Coloured Sheep Congress & Tour France, May 2014

A Review

Phil Sponenberg








Sunday,  18 May 2015

  We arrived in Paris to a cool clear morning.   Spring was further along in France than in Blacksburg, with lots of green everywhere. Trees were blooming, including lindens, and roses were cascading over the bridges and walls along the freeway.  The Ibis hotel had a room open early, so I went up to my ninth floor room and collapsed. Great view, with the typical mixture of old and new so common in European cities.

  The conference bag is a felted bag from Noir du Velay sheep. Very nice touch! The book Dawie du Toit, put together is fantastic. Very professional and worth referring to time and time again. It has chapters on various sheep breeds, issues of breeding and conservation, as well as on color and its genetic control. No time to read it now—it will have to wait!

Michael Imhoff, the Publisher, presenting  the Congress Book to the Editor, in Petersberg, Germany

 I finally had the pleasure of meeting Olafur Dyrmundsson from Iceland. He is tall, elegant, and very thoughtful. Always thinking. We had a very nice conversation about Stefan Adalsteinsson and how much he had meant to both of us. In many ways I think we knew and appreciated the same man, which is not always true when people start to reminisce about departed colleagues. We had both noted the same personality traits, and had valued them highly. Stefan is sorely missed!


The author of this Review, Phil Sponenberg and Trudel Andrag at Roquefort 

  Dinner was a chaotic but delicious Italian meal across the street. Four cheese pasta. These meals are always chaos, but fun. This one was half German, half English, and a good deal of laughter!

Monday,  19 May 2014


  The morning broke clear and cool, with wonderful sunlight streaming through the city and lighting up the buildings. The view across the street is half modern, half very old, and all beautiful. The breakfasts are wonderful, with croissants, some with chocolate chips, cheese, fruit, and yoghurt. A great start to the day, especially when eaten with old friends I have not seen in many years.

  Olafur Dyrmundsson informed us about Icelandic sheep. The colors are variable, and he had some interesting photos of grey, mouflon, and tricolored chimeric sheep. Leader sheep are still important, as they can sense changing weather and get the flock to safety. Most of these are colored, and the whole behaviour is heritable. There are about 1,000 of this type in Iceland. Iceland has strict internal quarantine laws, so sheep movement is heavily restricted from zone to zone. They have national AI centers to collect semen and distribute it both in Iceland and internationally, and this moves more freely. The AI center collects semen from two leader sheep rams each year, and an occasional four-horned ram just to assure continuation of variability in the breed. Most of the selection is for meat production, and the best meat ram in AI is currently a grey ram!  This is remarkable, as colored sheep are inherently smaller than white ones, so this ram must really be exceptional.

  One great presentation was on Norwegian sheep, Villsau, from the west coast of Norway. They are out all year. The breed was only saved from extinction because their coarse wool is irreplaceable for sweaters and mittens for seagoing people. The sheep are out all year on islands, and are wintered in the open air with no supplement of any sort. Right before winter they can be 20% fat (carcass weight). They eat a lot of heather!  Norway is only 3% arable land, so resources like this are important. Hilde Buer who owns these has 500 of them, and the ones she keeps are tamed at five months old by sitting them up on their tails (like shearing), and scratching their brisket and feeding them a few feed pellets. Takes the ram lambs about 3 minutes to relax, and the ewe lambs 5 minutes. Then they’ll follow her anywhere, including on to the boat for transfer from island to island. To move them she just needs to let them know she’s there, and they all hurry to get to her. Beats a collie any day!

  After sheep breeding was improved the coastal folks always kept a few of this type, and for a while didn’t even consider them to be “sheep,” so they slipped through the cracks when sheep populations underwent a census. Finally someone woke up to the precariousness of the situation and figured out that they were indeed becoming increasingly rare, although in the 1990s up to 6,000 survived in these precarious small flocks. They organized, and numbers are now much more secure. Management is interesting and entertaining. To separate the rams and ewes, they just load up the rams on a boat, and take them to a different island! About 20% of the ewes are horned, and the breed flocks strongly. They have had ewes lamb at 20 years old.

  Lunch was slabs of duck. I have no idea where they got ducks that big! The taste was exquisite, and followed by chocolate cake. Bernard Denis, President of the Ethnozootechie,  was there, from COGNOSAG days in the 1980s. All those years ago he was always drinking wine, and saying “we are not animals, we do not drink water.” He did so, and we all happily joined him.

  One delightful Shetland sheep breeder, Mary Gibbings from Somerset ,gave the most wonderful and engaging talk on her sheep and wool. She was in her eighties, first time speaking, and she outshone all others!  A real firecracker, with a great sense of humor. I was fortunate to be seated next to her at lunch, which we both enjoyed. Her eyes and her wit sparkle.

  Only one presentation was in French, so things were easy to follow.

  I did meet the Portuguese team with the Black Merinos. Their English was weak, and my Portuguese is nonexistent, so we successfully resorted to Spanish. Poor Roger Lundie found this confusing, as part of the conversation became English, part Spanish, and part Portuguese. They have an interesting breed, with some interesting grey and brown color variation. We hope to pursue some details in the future. The flocks are usually around 1,000 head, and the breed association really doesn’t mess with anything under 500 head in a flock. Very different approach! The wool was used in WWI for military uniforms.

  Dinner was a $30 salad (yikes). Pretty good. We talked Ouessant sheep (island sheep from Brittany), and the Black Merinos. After that the bed seemed pretty welcome.


Dr Christian Mendel presenting his paper on the Alpines Steinschaf

Olwen Veevers, presenting her paper on the Wales Woolfest


Tuesday,  20 May 2015

  Today was cloudy, with off and on rain. Not too heavy, but should make the field trip interesting tomorrow. The weather is indeed fickle.

  Presentations included our own American Romeldales, along with some fascinating work on the Alpines Steinschaf from Germany and Austria. They take a group of rams up to the high alps in the summer, leave them, and then bring them back to the town in the fall with bands, food, and celebration. Looks like fun, and something to try to do one day.

  It turns out that few French breeds go back before introductions of Merino or British breeds. The oldest include the dwarf Ouessant, and also Brittany Heath sheep. A second presentation on German sheep included the giant Bergamsco, started in 1808 and now a huge lop eared, roman nosed breed.

  German breeds included the North Prussian Skudden, which is a northern shorttailed breed. These are usually white, with rare black sheep. The black fades to brown, and some are moorit brown. These moorits have the poorest fleeces. The Skudden have a double coat, where the central primary fiber is a kemp, and the other two of the trio are heterotypes, each group then completed by about eight secondary fine fibers. The diameter of each of these types overlaps the others in histograms.



Spinning ladies from Germany

Heidi Greb's exhibition of felted items

Wednesday,  21 May 2015

  The first stop was Rambouillet. This is a huge state farm with sheep breeding and other programs. The whole place is certified organic, which is amazing. This was the first experimental farm, started in 1750. It was a training center for agriculture. Before that it had a shepherd school, and a huge hunting reserve. Artificial insemination of cattle and sheep were first done here… complete with a commemorative plaque!

