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My Last Hunt

I didn't like the idea from the beginning. But my friend Max kept phoning. He had arranged for us to be invited to a wild boar hunt on the following Friday. The invitation had come about because of an earlier Village Letter I'd written, called "Eating the Wild Boar."

"French hunters are notoriously closed to outsiders," Max told me. "But these guys liked the way you approached the subject in your Letter, and they would like for you to come along on a hunt. It's very flattering to be invited, even more so since you're an American."

My wife Claude agreed.

"It will give you another perspective on French life," she said. "It's not something you might want to do more than once, but I think you should do it."

I tried to wriggle out. "Maybe I'll be in Paris."

No, you'll be back by then," she reminded me.

The hunters gather. The former bistro owner(left)takes care of the first order of business--eating.

After Max's third phone call, I said, "Tell him I'll go, but only if it doesn't rain."Then I began to hope for rain.

It was raining on Thursday. "This might work out okay," I said to myself. But when I got up early Friday morning the rain had stopped and the sky was clearing. I let out a sigh of resignation.

Max arrived at 8:15. I'd asked if I should bring anything and he'd replied, "Yes, a bottle of wine." For a hunt? Ah, la France. I selected a better than average Côte du Rhône.

One of the hunters was waiting outside the gate in his small white panel truck, which was full of dogs. Max and I were to follow him to the site of the hunt, about 45 minutes away, to the west, in one of the poorest, prettiest, and least populated areas of France. Although it is not generally known, since they want to keep it a secret, this area--called La Creuse--has become popular with French artists and movie stars, who are moving in to buy holiday homes from farmers whose children are fleeing to the cities. The sun rose brilliantly, spotlighting the unspoiled, hilly countryside.

After frequent turnoffs, during miles of snaking blacktop, we arrived at a big metal gate, with a sign saying "Private Hunting Park." The gate was unlocked and we entered and turned onto a muddy track of a road. It was an area of what the French call "petit bois"--small trees, often scraggly, with a secondary growth of high brambles and bush.

The "park" was 45 hectares (112 acres), and owned by the mayor of a small village not far away. For 1500 francs (about $250) hunters could rent the reserve for the whole day. An additional charge would be made for any game killed. We quickly reached a white hunting lodge. Inside on the left was a rusty old fridge; on the other end, a gas stove. In the middle of the room was a wood-burning stove. The place was without running water.

At ten a.m. we began to eat. And drink. And I started worrying about how safe this hunt was going to be.

Several hunters were already there.

Greetings were exchanged.

"Ça va?"

"Oui. Ça va. Ça va?"

And one of them immediately opened a bottle of white wine.

Not wanting to appear unsociable, I accepted a glass.

At nine in the morning, let me assure you, a glass of wine calls attention to itself, especially after only a half-bowl of cereal for breakfast.

Soon the other hunters arrived in panel trucks, like our guide, whose hauling space had been converted into dog cages. The dogs were left in the trucks to snarl at each other, while we went inside to sit at a long table with wooden benches on either side. A former bistro owner, a big fat jolly man with a bushy mustache, and his wife, a husky woman with dyed short brown hair, arrived in a car loaded with food, water, bread, wine, whiskey--and a bottle of gas to hook up to the stove. They had been hired to do the cooking.

"We won't be back here for lunch," Max said. "You'd better eat well."

"Jeez!" I said. "At ten a.m.?"

Wine was opened and passed around. The first course arrived, a fillet of mackerel cooked in white wine and spices. Then came a homemade pâté. After that a sizzling omelette with bits of bacon. All of it served with plenty of freshly baked country bread.

As the wine began to flow, Max, who was sitting across from me, loudly announced to the table: "Zalin is the best writer in America."

"Max, Max," I said.

"Well then, one of the five best," Max said.

"My friend Max exaggerates," I said to the group. They laughed genially, having already, I suspect, figured this out.

There were seven hunters, plus me and Max as guests, and the two cooks. The hunters were mostly in their mid or late thirties. Except for one--who was overweight and worked in the post office--they were slim and rather handsome, longtime friends who owned small businesses ranging from bricklaying to a bakery. One of them was a taxidermist, around six-two, with long brown hair and a pleasant, joking personality. In the hierarchy of hunters, he was second to the quiet-spoken Guy, Max's close friend, to whom all of them subtly deferred.

At 10:40 a.m. we moved out. To my relief and astonishment this was to be a hunt without guns.

It was clear to me that I was with men who had a deep respect for the traditions of hunting and protecting the environment.

For them hunting was not a macho status symbol, as it appeared to be for so many of the hunters from the big cities that I had run into.

They loved everything about hunting. This was obvious by their every word and gesture.

As one of them said to me, "We are really the last of the breed. It will be over in a few years, because the younger generation isn't interested in hunting."

So I had no qualms about being with men like this. I did have a few qualms, however, about going hunting with guys who had drunk so much wine before noon. Would they accidentally shoot me?

To my relief, not to mention astonishment, I learned that this was to be a hunt without guns. Only knives would be used. A total of 40 dogs would be in play and if they cornered a wild boar the hunters would move in to slit the boar's throat. Now this was sportingly dangerous, because the boar will attack when threatened, and has been known to kill. I was impressed and regretted my misplaced thoughts about mixing wine and guns. Since there was no chance of being shot accidentally, we would be able to move up and down the road, following the dogs in the bush as they made the chase.

