Before approaching the sheep station we had to take precautions, the Romanian sheepdogs (AKA Romanian Shepherds) would be loose so we had to call the shepherd (human) to meet us and make sure the dogs didn’t see us as a threat to their family or flock. These dogs can take down bears and wolves, and do. You don’t mess with Romanian Shepherds. This post is about our experiences of visiting a typical Maramures sheep station with Penny of The Village Hotel Breb. This was part of our life in Romania.
The shepherd wandered down the field, a huge furry mop of a dog bounding ahead of him. But this was OK, the dog was calm and knew we were friends. I wouldn’t want to be around if the situation was otherwise. Still out of sight of the sheep we passed 4 or 5 more dogs, in every shade and every size above medium. All thickly coated and matted to cope with the extremes of the Romanian winter.
It reaches -20ºC up here in Maramures, the far north of Romania, and these dogs stay outside, on duty, right through the winter to keep the sheep safe from wolves and bears. That’s a job for serious dogs, in large numbers.
But we weren’t here to look at the dogs, or even the adorable spring lambs, safely penned indoors for now.
We were here, up a mountain atop a muddy mountain trail, for dinner.
Restaurants are thin on the ground in rural Maramures, the most northerly part of Romania. If we want to eat out we make arrangements to visit a village home where the lady of the house will prepare us something delicious. Or, of course, we walk up a hill to have dinner with the shepherds and their dogs at a sheep station. That’s just how we roll in these parts.
Romanian Shepherds, Sheepdogs and Sheep Stations
This “Dinner at the Sheep Station” dining experience is organised for guests and friends by the owners of The Village Hotel, Breb, Maramures. That’s “our” village and the owners are British, they’re our “tribe” here in Romania. We lived there on and off for 3 years and long to return .
The spring lambs were newly arrived, so Penny insisted the boys should visit the flocks for an overdose of cute the very next time she took a guest up to dine. We were delighted to meet a young Chinese traveller, from Hong Kong, as we shared her dining and cultural evening.
Penny has struck up a friendship with the family who run this particular sheep station and the mother is always happy to cook up some goulash, break out the bread and home made sheep’s cheese and keep the horinka or beer flowing for guests as they enjoy the hospitality and incredible surroundings.
Sheep Farming in Romania
I’m not an expert and my grasp of Romanian is beyond beginner, but this is what I know so far.
In the villages, each family may own a few sheep, say 4 or 5. In the depths of winter these sheep come back to the villages, to barns and compound, to be fed on hay and kept safe from bears or wolves. In spring, once the grass is growing again, they move back out to the fields and mountainsides, rising higher and higher as the weather improves.
The villagers band together to pay shepherds to tend their sheep in large flocks, or form a rota, with families taking it in turn to shepherd. The shepherds sleep up on the hills, in makeshift shelters with wood burning stoves, it’s harsh but incredibly beautiful up there.
The sheep are kept for milk and for wool and both are essential for survival up here in the Maramures villages. Blankets, rugs and traditional coats are all made from home produced wool. Shepherds traditionally wear full-length sheep skins to keep themselves warm at -20ºC and the milk is mostly used for cheese. This means that once the lambs are born they are quickly slaughtered, an Easter treat, so that milking can continue through the year and humans will have cheese to keep them alive. I know it sucks, but that’s life.
The owners of the sheep, the village families, receive cheese throughout the year dependent on the number of sheep they own. There is a sheep milking festival coming up in May where milk and cheese quotas are decided. I’ll be checking that out for you too. This year it falls just before the spring ploughing festival.
This sheep station , our dinner venue, is a little different in that the family owns all 300 sheep that they tend. They’re local sheep farming tycoons.
Spring Lambs in Romania
You’ve got to love the spring lambs!
But the sad truth is, they will live just a few weeks, born to keep their mothers in milk and be a treat on the Orthodox Easter table. The reality of all those picturesque sheep and shepherds.
Once the ewes lamb, they’re moved indoors to these pens to keep them safer still.
These few sheep remain outdoors. Possibly barren ewes.
Romanian Shepherd Dogs
Romanian shepherd dogs are ridiculously big, powerful animals. They have to be to keep flocks safe from wolves and bears. The dominant colour is white and those thick coats are vital for winter survival. These are outside dogs and winter temperatures of -20º C are absolutely normal
What’s really interesting is that these huge working dogs are vegetarian. They receive a daily ration of boiled corn and sheep’s milk. Of course, to feed them meat would be impossible when so many are needed to protect the flocks.
Eating Like the Romanian Shepherds.
Dinner was simple, but lovely. I imagine this is exactly what the Romanian shepherds would eat up here in the hills.
Plenty of country style bread, a tomato and a roughly hacked onion ( rather like the time we had dinner in the tuica shed), with home made sheep’s cheese sprinkled with salt.
We also got another chance to try pig fat on a stick – slanina.
Of course, the tuica and beer were on the table and free flowing. This is Romania after all.
Next the mother set about roughly chopping pork, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic and peppers. They all went in a huge cauldron over a wood fire. Saute in fat or oil for a while, add boia ( paprika), then top up with water and simmer.
I’m vegetarian ( newly attempting vegan), I didn’t eat the pork goulash, but the boys loved it so I can pass on their good review. Good, hearty home cooking and the walking and cool mountain air gave them a huge appetite.
As sun set we wandered up the hill to take in the view, stunning, before saying our goodbyes and walking back through the fields.
It’s a beautiful way to spend an evening.
If you like the sound of this dining experience and are heading to the north of Romania, you need to stay at The Village Hotel, Breb. If you come, let me know, we’ll walk down and say hi. Maybe come with you to the sheep station and enjoy a beer or three. See our related posts on life in Breb and Romania below and don’t forget to share to Pinterest!
Wednesday 2nd of May 2018
Maramures is a great travel destination in Romania regardless of the season. They have so many interesting traditions which they preserved to this day and many artisans create such wonderful objects, especially out of wood. The sheep station experience is great, that's authentic for the region. I'm glad you presented it in such nice words.