  The sheep breed named for the place started in 1786 or so, when Carlos IV of Spain sent Louis XVI of France (his cousin) 400 select Merino ewes and rams. They walked to get there, and it took four months. Once here the Spanish shepherds taught the recipients how to care for these sheep, which were quite different than the local variety. The results must have been amazing, because merinos are dry-adapted and this place is wet, wet, wet. They still maintain a closed conservation flock there at Rambouillet, with 118 ewes and 30 or so rams. They only use rams for one or two years in order to control inbreeding with same bloodlines since 1786, and everything is closely monitored. It did not seem that the breed was economically viable on its own right, but the government is committed to keeping it going.



The rams at Rambouillet  

  One structure on the farm is an old pigeon cote. Landowners were only allowed a set number of pigeons, and the number depended on the hectares you had. This one held 2,000 pairs, one for each hectare. 

  The shepherd school is now closed, but it is still a training center for sustainable agriculture. They also have a riding school, and house 100 horses, including four draft horses for pulling carriages around the grounds.

  The Ile de France sheep breed was also developed here from Rambouillet and Dishley (Leicester) crosses. It remains a popular breed in France, providing many of the rams used to produce market lambs. More lately the Romane sheep was developed from Romanov (Russian) for prolificacy, and the French Berrichon du Cher breed for growth rate and muscling. Interesting name, as there is nothing Italian about the breed!

  The grounds at Rambouillet were immaculate, and had an assortment of great buildings and barns. Lots of roses everywhere. It was raining, so we went on to Versailles.

 Versailles is a huge estate, still. It was an official center and hunting preserve, and up until recently the castle was still used to house dignitaries from foreign countries during their visits. They could even shoot pheasant and duck if they wanted to. After WWII Roosevelt funded the park restoration, with the condition that both sheep and cattle be on the grounds, outside, all the year round. The sheep are an odd lot, but the cattle are select ones on loan from the breed associations, and they rotate in and out. We did not see those, unfortunately.


Marie-Antoinette's retreat in Versailles

   The grounds are huge, and there is an orderly network of roads lined by tall trees all trimmed to be perfectly square as tall hedges. They now have a laser-guided machine that does it. Earlier it must have been quite the headache. Very few natural trees were around, because most are trimmed into the most unreal shapes and appearances. We did not see the castle, but went to Marie Antoinette’s “weekend getaway house,” which was palatial enough! It was not huge, but was opulent. She liked to get away from it all, and this is where she did so. She also had a small self-sustaining farm, with fun buildings around a nice pond. This area was much more natural, but also included some huge flower gardens with roses and peonies in bloom. The roses included some highly double rugosas that were wonderfully fragrant.


We ate a sumptuous salmon lunch in a huge fancy room, which was quite the treat. I remarked that none of us was likely to starve on this trip! This is certainly the case.


Lunch at Versailles

  After lunch we walked, and walked, and walked, and saw lots of buildings and gardens. We even saw a bright yellow snail, much to everyone’s amusement.

 We finally loaded up, exhausted, and drove back to Paris in the rain.

 Thursday22 May 2015

 We got off to a good start on the post Congress Tour. A little rain, but not much, and we all fit into the bus with one empty seat. All we need to do is track that one to make sure everyone is on board.


Our host in France, Pierre Del Porto, left, planned and organized for us a varied, memorable and most exciting tour through France.  Amelie Quenet, right was responsible for the logistics and did an excellent job.  We visited Marie-Therese Chaupin, centre, of Wools of Europe in Saint-Chaffrey towards the end of the Tour


 As we go south from Paris the land becomes flatter, with lots of grain fields. Several of these have huge windmills for electricity production. France gets 85% of its electricity from nuclear power, then the rest from hydroelectric, wind, solar, and finally coal as the smallest share. There are occasional huge power lines to distribute it all.

   This is on the banks of the Loire, which can flood unpredictably quickly. They do have a day’s warning in most cases, so livestock and people are safe. This is the only river to be solely on French territory.

 We are visiting a Solognote flock. These are local sheep with an unknown origin going back several centuries. Its home range is the Loire valley, along with two other breeds, the Berrichon de l'Indre, and Berrichon du Cher (from Berry, which is this region). A few other regional breeds are now extinct. In the past they had two colors, white and striped (whatever that means!). In the 1600s and 1700s they found that the red sheep had proved more hardy than white, so more reds were selected for reproducing the breed.

A flock of Solognote Sheep on the banks of the Loire

Photo Roger Lundie

 The sheep are dark red, with light red-brown wool that fades with age. In the 70s only 300 ewes remained. Mr. Crèche is now the breed association president, and he was our host today. When he started there were 11 breeders with a total of 500 ewes. There are now 60 breeders and 3500 ewes. The breed was endangered after WWII by the intensification of farming.

 Currently they use the ram lambs mostly for meat, and the ewe lambs for breeding. The color of the wool has been a problem in the past, with a low sale value. They have now developed a local market so color is a plus, and sells at the same price as white wool (0.70 euros/ kg). There are not enough lambs produced from enough farmers to get a designation of origin, so a local regional co-op was started that sells the lambs and wool. 17.33 kg carcasses, at 8-9 months old. The lambs are grain finished, but outside and not in a barn.

  A landscape conservation program is essential to the breed’s success. Grazing keeps land open and diverse, and so is supported by a subsidy. They graze 1800 ewes on 1000 acres. The land involved is the state’s, managed by a conservatory which is an independent organization. The land is assigned free to the flock, and must be shepherded constantly because there are no fences. This means someone is there 24 hrs/day. Crèche also has 250 Limousine cows, plus  foie gras ducks, and poultry. The sheep are grazed from 15 April to 15 October, and have been for 15 years. His allotment is 250 acres right on the river bank. They graze a strip about 30 to 300 meters wide.

The shepherd of this Solognote flock

  The sheep are athletic and fit. The ewes are dark red, with one black one! There is about one black one born per hundred. The others are dark red at birth, with dark red fleeces. These fade, so the ewes have lighter wool and dark red heads and legs. The fleeces were shedding pretty well, so I imagine the wool has a lot of hair in it! They did indicate that they never do shed all the way and do need to be shorn.



  We did have a light rain on the visit, but with yellow iris, other yellow flowers, and wild roses it was a very nice setting on the banks of the river.

  From there we went to a sheep dairy that uses Lacaune sheep. The sun was bright, and the day much nicer without the rain. The Lacaune ewes have a lactation of 220 kg, while nursing their own lambs. They wean the lambs at one month. At ten days they separate them from the mothers during day, and feed them grain, peas, and maize.

