I thought I knew what rain was—and then I moved to the French Pyrenees Atlantiques. When it rains here, even the poshest Parisian would look out the window and succumb to using the typical French expression ‘Il pleut comme vache qui pisse’ (it’s raining like a cow pissing). The French don’t muck about when it comes to describing rain, and rightly so. Rain isn’t romantic; at least not in these parts. It doesn’t pitter-patter, or sprinkle, or inspire nostalgic songs. It turns the sky black, it sends people running for cover, and you can forget your raindrops on roses Maria von Trapp; around here, it comes down in ropes.
Could there possibly be a more perfect hypothesis for a business plan?
Meet Christophe Pando, artisan umbrella maker and the only producer of a true shepherds’ umbrella in France. Purchasing an umbrella in these parts is a serious business, so manufacturing one that’s going to protect a shepherd on an exposed mountainside at 2000m above sea level in wet, lightning zapped winds, clearly calls for a skilled professional.
But let’s just rewind a bit…for the Australians, like me. What exactly are shepherds doing up there, on an exposed mountainside, in a storm…holding an umbrella? Don’t they just jump in their car and nip home for a nice glass of Bordeaux and wait till it all blows over? Not here. The answer lies in tradition, and, a very tricky French word I suggest (based on experience) fledgling French speakers avoid using with alcohol—transhumance.
It happens every year in late May or early June and it starts in the very early hours before dawn. The transhumance is an annual journey made by shepherds and their flocks, who set off on foot (did I mention tradition) and make the long, uphill climb through narrow streets and villages into the Pyrenees mountains where they stay for the duration of the summer. They go there to graze the fresh spring pastures and it’s this diet of sweet new grass, native herbs and clean mountain water that gives the local Brebis sheep milk cheese it’s unique flavor. Once there, the shepherd’s live in small stone huts, picturesquely nestled into the lush green mountainsides amidst fields of daffodils, cyclamen, and wild iris—yes, it really is that idyllic. It’s also where they make the cheese, still transported by donkey, down steep mountain trails to their farmhouses in the valley for maturing. Shepherds spend a typical summer’s day milking and traversing the mountainsides with their flocks, generally, with the help of a Border Collie and a Pyrenean mountain dog, to steer the sheep around steep rocky crevasses and protect them from predators like bear or fox. As with any mountain climate, the weather is notoriously unpredictable, so not only do shepherds need protection from storms, they also need to escape the fierce summer sun—hence, the shepherds’ umbrella.
Christophe and his father Hervé’s shop has been supplying shepherds since 1896, and their tailor-made umbrella seems to have been ticking all the boxes ever since. To start with, it’s aerodynamically designed to cope with high wind; the 9 cane supports are specifically spaced to stop it from spinning, and presumably, flying away. Secondly, rather than having a curved J shaped handle, theirs has a round, hand turned beech knob, allowing the shepherds to balance the umbrella in their top pocket and have both hands free when needed. As for the all-important issue of lightning, they’ve thought of that too; all metal parts are brass mounted onto a wooden frame that’s topped with a long hand turned point made of local beech wood. The fabric is double layered impermeable cotton, making it both a dry shelter and a good source of shade. Of course there’s also the important element of elegance, which, in true French style, is taken care of with a combination of form and function; the main stick of the umbrella is made of locally grown, hand turned oak; tough, beautifully finished and as fine a walking stick as you’ll find anywhere; in fact, Christophe tells me the shepherds actually walk with the folded umbrella facing upwards; utilising the long point at the top as a generous handle, and the round knob at the bottom as a sturdy base.
Shepherds umbrellas take around four and a half hours to make. The fabric is hand stitched to bamboo batons, and the wooden knob, central stick, and tip are all hand turned on a lathe in the workshop. They’re a far cry from the battered and blown inside-out Chinese imposters that fill our garbage bins every year, so it’s no surprise they’ve become popular with more than just shepherds. Pau’s mayor, François Bayrou wouldn’t be caught out in a storm without one, and generally, gives one to visiting dignitaries. It’s also the umbrella of choice for French football star Zinedine Zidane and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.
When I first met Christoffe at his shop, a shepherd was on his way out. He’d just returned his 26-year-old umbrella for re-covering. If I wasn’t already sold, that was enough for me. If something as elegant, artisanal and functional can last a shepherd 26 years in these weather extremes, then that’s the umbrella I want to be reaching for when the sky next turns black. What’s more, Christophe’s young son Théo is about to become the third generation to join the Pando family business, so I might even manage to get mine re-covered as well!
Parapluie des Pyrénées. 12, rue Montpensier. 64000 PAU, France. Tél : 05 59 27 53 66 www.parapluiedeberger.com