Upon arrival, we were welcomed by Cinzia Angiolini, one of the few shepherds still present in the valley, and the main player within the Zeri lamb consortium, which counts 18 producers (many of them women) operating in the mountainous areas around Zeri, Mulazzo, Pontremoli, Filattiera, and Bagnone. Chatty yet fast-moving, Cinzia chaperoned us into the rectory; she treated us to a simple lunch of herb-spiked frittata, cured meats, local cheese and homemade sponge cake before taking us on a walk to the closest pen to pay a visit to part of her herd.
There, she began to call her many sheep by name – Adelina, Isy. And the sheep, one by one, began to move; they came closer, like the mice in The Magic Flute, while the dogs – an old maremmano and a docile mutt – encouraged the gathering. And as we witnessed this display of obedience and devotion, with bleating as a background sound, Cinzia told us more about the herd, the land, and the perks and perils of her job.
The zerasca is a rare breed of sheep original to the Zeri valley. Prized for the tender and succulent meat, its very existence is now protected by a Slow Food Presidium, as well as by strict production guidelines shared by all the consortium producers since its foundation in 2001. According to these guidelines, the Zeri lambs are raised for three months – fed on the rich milk of their mothers and pastured on the diverse, organic vegetation of the Lunigiana valley – before they are processed. As a result, their meat is not only more sustainable, but also more complex and rich in flavour and aroma.