  For lunch at this farm we started with white wine mixed with rhubarb syrup. Tasted like apple juice with a bit of kick to it. They had roasted whole lambs, which were delicious, and had a great salad topped with a soufflé. Beans with rosemary and bay leaf, and then soft and hard cheeses. The hard cheese was exquisite, and I asked to take a photo of the cheese maker with some cheeses. She was pretty proud, and also showed me the cheese cave for aging the cheeses. I would have bought it all if I could have kept it cold! The last course was a custard with caramel. Ymmmm.


  The capital of the region is Bourges. The cathedral here is basically copied from Notre Dame. The two bishops that oversaw the construction were brothers. They were in close contact, with a little bit of competition. This cathedral has no side branches off the main nave, and so looks longer than Notre Dame even though it is not. This one also has 85% of the original medieval glass, which is especially nice. The early glass was indeed stained through and through, cut, and then leaded between the pieces to make the final picture. Later technology was basically enamel on the surface, which lends a different look to the final product.



Bourges Cathedral

  This is an old wool town, and the town symbol is three sheep for this fact, and three fleurs de lys because they remain faithful to the king. This is a holdover from the religious wars, as the Huguenots held the town for a while. They defaced the cathedral a bit, especially by taking down the large front statues, beheading them, and the burying them. They found the statues in this century, but not the heads! The result is a bunch of reinstated headless apostles on the front of the church. The glass was fortunately not damaged, and they removed the windows during WWII in order to store them away safely. This city was never bombed, because the important bridges were a town or two away. The cathedral also had a wonderful large tapestry in one side chapel. Our guide led us through the way to read the windows, bottom to top, and selected the one depicting the prodigal son for this. It was fun and interesting.

  The local breed here is Berrichon de Cher, from Berry. It was formed in the 1700s, from a Merino x Dishley (Leicester Longwool) cross. We never did see this breed, though.

   We headed for Clermont Ferrand for the evening. This is a region with volcanoes, and the local stone is black. The cathedral, only seen from a distance, is indeed black. We must have done elaborate circles in the town, because I think we ended up with every possible distant view of the cathedral from all possible angles. The volcanoes loom to the east, and I was always trying to get a good photo from the bus (tricky at best). I found, to my delight, that my hotel room was not only huge and comfortable, but had a great view of those very volcanoes! By the time the day wrapped up we were pretty tired, so I just headed for bed. But we did notice one restaurant serving grilled antiquities. I am sure something got lost in that translation!

 Friday 23 May 2015

  The morning was cool and clear.  I had a great view of the volcanoes and the town creeping up the hillside towards them. I think the volcanoes have been extinct for long ages.

  Breakfast was a great spread of eggs, sausage, bread, and three cheeses. The cheese is wonderful, and always to be enjoyed!

  In this region the castles are perched on low hills or rises, always in sight of one another. This is so they could signal by fires or trumpets and alert one another to the presence and location of enemies.

  The local breed here is the Bizet, and we are visiting Mr. Jean Luc Chauvel, who is the president of the breed association for this breed, and also for the umbrella organization of all sheep breeds in France. He has a mixed grain and sheep farm, with 500 Bizet ewes, and 80 Ile de France ewes. They organized their association in 1905, first here and in Auvergne. In 1935 there were 300,000 ewes, but in the 1960s this was down to 5,000. Now they have 8,500, and 400 are in the genetic improvement program. 15 farms have registered sheep, and this is the group the program works with.


A flock of Bizet sheep


The sheep are basically black, but the fleece is a grey color. There is no wool on the head, and it looked like they were shedding off the lower neck, belly, and rear. This seems common in several breeds. The fleece does have kemp, and they tend to produce a 2 kg fleece each year. The Bizet has a longer fleece than the other local breed, Noir du Velay. The Bizet breeders and Noir de Velay pool wool, and get 1.2 tons between the two breeds annually. They use it for felting and handicraft uses due to its color.

  Chauvel has one of eight farms that share 3 laborers, and also share heavy equipment. The total of all is 3,000 acres. They do produce their own hay. A shearer is hired from outside the farm, and the current one is first place in the world after a competition in South Africa.

  The Bizet sheep lamb in the spring, as well as in September, and December. At 4.5 months the lambs produce an 18 kg carcass at 40 to 42 kg live weight. The male lamb’s tails are not docked (by regulation), although the females are. They have a black head with a broad white blaze. The ewes are not horned, but the rams have nice heavy horns. They have to have at least one white sock and foot. The bellies are clean of wool. Lambs are born black and then fade to light grey.

  The ewes are kept outside except for lambing. There were some large raptor birds soaring around, and I don’t know if this was a threat or not. The ewes produce about 1.5 lambs each, and are productive up to 8 years old.

  The Noir du Velay provided the wool used for the felt of the bags for the Congress participants. We were shown the products from this felting workshop.  This is for the handicapped, to give them social inclusion.  They provide work for six people, each works for 26 hours per week which they consider full time.  Another  felter is a young woman that selects the fleeces herself. This is a hardy walking breed, and so is lighter and more athletic than the Bizet.

  The regional breeds include the Bizet, Noir du Velay, Blanc de Massif Central, Limousine, Griset, and another hardy breed, Rava, with longer wool. The colored breeds are well adapted, and this provides them a secure place in the production systems.

  The farm has solar panels everywhere. They cost 500,000 euros to put in, and generate 20,000 euros per year. It’ll take a while to recoup the investment!  They insisted that there was no subsidy, but I cannot fathom how it would work without one.

  In this region in the early 1900s salmon were so numerous that contracts for farm laborers actually stated that they could not be fed salmon all days of the week, but had to have at least one salmon-free day. After the waterways were dammed for hydroelectric power the fish declined.  The fish are now individually tagged with transponders to keep track of them and their movements. Many return upstream after 6 years, to spawn. The streams and rivers have fish ladders in order to help the fish survive.

  Brioude was our next stop. This is the second largest regional town, with 7,000 people. We had an exquisite lunch in a large hall. We had an appetizer, salad, ratatouille, a pork chop, and then wonderful cheese’s: Saint-Nectaire, Cantal, Salers, Blue d’Auvergne, Fourme d’Ambert.

Lunch with Mr. Jean Luc Chauvel (centre)

The cheeses at Mr Chauvel's table

  The French have 56 sheep breed associations, one for each breed. Each association has two parts, one for selection, and the other for the more economic side of promotion and marketing. The representatives from all the different breeds meet once a month, which keeps communication good and information flowing.

  The Massif Central is high and rugged, and the producers there need adapted breeds. They do produce less meat, but are hardier and useful for that reason. Within the breeds there is always one group that keeps purebreds, and a second group that is crossbred for meat production. Purebreds are selected for adaptation, lambing characteristics, and then finally for meat qualities. Rams are tested in stations, and sold back to breeders. The details on this are hazy, but it sounds like they have to submit their best two or three ram lambs for this. These best ram lambs go to a central station, and are compared with progeny testing over 1800 ewes, giving 3000 lambs. 120 rams are tested per year. At certification 20% of the rams are culled, 80% sold to breeders. There are currently 5,000,000 ewes in France, and they still have to import quite a bit of lamb.

