpressed by the onlookers.

There were also plenty of stalls selling local produce, including the inevitable cheese, aligot (a purée of potato, garlic and fresh Laguiole cheese – see recipe below), tripe, Laguiole knives and Gentiane liqueur. At a stall selling an odd range of headgear, my husband bought a beret Basque, which he has never worn since. The stallholder had to rummage in the boxes in his van to find one large enough…

Frozen lunch

Aubrac meal.JPG

A good feed against the chill

The highlight of the day was, naturally, lunch. This took place in an immense marquee, which reputedly held up to 3,000 folk at a time. We sat at long trestle tables, served by remarkably good-humoured waiters and waitresses, and ate charcuterie, roast Aubrac veal with aligot, Laguiole cheese and fouace (local cake), washed down with large quantities of wine and finished with coffee – the latter was certainly welcome since the temperature inside the marquee was barely above that outside it.

We were glad to regain the coach at the end of the day, since it really was bitterly cold. I had a piping hot bath when we got home. It snowed on Aubrac that night…

Rib-sticking recipe

Aligot

For 4 (hungry) people

1 kg potatoes
400 g tome fraîche (young Laguiole)
250 g crème fraîche
100 g butter
Several cloves garlic, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Boil the potatoes and mash them to a purée. Add the butter and crème fraîche and season with salt, pepper and garlic. Reheat the purée. Add the cheese, cut in thin slices. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon (very important, must be wooden). When the mixture starts to form long strings (filer), it’s ready. Serve immediately.

Very good with steak, veal or sausages.

I’ve linked up with the #AllAboutFrance linky, where you’ll find some other great blogs about France.

Lou Messugo

Copyright © 2010 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
This entry was posted in Aveyron, Customs, Food/drink/recipes, French life, History, Places and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to A moo-ving experience: la fête de la transhumance

  1. Pingback: A Cut Above the Rest: Laguiole Knives | Life on La Lune

  2. Tanja says:

    a strange festival! #all about france

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Caro says:

    Great to see this tradition in another part of France – we have the same here but called “Retour des Alpages” in the Haute Savoie, Rhone Alpes region and it is celebrated in style too! Normally cheese namely reblochon and the local Savoyard dish tartiflette will be on the menu for the fete!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I am very fond of anything with cheese in it and love tartiflette. Aligot and truffade (a more chunky version of aligot) are also good. You need to walk up a few mountains after a portion, though!

      Like

  4. France does fêtes like this so well, I love going to them, the more off-beat and unusual the better. We also have transhumance around here with sheep and goats being moved to higher land for summer. Can’t believe the temperature, was that unusual or normal for the time of year? I can imagine a yummy dollop of aligot would have gone down very well in that cold. Thanks for linking up with #AllAboutFrance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I like this sort of fête too and there are a lot of them in our area, celebrating bygone days and customs. I think that temperature was probably exceptional – but I get the impression that it was not the first time. Glad to have found #AllAboutFrance.

      Like

  5. merewoman says:

    Yummy, aligote.

    We went to a transhumance in the Pyrenees some years ago, luckily the weather was perfect. There were more sheep than cattle, also goats and horses. An interesting day only slightly married by the priest and the mayor making speeches that seemed to last for hours, while animals and humans alike sweated and shifted from one foot to another waiting for the moment when they were released to the high pastures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I am very fond of aligot but it does nothing for the waistline! I don’t know the Pyrenees well at all and really ought to go. The speeches in France are one of the less appealing aspects of these events, since they always go on for hours…

      Like

  6. Jennifer says:

    Thanks so much for this post! I was in Aveyron a few years ago and brought back a poster of la transhumance. It’s hanging in my living room 🙂

    Like

  7. Lore says:

    Aubrac looks like a cute race indeed. I can easily imagine city kids telling their parents they’d love one of those as a pet 🙂

    Aligot sounds really yummy! I’m a a sucker for anything with cheese. I’ve never heard of tome fraiche before, thank you for introducing me to it.

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Hello, nice to see you back again. The Aubrac cows are really pretty, especially the calves. Aligot is delicious, but it’s not a summer dish! You have to be pretty hungry, but it’s just the thing after a long, bracing winter walk. It’s not difficult to make, but stirring it until it gets to the right consistency is hard work. Worth it, though.

      Like

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