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Posted by David Eley on 15-08-2008
Driving back across an arid yet brightly hued Spain from northern Portugal's Douro valley, to my home in St Jean de Luz on the French-Spanish frontier, is usually uneventful. On the last occasion I made this journey from Pinhão, the high Douro's rustic capital, via Alijo, Bragança and on to Vallodolid, the autumn weather was simply perfect. By-passing Alijo and heading due north, the winding and quite narrow road breaks through an area of bracken and coniferous woodland, eventually meeting the main IP4 and the highway home. Entering the Vale de Cunho I witnessed a most extraordinary sight; as the road traversed a well worn woodland crossing, a surging mass of slate grey goats, issued forth from a gap in the trees on my left; braking hurriedly, I drew to an abrupt halt and an unbelievably enchanting sight unfolded before me...
It was like a dam-break: the goats moved so quickly across the road, and their goatherd, draped in vivid blue and carrying a wooden staff, vanished amid the seething grey mass of hair and hooves comprising more than 200 lyre-horned beasts, before entering the darkening woods beyond. The image was positively biblical and came as such a surprise. Having parked my car off the road I had to move very quickly and ran frantically into the woods pursuing the writhing sea of horns, punctuated by occasional pale coloured sheep and benignly kept in check by two substantial farm dogs. Goat meat ‘Cabrito' is a very important part of the Portuguese diet, so too is goat's milk, used to make local cheeses and many artisanal products. Do click on the image above to see the full set of photographs from this fairytale scene and visit page 2 of the Vale Meão section in the New Douro microsite, to see even more goats in a breathtaking Tolkien location.
I am now off to visit Frédéric Minvielle, the jovial fromager and affineur based in the French Basque country. Four years ago he miraculously metamorphosed from professional sommelier into an artisanal master of cheese working with star chefs, including Ducasse protégé Cédric Béchade and Michelin 2 star Hélène Darroze in Paris - also supplying London's newly refurbished Connaught hotel ... more of this story next week.