  While artificial insemination is used in French sheep, it is only for the specialized meat and milk breeds. So, there is no AI in the Bizet breed. For the Lacaune dairy breed, 700,000 to 800,000 ewes are mated by AI per year.

  Wolves are the source of considerable controversy. They came back about 30 years ago, and for some reason they knew that last week there were 300 wolves in France (maybe they have the same transponders as the fish or the sheep ear tags!). They are currently in about 2/3 of France, especially the Alps, Pyrenees, and now up to 150 km from Paris. 5000 ewes are killed by wolves each year. This results in 14 million euros in damages and compensation. They cannot shoot over 24 per year in all of France. This is due to societal questions and debates over animal use. Some factions are even opposed to riding horses. They now are seeing some wolf/dog crosses, but this detail was hazy. The owners of Great Pyrenees guard dogs get some subsidy. The wolves were first in the mountains, but are now in the valleys as well. Some wolves kill the Pyrenean dogs. While the dogs do work well in some situations, a major problem is hiking tourists interfering with the dog, by taking photos, posing with the dogs, and generally getting in the way of the dog doing its job.

  The Noir du Velay has 190% lambing, with 23,000 ewes. 5000 to 6000 of these are in the selection program. They have a dominant black, and other colors of lambs are said to never occur. White crossbreds are relatively common, but most are black. They can get two lambings in one year. This farm has a 42% rate of multiple lambings. Some individual ewes are very prolific, and have up to 5 to 6lambs. This is the same gene for fecundity as is found in the Lacaune. The fleeces are 1 kg of wool/ewe. The breed is only seen locally, with fully 90% of the breed in this region.

  The Noir du Velay came from north Africa in the middle ages. The local cathedral even has Arabic architecture as a reminder of the 300 years of this influence. This is an easy hardy breed, with a label for appellation de origin. The lambs bring 6.50 euro per kg carcass weight (40 kg males, 30 kg females at four months). This is a fairly intensive system, which keeps the meat tender. The lambs are fed grain. Ewes are kept outside except in winter. 10 males of the breed are tested annually. This farm has 500 ewes, and they produce 1000 lambs in March, August, and December. Thirty percent will lamb twice a year. They sell 250 pedigree ewe lambs each year.

  Ewes with lambs are fed silage for maximum lactation and lamb growth. Lambs gain about 600 g/day on grain, and are sold at 100 to 150 days old. At that point the carcass is 20 kg, so a 40 to 42 kg live weight. They can run 10 ewes per hectare, which is about the maximum possible on really good pastures. There has been a breed association for 25 years. Each lamb gets a transponder ear tag with sire, dam, owner, and other information on it. They use a different color tag each year, which makes it relatively easy to figure out how old an animal is. Sometimes they have triplets, but the third is nearly always removed.

  We were also shown the products from a felting workshop. This is for the handicapped, to give them social inclusion. They provide work for six people, each works 26 hours per week, which they consider full time!

  From the Noir du Velay the fleeces are very black. When they cross the Noir du Velay with Charollais rams (two “l”s, one “l” for the cattle breed!) they get black lambs, with a very few white ones. This is consistent with a dominant black genetic mechanism. They get 250 euros for pedigreed ewe lambs. These are black, and are only allowed a white star, with or without a white tail tip.

  We piled back onto the bus, and it really did begin to rain. We passed the Eiffel rail viaduct. I wish I’d had more notice – this is a wonderful steel structure, painted red, that spans a huge broad valley. It is beautiful, with arches and straight portions. A real work of art, right there in the middle of nowhere, and once essential for rail transportation in the area. We saw Montbeliard (a dairy Simmental) cattle, as well as Limousin for beef. The local cattle breed is Aubrac, which had become rare but is now making a comeback. They are used for beef now, but were for draft and once milked. They are going back into the old stored semen to bring back the milking strains, with the goal of cheese production up in the high summer pastures. Next week is the week they go up there. The goal is local cheese production. They will be milked, and the cheese will be processed in small stone houses scattered around, with stone roofs made out of largish flat stones.

  Millau was our next stop, for the night. This was once a center for sheep and lamb skin tannery. We saw their new viaduct (high bridge) through breaking clouds right at sunset. It is impressive, but I still like the older, shorter Eiffel version better. The locale now is more dependent on Roquefort cheese than leather work. It was a delight to see some bright red peonies. There are flowers absolutely everywhere.

Saturday,  24 May 2015

  Our creaky hotel had wonderful cheese and bread for breakfast, along with exquisite white nectarines and cherry jam, We weren’t only Americans, but also some talented Germans who were great conversationalists.

  We glimpsed the huge viaduct in the mist as we left town. This one is modern, and somewhat spooky as it rose out of the mist.

  We are off to Roquefort. The cheese is based on the milk from Lacaune sheep. There are 300 to 1000 ewes per flock, that are in barns in the winter, but are out during the day. For Roquefort, only Lacaune milk can be used, and from Aveyron and the neighbouring counties Lozere, Gard and Tarn. The maturing all occurs in an area 300 meters wide, 2 kilometers wide, and 100 meters deep of the caves.  So, Roquefort is a specific brand from a specific local area, which is becoming a common thread through much of what is going on in France with foods.

  The ewes are all artificially inseminated on a specific week each year, which results in a set date to begin lactations, and a set date to end them. This is all highly regulated. The rams are all progeny selected. The Société factory is one of only 7 cooperative or private enterprises that make the cheese, and is the oldest one as well as the largest. It has been in operation since 1842. The cave has been used since the 1600s.

  The cheese are aged in caves, with fungal spores in the air that make it blue. The area is limestone, with cliffs and caves that have been used for aging cheese since the 1400s. Originally the fungus came in through air channels that ventilate the caves naturally. The tour was good fun. It started with a darkened room, then a diorama of the area millennia ago, then darkness, then noise, and then a diorama of the collapsed earth that led to the final appearance.

  About 300,000 cheeses are made in each batch, between December to June. They get 1-3 liters per ewe per day, make the cheese, and introduce the fungus at 14-25 days. They can cool the cheeses to 2 degrees to slow fungus, then the cheese lasts 3 months to a year to get them through the time when the ewes are not lactating.

  The manufacturing site is 2 km x 300 m wide, 100 meters deep, and this is the only zone qualifying for the appellation. The milk come 700,000 sheep. They make three different cheeses. Société is the main one, accounting for 80% of the production. Cave des Templiers is a bit stronger, and is 3%, only sold locally.  Caves Baragnaudes  is creamy and strong, accounts for 18% of the production, and is also only sold in France. The differences are related to different strains of Penecilliumroquefortii. Each one of these cheeses has its own cave to avoid cross contamination (which occurs easily in cheese caves – you either make all blue cheese or none, because there is no halfway!). The vents have algae and moss growing on them from the light. The name “Roquefort” was trademarked in 1863. Milk for the cheeses is picked up daily from the farms, and it takes 4 liters of milk for a kilogram of cheese.

