Monday, August 22, 2011

A Bit of a Boar

Driving through the countryside the other day – well, we can’t actually go anywhere without driving through the countryside – I spotted a man on the edge of a wood carrying a bow and arrow. The bow was big, modern, and professional-looking, and it reminded me that la chasse is almost upon us.
This is the season when signs appear along roadsides warning you that packs of dogs may erupt at any time from the undergrowth in pursuit of real, or imaginary, prey. There will be men in bright red hats lurking at field entries with large guns in hand, and whole fleets of white vans pulled up at the roadside in the middle of nowhere.
These men will, after the first foray, have gone back to base for a hunt breakfast. This will have involved huge amounts of food and some alcohol, to ward off the cold, and to bolster the spirits of those who will spend the entire time standing around waiting for something to happen.
La chasse is a very well organised event. In order to be allowed out with your gun and your fellow man, you will have a license, and to get that, you will have to pass an exam. This deals with the kind of game you are allowed to hunt, and what it looks like in all its stages of growth. You will be able to identify the right age of your prey, so that you don’t kill off next year’s animals. You will know which bird is edible, and what sex the boar is that is heading towards you bent on head-butting you to death.
All over the country there will be solitary men with guns broken over their arms, strolling through bare autumnal fields with their Breton spaniels racing around and ahead, eager to help bring home the spoils. And every Sunday morning at around 8am, there will be the pop-pop of sportsmen trying to shoot something startled out of its weekend torpor.
There will be stories in the papers about the ones that got away, and the ones that didn’t. One year, the police were called to a road accident involving a boar and a car. When they arrived, there was only a boar-shaped stain on the ground, and no sign of either. I suppose one man on his own couldn’t shift the boar – which is a big, big animal – and so called the authorities. But several men, in passing vehicles, say, who saw his dilemma, could manhandle the beast into a handily open back door, and take it away for later consumption. Boar is very good to eat.
Here in Brittany, it is possible to go hunting with a bow and arrow. It’s how it used to be done, after all; and if a boar stands on your inadvertently abandoned bow, it is not going to be able to shoot you in the leg whilst you hide up a tree (much the best idea).  Furthermore, you are less likely to accidentally shoot your colleagues, which happens a little too frequently for comfort.
The thing is that hunting here is about food. Unless it is causing havoc, if you can’t eat it, why go to the lengths of trekking across fields in the cold, consuming a huge breakfast, and standing around for hours trying to kill it? And if there is a problem – as when hares were found to be suffering from a form of leukaemia – the hunt bans the killing of the animals to give them chance to recover. It’s organised; it involves all levels of society; and it means that many households own large guns which are, by and large, responsibly used.
So, if your farmer neighbour invites you to partake of a dinner of civet of wild boar, remember to check his van for big dents as you go in. If there aren’t any, be very polite about the cooking.

