A native sheep breed, known as Brianzola, used to be reared in the hills leading up to the Prealps in Lombardy. This area, historically called Brianza, is full of lakes and does not have extensive pastures. The Brianzola sheep would be put out to graze in marginal zones, on steep and often terraced land, and their grazing served an important purpose, holding back the otherwise uncontrolled advance of the broadleaf woods.
The Brianzola is one of several breeds of large Alpine sheep raised primarily for their meat. Tall and medium-large in size, the males can reach weights of up to 100 kilos while the females can be to 80 kilos. The head has a convex profile and neither rams nor ewes have horns. The hanging ears are thin while the fleece is white and unspotted, with the medium-fine wool becoming a short, shiny coat on the head (to behind the ears), belly, throat and limbs.
Originally found throughout the hilly part of Brianza, and particularly common around Lecco and Como, it was long known as the razza locale (“local breed”) or nostrana (“ours”). The name Brianzola dates back to the 1930s and appears for the first time in publications produced by the Province of Como’s itinerant agriculture teachers.
The breed was traditionally reared in the farmhouses then taken to graze in nearby hilly pastures, particularly those which were hard for cows to reach. They helped keep fields and meadows cropped and were appreciated for their thick, valuable wool, their fecundity, their maternal temperament and a good yield of meat.
Brianzola lamb is often used in the local cuisine, but the mutton is also eaten, after the sheep are slaughtered at the end of their useful life (at around 8 years old). The meat can be used in various ways, both in traditional recipes, like mutton stewed with rosemary and lamb stew with potatoes, and in creative dishes like mutton tartare.
Farmers shear the sheep twice a year, in spring and fall. Some of the wool is washed and carded locally for use in mattresses and cushions, while the rest is sent to factories in Biella for spinning.
Farming of the Brianzola sheep reached its peak between the 1930s and ‘50s, but immediately after the Second World War the entire agricultural sector underwent a crisis and the number of sheep fell steeply. By the end of the 1990s, there were only around 60 Brianzola sheep left, divided between two farms, and the breed was put on the Register of Sheep Populations with Limited Distribution.
In 1999 the Brianzola Sheep Association was founded by what was then the Mountain Community of Eastern Lario and a handful of committed farmers. In 2004 the Region of Lombardy included the sheep in its rural development plan as a breed to be safeguarded, meaning farmers could access subsidies. This led to a slow revival, and by 2015 over 50 farms were breeding the sheep, distributed across the provinces of Lecco, Como and Monza Brianza. But since then the numbers have been falling, and the 35 farmers who currently belong to the association have decided to join the Presidium in order to escalate the efforts to promote the breed.
The production protocol specifies that the animals are primarily raised on pasture and that their feed (when grazing is not possible) is based on forage and only a minimum of cereals. GMOs and silage are not allowed. The lambs consume only their mother’s milk and are not weaned before 45 days.
Hilly and mountainous areas in Lecco, Como and Monza Brianza provinces, Lombardy region
The sheep are slaughtered throughout the year, and the lambs generally around Easter.