Roquefort cheeses maturing in the caves

Roquefort Cheese 

  The caves look like a cathedral of cheese, with stone pillars holding up the roof. They had a wonderful operatic light show in the dark, including Vivaldi’s Gloria with two of us singing along (me and the elderly English Simone). Up until the 1960s they cultured the fungus with bread in the cave, which yielded uneven results. Now they rely on three lab strains. They still use a mixed rye/whole wheat flour to culture the yeast in large flat flasks. In 8 to 10 weeks the fungus has totally consumed the bread in the flasks, and the powder can inoculate 500 liters of milk. Wood for the aging racks is 100 year old oak. The packaging is porous flexible stuff, and some of the cheese wrapping is mechanized, some still wrapped by hand. One lady has quite the reputation for wrapping cheese, and can wrap 100 cheeses an hour.

  We also visited a farm producing the milk. It was 150 hectare (330 acres or so), and was run by only two people. Half of the land was in pasture and half in hay and grain. The feed has to be local for Roquefort cheese, and most has to come from the farm. The sheep are on pasture from March to October. In winter they get hay and grain. This farm has 420 milking ewes, 85 ewe lambs, and is a pedigreed flock with artificial insemination. They inseminate the ewes on May 22 after synchronizing oestrus. They then do the ewe lambs 2 weeks later. They lamb from October 15 to 22. They have a 70% pregnancy rate, and pregnant ones have a 190% lambing rate. They have 1, 2,or 3 lambs, nurse lambs for only one month, and then wean them and begin milking the ewes. The ram lambs go to a co-op for fattening, and they save 80-90 ewe lambs for replacements. The rams are usually a live weight 14-15 kg at weaning, and are then fattened. Milk goes to Société. Breeders get different prices for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd milk. First goes to Roquefort, second for other dairy products, third for yet other manufacturing. First brings1.1 Euro/kg, second.45 Euro/kg, third is .25-.30 Euro/kg. There is a quota because of overproduction. Too much milk! They are now trying to reduce it. This farm has added a few Aubrac cows in order to try to incorporate another crop, and now have 18 head. Average lactations are 350 liters per ewe in 165 days, plus one month for the lamb which is not counted or measured. This is above the breed average. The breeders do have some genetic work going on, targeting a premium for protein production.

  We saw the ewes in their barn, along with their one goat, viewed the milking parlor, and then they turned the hungry ewes out to pasture (we were late!). They had a large tricolor hound out back. France has long been the source of good hounds. We then went into a restored very old barn, and sampled cheeses with plum jam and wine. They had nice art cards with sheep on them, so we all lined up to get those, too. The state gets one euro back for each lamb sold, for restoration of historic buildings like this one. It is all about preserving the local culture!

  Whizzing down the road we saw to Noir de Berry donkeys in a field. This is a large mule-breeding donkey from this region. I wish we could have had a closer look.

  We now go through the Larzac Plateau,  “The Colorado of France,” which is high, dry, grassland with brush and stone outcroppings that make pillars.

  We stopped for lunch in a very remote place with the absolutely most energetic server on the planet. One server for all of us, a vivacious woman that spoke great English. We had a quiche, salad, prunes, potatoes with duck fat, and slices of a leg of lamb that they put burning fat on via a flaming metal cone. Quite the show! We also had great cheese, including the Perall du Larzac sheep cheese. I didn’t catch the name of the wonderful cow’s milk blue cheese. This was topped off with an apple and pear tart and coffee. This place had a Dogue de Bordeaux out back – big, wrinkly, and not the happiest!


The Leg of lamb being prepared!

 Next stop was a medieval town, La Couvertoirade. This had walls, gates, and a big shallow watering hole for sheep. These Lavognes are paved with stones to retain the water and to control erosion. They are flat and shallow enough that sheep can go down to water. They are seen on the sides of roads everywhere. This one was built in 1895.

A typical watering hole, a lavogne, with Lacaune sheep

Trudel Andrag, Richard Veevers, Pierre Del Porto and Amelie Quenet in front of such a lavogne

  This village was full of artisans – a wonderful tourist trap. One place made small bronze sheep sculptures (heavy!) and sold the same cards as the Lacaune farm, but they were cheaper here!  There was a great T shirt place with sheep designs. I only bought one, and this was unfortunate because it was the last place to have them.

  We headed of the plateau to Provence, passing natural stone pillars and limestone cliffs. The vineyards value the stones because they warm the vines. Olive and cypress trees start to appear in the landscape.

  France has more sheep than horses, and more cattle than horses. This southern portion is the region of fighting Camargue cattle, and grey Camargue horses that we see along the roadside. This zone looks something like sagebrush flats in our own west. We pass fields of rice grain, and they are also famous for melons and strawberries. This is the Rhone delta area, and is very fertile. They have canals for irrigation, and grow a lot of rice. We see many flooded fields with young rice in them.

  The next stop is Arles, founded in 46 BC by Julius Caesar. This is the largest city in France by area, although not by population. We stop by a square with a café that Van Gogh painted – still much in the same shape as he depicted. This square had a few old Roman columns.  A statue of Mistral also graced the same square. Off of the square were huge mansions, built in the 1500s to 1700s.

  The coliseum had 20,000 seats originally, and is slowly being restored. Many of these Roman structures were used as convenient sources of worked stone over the intervening centuries, and using them as quarries did little to preserve the originals. They had gladiator spectacles here. Originally these were slaves and condemned criminals, and fights to the death were routine. This then changed to professionals, and the fighting changed from “to the death” to “first blood.” Twice a year they still have Spanish bull fights to the death. These are in September and around Easter. The French style fights are not to death, but rather they goal is to pluck white wool tassels off of the upright horns of the local bulls, or a ribbon cockade that is on a string between horns. The men doing this are dressed in white, and the bull is not killed. Some talented bulls become very popular, with some lasting to ten years old, then retiring in style. The local bulls are 400 kg, the Spanish ones are 500kg.The local cuisine features bull meat recipes. The secret is to cook it forever!

  They also had an Augustinian amphitheatre with 10,000 seats. There were three ranks of seats, depending on who you were: nobility first, then Roman citizens, then others. Whenever the play at hand had a death scene they used a condemned person to play that part. After the Romans were finished, these were used as fortresses, then as quarries for other buildings. Fortunately a lot was left, and is being restored.

 Sunday,  25 May 2014

  This region is Crau (say “crow”).It is flat grassland, and they actually raise appellation hay, all with appropriate regulations, region, and special red and white twine so you won’t confuse it with ordinary hay! To get the appellation for hay, they take the first cut in May (required). They can then get two more cuttings. Hay grows March to October. The appellation hay brings 180 euro per metric ton. The region is flood irrigated, and hay gets water each 10 days.

  We are here to learn about the Merino d’Arles. France has four types of merinos: Rambouillet, de L’est, (they are like the Merino Fleischschaf of Germany, which are big mutton producers), Precoce (rare), and Arles as the most numerous.