©lms 2011

Saturday, August 13, 2011

History in the Making

It may have escaped your notice, but this year Normandy is celebrating its 1100th anniversary. In the year 911, the king of the Franks decided he had had enough of trying to fend off the attacks from the Vikings, and said, “Look, lads, why don’t you just take this bit of the country for your own, to look after?” Rather, you might say, in the manner of a parent with children squabbling over a toy – give them one each and tell them to play nicely.
The name of this king was Charles the Simple, which is rather unkind: unless it meant, “what a brilliantly simple idea that was about the Vikings”. (There was also a king with “the Bald” after his name, which wouldn’t be acceptable today, but Charles the Follicly Challenged doesn’t really work, however true). 
So in 911, Rollo, the leader of the Vikings, became the first head of what was to become known as Normandy – the land of the North men. I once had a long conversation in a doctor’s waiting room  with a Frenchman who, when I mentioned that, as the English had been ruled by William the Conqueror and his descendants for many years, that made us partly French, said very dismissively that William was a Viking so he didn’t count.
Now, you may think that 1100 years is a goodly slice of history to be celebrating: but that’s young, compared with some anniversaries remembered here in France. Down south, for instance is the little town of Vouillé La Bataille, in the Vienne (not the one in the Deux Sèvres, which is an impostor). The water tower, or château d’eau, without which no French town or village is complete, is decorated with the image of a warrior, and the date 507.
In that year, Clovis, king of the Franks, decided to take on the Visigoths, under Alaric II. There were also Ostrogoths, but they were busy elsewhere having a bit of a punch-up with the Byzantines, so couldn’t come to play, though they were invited.
The two armies met near Vouillé at dawn. The Visigoths used cavalry; they were very good at this, and hoped to carry the day, but things degenerated into a general bout of fisticuffs.  And in the middle of this, having their own set-to, were Alaric and Clovis. In those days, leaders led.
Clovis won by killing Alaric, at which point everyone downed tools and said, Fair enough, guv'nor, and went home. Well, actually, they took it as a sign from God, but the result was the same. The next year Clovis decided Paris was a good place to have a capital; so he could be seen as the founding father upon whom one could, in a vindictive moment, blame the creation of the Paris ring road.  Can’t have a Paris ring road without Paris, and there would be no capital city there without Clovis. I rest my case.
Whenever we went to the market – a very good one, on a Saturday morning – or to the supermarket at Vouillé, we drove through The Valley of the Dead – La Vallée aux Morts – which was a little off-putting, and caused us to regard the offal section with a rather jaundiced eye.
But without the fracas at Vouillé, Charles the Simple couldn’t have given Rollo the run of Normandy, as there wouldn’t have been a Frankish king at all. And then Rollo’s descendant William couldn’t have come to England, and Harold wouldn’t have got the arrow in his eye (unless he liked playing dangerous sports and didn’t listen to his mother).
So there you have it – one lucky punch, one handy stab, and the whole of English history was changed. Celebrate, by all means, the anniversary of Normandy: but don’t forget Clovis. It’s all his fault.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Blowing Hot and Cold

Most mornings when we open the curtains, there is mist lying between us and the hills. There is always a question mark hanging over the day – what will the weather do today?
Down in the Vienne, there was no mist.  At 7am, we would open the shutters, and there would be the sun, brilliantly clear, already heating the clay tiles and bleaching the grass. Summer was relentlessly certain and endlessly there.
That was part of the problem. It was just too hot. When we moved into the house, in early June, the grass was white and brittle. We were grateful for the shade of acacias which roared from dawn till dusk with exhausting bees, and for the march of apple and peach trees whose blossom enchanted and whose too-abundant fruit drew wasps and hornets to feast on the fallen.
That first year we planted out peppers, aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes, chillies, butternut squash and melons: they all thrived and produced excellent crops. I bottled ratatouille, and froze pints of soup which would be wonderful in the chill of autumn and the depths of winter. 
The following year was a cool summer, and wet. We learned that the plums came every alternate year; probably the trees were exhausted and had to recover. But the year after that we were back in the heat again. The soil baked so hard that it was impossible to weed, even by hand with a trowel. The only way to work at all was for one of us to go in with a fork, to break the surface, and the other to go on hands and knees and force the roots out. 
Watering was to be done by 10am or after 7pm, and hose pipes were banned. The authorities checked: they went out looking for suspiciously green patches from the air. A dear friend who was working in her garden (slightly green in places) was astonished to see a helicopter coming straight up her drive towards her. No more gardening in a bikini for her that year.
We lived in the half light, with shutters pulled to against the sun which rotted the upholstery of anything left near the windows.  We went barefoot on hot tiles inside the house, but daren’t go outside without shoes for fear of burnt soles.  We had a small plunge pool, and that first summer we used it quite frequently, late in the day, when the sun had gone behind the high hedges. We would sink nervelessly into the tepid water and just wallow, too wrung out to try to swim.
Even the weather reports in the paper couldn’t think of new ways to say, it will be sunny.
We went out one day in the air conditioned car, to buy an ice cream maker. It was 40C, and when we got back to the car, it wouldn’t start: the garagiste said the engine didn’t like that sort of temperature, and the only thing to do was to throw a bottle of water over it to cool it down.
Sleep was frequently impossible, with all windows open, fly screens in place, and a ceiling fan whirring. It was interminable.
So each morning, when we draw the curtains, and look at the mist, we relax, just a little. It’s summer, but it’s gentle.  We’ve done our time in the sun.

©lms 2011