Villagers board a truck before setting off to "measure sheep's milk"
By Caroline Juler
Romania has seen enormous changes since the end of Communist rule but, in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, life still seems to go on much as it has done for hundreds of years.
Being squashed between strangers on the back of a lurching lorry and whacked by overhanging branches may not sound like a recipe for happiness, but for me it was a sign that I had truly arrived.
Earlier that morning, I had joined a cheerful crowd of 50 or 60 farmers in a village square in south-west Romania for the annual smalzul or "measuring of sheep's milk".
We had clambered into a motley assortment of cars, vans, tractors (and this elderly truck) and were climbing through forests of tall, freshly sprouting beech trees to a sheep fold around 700m (2,300ft) higher up.
Zest for life
We were close to the Danube at the south-western end of the Carpathians.
The landscape to the west of the thickly wooded mountains was patterned with small orchards, horse-ploughed fields and pastures, examples of the modest but self-sufficient holdings that are vital for Romania's economic survival.
Flanking the village were clusters of little wooden farmsteads bounded by flowering hedges and connected by grassy lanes.
Smalzul is part of a farming calendar that could have originated in the Stone Age
The foothills had been scythed so thoroughly that they looked like velvet.
Life is tough in rural Romania. EU statistics say that nearly half the people here are living on or below the poverty line.
If you think everyone is miserable, though, you are wrong.
I was staying on a farm that supported seven people, three generations of one family.
The house had no hot running water or fridge and the lavatory was an old-fashioned, compost latrine in the garden.
Everyone worked on the farm and two people had other jobs as well.
There was plenty of food and I have rarely met people with such a zest for living.
Smalzul is part of a farming calendar that could have originated in the Stone Age.
The communists tried to suppress gatherings like this but the practice continued quietly throughout the 40 years they were in power.
Now in this village, 22 years after the end of that era, this is a festive day out which attracts students of folklore as well as curious visitors like me.
Like many Romanian highland villages, this one owns common land in the mountains.
Attached to those pastures are 18 sheep folds.
The more milk a villager's ewe yields, the more cheese he gets in the end
Most of the 450 households here have at least a couple of sheep, and it makes sense to graze them together and share the produce as well as the work.
As a rule, Romanians do not eat lamb so they keep sheep for making curd cheese.
The sheep graze the mountains from April to October and, during the summer, villagers take turns to milk the ewes and produce delicious varieties of cheese: cas, branza de burduf and urda.
They share it out among the owners. The amount they get depends on how much milk each one notched up at smalzul.
In the house where I was staying, the grandfather was the baciu, or chief shepherd, of one of the communal flocks.
"Shepherd" here means the sheep owner. They hire outsiders to protect the ewes.
I asked him where the villagers sold their cheese. He smiled at my consumerist attitude: "We don't sell it, we make it for ourselves."
That truck taking me to the smalzul was so crammed that, at first, I panicked.
My companions, from children to grannies, were crouching or perching precariously on a plank propped up by two logs. Nobody else seemed perturbed.
When they saw how scared I was, one or two of them pulled me to the benches running round the edge where I could breathe.
Everyone ducked when the lorry brushed through branches, and a teenager took the chance to pull down a handful of beech buds.
Eating some herself, she held out the rest to me: "Go on, take them, they're good."
She was right, the leaves were nutty and sweet.
Despite the discomfort, everyone was chatting, sharing jokes and teasing each other. It made me feel like a "real Romanian".
After two hours, we arrived at a mountain-top clearing. The sun was boiling and, in a pen beside the fold, were 300 shaggy, panting sheep.
The owners sat on one side of a special wooden screen with big portholes to let the sheep in one by one.
Each sheep owner's milk yield is measured with a notched stick
Although sweating profusely, the men were deft and soon there were 12 frothy buckets of milk waiting to be measured.
Watched by eagle eyes, the official measurer carefully smoothed the froth away and dipped a notched stick into the milk.
The baciu noted down the amounts and announced the final results in a melodious baritone that commanded respect.
The mayor and the Orthodox priest made rousing speeches.
Then we picnicked on roast meat, bright yellow polenta - which Romanians call mamaliga - bottles of pop and home-distilled plum brandy.
We had forgotten about the sheep. I only noticed them leaving the fold because of their bells.
The hired shepherd raised a hand as he passed. A bottle hung carelessly from his fingers.
Then he, the flock and his dogs vanished slowly into the woods, leaving us to make our even jerkier way home.
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