Mourerous and  Merinos d'Arles (Photo Roger Lundie)

  This is an experimental farm. They have put out an exhibit of wool, and sheep bells hung on bent wood yokes. The crowd descended on these like vultures! We heard bells all the rest of the day on the bus, every time we hit a bump in the road.

  This farm has 1600 ewes, Merino d’Arles, and all are registered. 200 have the Booroola gene for high fertility. This is the only flock in France with this gene, introduced from Australia in the 1970s. This breed uses artificial insemination, but without synchronizing the ewes first. They try to get lush grass to feed them all, with irrigation. This place also trains shepherds. It is a one year course, and many women take it. This location was the first registered flock for the breed.


Our hosts at the experimental farm being presented with a copy of the Congress Book


  This place also served as a transhumance museum, interested in cultural conservation. The migration here is from Provence up to the Alps, and 600,000 sheep are involved. They start moving them now and continue into June. The timing all depends on grass. They come back from the high country in September and October. Currently they go by truck in contrast to the previous migrations on foot. Each flock has a shepherd, trained at this place. They train 15 to 18 a year, in a one year program.

  In winter they lamb in the open flat pastures at this site. They use a shepherd per 1000 to 1500 sheep, and most have at least two dogs. Most are Border collies, or local Chien du Crau, but even these look somewhat like Border collies.  The flocks are protected by Pyrenees dogs.   They lamb in autumn, outside in fields on non-irrigated pasture. They shear the sheep in April to get adequate wool cover by the time they move to the colder Alpine pastures.

  They get about 2.5 kg wool per ewe, 4-5 for ram. The wool measures 19.9 microns, which is pretty fine. It costs 1.8 euro per head to shear, and they used to get less than this for the wool. Prices are now up to 1.8 euro per kilogram due to increased demand for the wool. This was accomplished by working with a specific buyer over the last several years. Since 2010 the buyer has become more and more interested in wool quality. As a result, they remove the head, belly, and leg wool right at shearing. They sell the wool to Bergere de France for making hiking and sport clothing. In 2000 they got 50 cents per kg, now they get 1.8 to 1.9 euro.   The wool is 20.4 microns.

  The shearers are all trained locally.  Lambing rate is 125% for most ewes, but those with the Booroola gene are up to 225%.The breed has 283,000 ewes, with 150 bloodlines. No black sheep are ever registered, to the chagrin of this crowd!  Improvement schemes are based on lambing percent, maternal ability, and then finally on wool characteristics.

  The flock also has reddish Mourerous sheep, originally from North Africa centuries ago. They used vasectomized rams of this breed as teasers when they do AI on the ewes. This is an unusual breed, with fat deposits on the back of head, much as the southern African sheep have.

  The sheep that serve as leaders are tamed wethers. They leave patches of long fleece along the backs of these, then paint them so they can be picked out of the flock quickly. The sheep are all branded with paint on the back, and some are belled to keep track of them when in the mountains

  Rams can either go up to the mountains or stay below, depending on the owner’s preference. This seemed a bit goofy, because the breed should be non-seasonal for reproduction, so you’d think that they’d have lambs all year. They evidently lamb from autumn to February, so it all works. On the mountain the shepherd puts them by night in electric fence with guard dog, or donkeys, in order to thwart wolves.

  Another breed, that we did not see, is the Prealpes du Sud, with 250,000 ewes.

  They did talk a bit about the Crau dogs. There are currently about 400 of these. They look a whole lot like border collies (if what I saw was indeed one of this breed).  I was mystified by the number of breeds, but then they explained that they accept three new “old” breeds a year, across all species. Over time this adds to the list, if slowly. I think this is in response to EU support for rare breed conservation, so they get extra money this way – if they have lots of breeds!

 We stopped at Salon de Provence, a wonderful town with mansions from the 1800s built on the wealth that olive oil brought. There was an old castle here, Emperi, dating back to Roman times. This had an art museum, with many paintings from a specific artist, Theodore Jourdan,  that like sheep, goats, and cows!  These were usually in herd situations, with appropriate shepherds or milkmaids. He had one great shot of African sheep being unloaded in Marseilles.We were 24 km from Manosque and Gontard, the sites of the genetics meetings in the 1980s.


Rooftop view of Salon de Provence

Sheep being unloaded in Marseilles

The painter, Theodore Jourdan, (1833-1908) was born in Salon-de-Provence.  He painted many pastoral scenes with sheep goats.  There is permanent exhibition of his work in the Empiri Castle

  This region raises a lot of apples, and many orchards are under shade cloth as a guard against hail. The restaurant near Gap at which we ate a wonderful dinner was a 1500s barn, wonderfully restored. There were rooms for cattle, sheep, people, and poultry, and all were connected in order to keep everyone warm. They used oxen, in addition to milking cows.

  The meal started with melon and salami (good together!), then sea bass, strawberry sorbet stuffed into a white chocolate shell. It was exquisite. We wound are way back down to the town.

Monday,  26 May 2014

  This day dawned cloudy and cool because we were pretty high up on Hannibal’s road that he took with his elephants all those years ago. They do have big grey donkeys here, Ane de Provence, and we saw a few. The shepherds use these to pack their gear into the high country. The cattle are Tarentaise, Abondance(a dark Simmental). So the cattle change with the landscape.

  We did run into avalanche risk flags, because we are now up in the Alps. The flags are black and yellow checkered flags. Our visit was to a pastoral farm center. The land is owned by a complex pattern of state, municipality, and private plots. Each farm has a specific tract for summer, and each family has a traditional range. New people that want to enter the system start off somewhat at the bottom, getting the worst allotment. Over they years they then work their way up as vacancies occur due to deaths or retirements

  The owner pays the shepherd, without a government subsidy. They are paid once a month. All are paid the same basic rate, depending one's education, experience, size of flock, and specific tasks they have to do. The owner is the farmer, and he is making hay, so cannot shepherd. The pay scale is 1500-2500 euros a month.  The owner comes out once a month. Shepherds get one day a week off. There is some subsidy from the EU, it seems, and .animals are used to graze the ski runs. This keeps the grass short, and avalanche risk less, because tall grass basically greases the skids! The government also compensates farmers for wolf losses. While there are a few bears in the Pyrenees, there are not in the Alps.

  One risk the shepherds face is storm and lightning risk, especially because they are so high up. They use leg crooks instead of neck crooks. Much of the lamb is organic, which evidently has long withdrawal times instead of “no use” policies. They de-worm and dip the flocks before going to the mountains. This is especially important when mixing the flocks in order to get the numbers up to what a shepherd needs to warrant the pay. There are now lots of ibex up in the mountains, although I remember heroic efforts to bring them back 25 years ago. Two years ago they killed 200 of them in order to protect flocks from some disease  (brucellosis) that they were transmitting.

  The local mixed flock included some Thones et Marthod sheep, which are white with black spectacles, ears, nose, and are used for milking. They have long twisted horns that stick straight out sideways from their heads.

  The shop here was very nice, with posters (they are pretty, but then what do you do with them once you get them home?), sheep bells, and great cards.  They also had donkey milk soap – a first!

   Briancon is the next town, at the crossroads of several valleys. This seems to always afford a good site for a major town. The six forts here are from the 1650s to 1750 or so.   Now the major attraction is ski slopes instead of fending off Italians.

  Here we feasted on coq au vin in a very picturesque restaurant. We also had a pasta salad, stuffed pastry with goat cheese, and a blueberry tart. Coq au vin is quite tasty, and my old roosters at home may be doomed soon!

  We were going to the “Atelier” of Marie-Thérèse Chaupin in Saint-Chaffrey, and I had another brief media interview. I have no idea if these ever get aired anywhere, or written up, but it’s fun. I think they pick on Roger and myself because we are now the only geneticists involved. The wool mill runs off of water powered electricity, and sits right on a stream. I suspect that originally it was direct power, but now it is converted to electricity first.

   The wool is washed, dried, oiled for a day, then carded, combed, and spun. They have three huge carding machines in one line. They work with natural colors of wool, and have the wonkiest set of machines. They make yarn, and have a sock machine that makes lines of socks all connected. I think it knits one, binds it off, then knits the next one. All they need to do is cut them apart and then sew the toes closed. They also have knitting machines, sweater machines, knitted fabric machines, and looms. For garments the wool is fulled after being woven or knit, and for blankets it is washed. They had “before” and “after” samples, and the difference was dramatic. The spin both warp and weft of their fabrics. They also have skeiners, and sergers, and sewing machines. All of these machines run off the power they generate. They have no power in January because the stream is iced up.

  They do own some sheep but buy in a lot of wool. They also process specially the Rambouillet flock's wool.    They make yarn and finished products, all sold privately at the shop (ski village!) or by mail. It is a cooperative, and has been working for 40 years. The folks involved are from France, Switzerland, and Austria. Seven people work in the factory. They have been doing the same thing for 40 years, but now it is trendy and really taking off. This is a ski town, so was dead right now in May, but comes alive in both winter and summer.

  They had an exquisite merino shirt in a cream and black wool plaid that I could not resist. The black was from the Portuguese black merino, so it was a great souvenir of the conference and the trip. Portions of the “Wools of Europe” exhibit were in an upstairs room, and it was fun to see some of these objects “in the flesh.”

  We also heard a presentation from representatives of the Biella wool industry. They will host the next conference, if indeed many of us survive the five years until the next one! The crowd is aging out, and recruiting very little in the way of younger folks interested in picking up the pieces. One presenter was a Leeds man, Nigel Thompson, who had worked in Italy for years. There are now 16 wool men in Italy, and that’s about it for Europe! They grade and sort wool, and are a treasure of knowledge and experience. The industry has moved to China because it is bigger and cheaper, but also much riskier. 150 million kg of wool go to Italy each year. The EU used to be first in the world in wool imports, but now is second behind China.

  After leaving the factory we go up and through a very high pass, the Lauteret (2075 m.). It is windy, with rain on the way down, and a very near miss with an oncoming bus on a narrow mountain road. Our driver Rashid is very, very good, though, and kept us safe throughout. We come across another relatively empty hydro electric lake, with an old bridge exposed at the bottom. As we descended the mountain the weather cleared up, showing us great alpine vistas. They graze the mountains here to keep the landscape opened up and not completely forested.

  We take our customary afternoon rest stop, and several of the folks buy ice cream popsicles. After that lunch! We stagger into Valence, and on to the hotel. Dinner tonight is salami, smoked salmon, chicken and rice. The raspberry tart for dessert is superb, though. We have to walk back in a drizzle, but the lighted church towers are so pretty that it is fine.

 Tuesday,  27 May 2014

  West of the Rhone we enter wine country with vines everywhere. It appears to be a region of poor soils. As with most of the countryside, this is indeed highly regulated, and you can’t just plant a vine anywhere you want, but only in prescribed spots.

  Today’s excursion is a steam train ride. Just a very few steam trains still operate in France, for tourism. These are run by volunteers, who have reopened and restored all the equipment.  This one runs twice a week up to Lamastre, on market day. In the peak summer season it runs more often. We have to go over a medieval bridge to get there – imagine a multi-hundred year old piece of infrastructure in the USA!  This one still had buses and cars going over it. Doug and I hiked through tall grass and a campground to get a good shot at a photo of it.

The train at a station and an historic railway bridge

  We do get a more in depth explanation of grape production. The hillsides are fairly steep, and for some reason the rows run with the slope instead of across it. I never did get an explanation for that. Each producer owns an individual plot. In this region they tie the vine to a post, and then trim the leaves above the grape clusters so they get sunshine, and maximum size because the leaves are not competing for resources. It is all highly regulated. The vines are private, but grapes tend to be sold to big companies that actually make the wine. There is some level of organic wine production with horses instead of mechanized harvesters.

  It does turn out that the towns get judged for the flowers they have in public and private spaces. This explains the wonderful displays on roundabouts, and also in private yards. The rose bushes at the end of rows of grapevines have yet another function – the aphids prefer roses, so the growers can evaluate the roses to see when to spray the vines.

  The train follows the Doux river, which has flash floods occasionally. It is in a steep limestone gorge, and the bottom is indeed scoured pretty clean. The engine pulling is a 1903 engine that takes 800 kg coal and a 4 tons of water to make the trip (33 km).

  This region was also big for silk production in past years. The result is lots of mulberry trees.  On the train Amélie and Pierre haul out sausage, soft goat cheese, wine, and olives. We had plenty, so they shared with the most expressive silver-haired gent in the next car. He struggled with the cork, and made quite a series of fun faces as he worked his way through it. He put out quite the show!

  The trip was great, with views of the gorge, the vineyards, and terraced slopes with chestnuts. An aqueduct along the stream bed was dug by German POWs in WW I, and was a source of power for years. At the end we all headed for the restroom.

  This is the most protestant part of France, although I am not sure exactly what that means. I suspect this figures into the previous religious wars, but I don’t know if it persists. It was telling that our South African was Dawie Du Toit, a name transplanted from France to South Africa with the huge emigration of Huguenots.

  In this region they fatten pigs on chestnuts, which gives a special taste to the pork. The end result is expensive, especially after a blight killed many of the chestnut trees. Chestnuts are still harvested, and it takes clean ground under the trees to be able to do it at all efficiently.

  We go to the factory of Ardelaine in the village of Saint Pierreville. This is another wool processor with a long history. This one is in a village with steep roads, so the bus has to go back and forward to aim just right. This is after being passed repeatedly on curvy mountain roads by impatient car drivers.  Rashid is amazing!

  They have lots of wood cut for winter fuel, which gets translated as “wood for ‘eating” as the “h” is usually dropped! Fortunately we were treated to a wonderful organic lamb lunch instead of a wood snack.

  We have a translator, Phillippe, at our table. He is a distinguished retired physicist, now turned ethical banker.  It is a regular bank, but makes 60% of loans for ecological purposes and projects. Ardelaine borrowed 20 years ago from this bank to start up, and still borrows to get over seasonal bumps in income.  This bank will mortgage land, but not houses, because they never want to have to foreclose on a house.

  The wool mill here processes 70 metric tonnes a year, from 300 producers. While they used to wash it all locally, now it is sent to Biella in Italy for scouring. Originally the wool here was not fit for international markets, and the breeders were not interested in growing wool.  The organization here decided to get involved in all steps of processing wool to enhance the market. They now have own shearers. They shear from February to June, and then work in the shop to make wool-stuffed mattresses from June to February. The group sorts the good wool from the bad wool, and began paying a premium, so breeders started to pay attention to wool quality. As the group started monitoring every step the entire process started to improve.

  Marketing the wool became a problem. They started with mattresses, which worked quite well. Thirty years later they now work with 250 owners, and shear 50,000 sheep. The wool is sorted at shearing, and ends up totaling 70 metric tonnes. They now have 50 employees, and are the only closed-circuit wool endeavor in Europe. They have grown to the point that even customers can now take an interest and become shareholders.  They also cater to tourists, about 20,000 per year.  This area is a ski resort, which translates into both winter and summer attractions. These now include food, a restaurant, and the wool shop. The whole endeavor is a cooperative based on all local resources. They only sell locally, or by e-mail, and at a few fairs, and only on French territory.

  The wool mattresses are a tradition that nearly disappeared in the 70s.A group of 5 friends repaired the building, fixed the machines, and ultimately gave value to wool. This go to the breeders interested. Mattress wool is bulky, white wool from the Blanc de Massif Central breed. One double mattress uses 22 kilos of wool, and they now make two types of mattresses. One is from loose washed wool, the other is from carded wool. This provides for various degrees of firmness in the finished mattress. The mattresses have a ten year lifespan, but can then be returned and have the wool recarded, restuffed, resewn. The mattresses are stuffed, and then tufted with long needles by hand. The cotton exterior ticking has wonderful sheep motifs on it. All of the wool for mattresses is white, as black wool is culturally unacceptable for mattresses. The Americans and New Zealanders had a hard time understanding that it might be irrational – but is just the way it is!

  The pickers, carders, and other machines go back before WWII, and so are also maintained as a sort of working living history endeavor. The whole factory is classed as a living patrimony.

  They did have a few sheep in the barn, including the tiny Ouessant, a grey Corsican, and the Thones et Marthod with black points, horns, and used for dairy production.

  Mary Gibbings then started a discussion of Foula sheep on Shetland, which have a different fleece type than most standardized Shetlands. She is an energetic octogenarian (I think). At any rate, she has more energy than just about anyone else on the tour! She very quickly grasped the importance of the breed concept, of predictability, and the fact that while Foula sheep may be purebred, they are different. As a result, conserving them in the main Shetland breed serves neither of them very well, and both are important resources. Mary is part of a spinning group that made a fancy christening gown that Princess Anne took a liking to, all made out of Leicester Longwool yarn.

  We then went on to an animated diorama that the factory had put together, with a story about a village, and the various folks involved in sheep production in the village. It was great! They put a huge amount of effort into these, and it shows. The figures were illuminated one by one, as the narrator went from shepherd and sheep, to shearer and wool, carder, spinner, dyer, weaver, and the whole works!

  After this we headed to Lyon founded in 46 BC. This was a silk center in the 1700s, with up to 100,000 silk looms. This is on the Saone river. We arrived at our hotel, and then walked to a restaurant to enjoy potatoes, ravioli, and pasta.

  Here, as everywhere, the dinner ends with either us or the wait staff stacking plates. Lots of plates, right at the table.  This is even in the most elegant settings, and no doubt is one way to tell English tradition from French!  Stack the plates, put the dirty cutlery back on the table cloth. Then you are in France. Especially if the food and cheese are exquisite.

 Following dinner we had a “digestif” (code for high-test after-dinner drink!) made from raspberries. It was crystal clear, smelled like raspberries, and burned all the way down and also once it hit!

Some culinary delights and wine we had in France:


Wednesday,  2 May 2014  

   Breakfast was less eventful, and now we head through the Beaujolais region. This is a6 week old wine, never drunk before then. So, all on one day in November, over the whole world, the vintage is opened and drunk with celebration. It is produced in a mere six villages.

  Burgundy wine is protected by regulations as well, including quantity produced and the area from which produced. This is a common thread throughout most of the products we have encountered.

  Off in the distance we see Solutre rock which sports a steep vertical cliff on its south side. Back in the stone age they used to run horses over it in order to eat them. As a nod to that heritage they now have the primitive grullo Konik horses from Poland running on the area.

  We are also treated to a great tour of the Beaune hospital dating back to the 1400s. This was during the 100 years war and Burgundy sided with English. Flanders was part of Burgundy, so the architecture and the furnishings have a Flemish, English, and French flavor to them. The tapestries were of English wool as well as silk.

The Hospital or hospice of Beaune

  This was a time of social disruption, with famine and starvation. Nicolas Rolin was a rich man, but felt guilty, and worried a great deal about going to Hell. In order to stave off that fate he built a hospital for poor people. The architecture reflects both Flanders and Burgundy. For example, the many weather vanes are from Flanders. The site also included a large pigeon cote, in order to provide birds for the ultimate health elixir -pigeon soup. Nicolas’s wife built the tower because, only nobility could build pigeon cotes and she was the only one qualified to do so. Her name was Guigone de Salins. She and Nicolas owned vineyards, and even today there is a wine auction annually from a 60 hectare vineyard. It is put into 228 liter barrels, which are bought at two months and then left to age at the site, finally to be bottled in 300 bottles as 5 to 10 year old wine.

  The hospital itself was a strange place. Beams overhead each were supported with the heads of demons, breathing in the bad air. Around the sides were paired animal and human heads, depicting both the strengths and weaknesses of individuals. Included were pigs, rats, monkeys, and others.  The whole site was built over a river to aid air exchange and disposal. Over the centuries other hospitals branched out from here, all over the world. Two nuns who worked here while it was a hospital are still living.

  The site included a wonderful chapel with a great painted altar piece depicting the final judgment, and also a place with tapestries. They also had a pharmacy, complete with old jars labelled “Anise vermifuge” and “eye of crawdads (in French). Quite the place.


  We are getting close to Paris, with the land flattening out, and a few more details emerge from Pierre. France has 5,000,000 ewes, and still imports lots of lamb and wool. We also learn that Charolais are cattle, while Charollais are sheep. Helps to know that’s how it works!

  We pass lots of fields of grain, with blue cornflowers them. Also lots of windmills again, churning out renewable energy.


Roger Lundie, Marree Winnecombe, Wendy Dennis and Bruce Tinnock attended all the previous Congresses since 1979

Goodbye and thank you for coming to the Congress and going on the Tour.

Dawie du Toit and Trudel Andrag



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