At 10:40 a.m. we moved out with the yelping dogs. The real hunters, six of the seven men, entered the bush with the dogs, while Max and I and the fat one kept to the road. We must have walked back and forth ten times during the hunt, a total of ten kilometers, six miles.

The kill is made with a quick stab. Having fallen down like a klutz, I arrived too late to get other shots.

I was pulling for the boar. And to my surprise they proved smarter than the dogs.

The wild pigs would run in a circle, then cut back and forth, and the dogs, which knew only how to follow a scent, would take no shortcuts and the boar would finally lose them.

Then the hunters would drive the dogs to another location and the chase would begin anew

At one point a boar crossed the road very close to me, pushing my adrenaline into the red zone. He was the king of the chase--a big black brute who looked dangerous as hell and ran with unbelievable speed. I tried to take a photo as he thundered by, but he was too fast for my shaky hands.

Saying a Prayer

I look at my watch. One o'clock. I am tired of the whole thing. I want to go home. When I ask Max what time it will end, he says, "Oh this will last till nightfall."

"Nightfall! Ohmigod, what have I got myself into?"

The owner of the game reserve, the mayor, is walking with us. His mobile phone chimes and he begins to talk to someone who wants to rent a cafe in his village--talks for a half an hour, all of which I can unavoidably overhear. Nothing irritates me more than to be forced to listen to people yakking on a mobile phone, to be reminded that eighty-three percent of all human conversation consists of inanities and banalities. Thank you for not sharing, is what I want to say to them.

It begins to rain. Maybe it will rain so hard they will give up, I hope. But it soon stops.

I am miserable--tired, cold, wet, my lower back hurts. My attitude undergoes a change: I become bloodthirsty. Maybe if they get a boar we'll stop and go home. Damn boars! They're the cause of my misery!

Suddenly, at 1:50 p.m., the yelping of the dogs grows to thunderous proportions. Two hunters happen to be nearby and they motion for me to follow them down a sidetrack. We can hear the big black boar being chased. But he gets away.

Then just as suddenly it appears that the dogs have surrounded another boar. The hunters tell me to follow them, and I head into the bush behind them. But I'm unable to keep up. A tall bramble bush slaps me on the forehead, knocking me on my rear end, like some klutzy city guy. I scramble up, looking around in embarrassment to determine if anybody saw.

Forty snapping, snarling dogs have a gray-black boar surrounded twenty meters away. In theory, the dogs are supposed to surround but not to kill. Since these dogs belong to a number of different hunters, discipline has broken down, and they are closing in.

The boar squeals. It is not the sound of a savage wild beast but the sound of a pig that is about to die, a sound I've heard before when a domesticated pig was being butchered in an abbattoir. Later, one of the hunters remarks that the plaintive pig squeal jarred him too. The big black brute would have been snorting and fighting for his life.

The hunters are waiting for me to arrive to take photos. One of them wades into the pack and beats the dogs back away from the boar with his whip. As soon as I get there, the hunter unsheaths his long knife and dispatches the boar with a swift stab to the neck. The boar instantly falls dead .

None of the hunters wants to clean and prepare the boar. But my friend Max steps up to do the job.

My camera runs out of film. It takes me several minutes to reload. They beat the dogs back from around the dead boar.

The other hunters arrive. I finally get my camera set. I can imagine that the shots I'm taking might turn off some people from hunting forever.

This ends the hunt. The hunters are happy. Four of them carry the boar out of the bush, and we walk back to the lodge. It is exactly two p.m. I'm happy too. Maybe this is the last of it and I can go home.

When we get to the lodge they sling the boar up. He weighs 35 kilos, 77 pounds, not so big but not so small either, yet nothing like the big black brute that outsmarted all the dogs. There is a moment of hesitation. Who is going to do the butchering? The hunters back away. They want nothing to do with it.

Max steps up. Yes, Max, the jack of all trades, is also a butcher. His friend Guy helps him, and they clean and prepare the boar in twenty minutes. The other hunters hasten into the lodge and take seats at the table.

Everybody is in high spirits. The hunt has been a success. The two cooks bring whiskey and pastis and slices of saucisson. Refills are quickly demanded. I nurse a small glass of red wine, as I do for the rest of the afternoon, because I feel something of a stranger in this strange land.

The hunters are happy for me for, by chance, I happened to be nearby when the kill took place and was able to get some rare photos. If the kill had taken place just a few meters away in the thick bush, I would have missed it.

At four p.m., after much talk and drink, food is served. When the first dish arrives, Max loudly says, "Oh Zalin won't eat that." Then he describes the dish and its provenance in great clinical detail.

It is thin slices of calf stomach (fraise de veau), entwined like a bowl of pasta, served with a mustard and herb vinaigrette sauce. Well, I'll eat anything since I'm a guest. And in fact I find it quite tasty--if only Max hadn't told me what it was! My policy for food, as a guest, developed years ago in Southeast Asia, is don't ask, don't tell.

The main course moves into more familiar territory--duck breast served with diced potatoes and garnished by cèpe mushrooms. It is delicious and I ask for seconds.

Max pays the mayor/owner for the boar, 600 francs, about $100. After much revelry and talk, I ask Max if we can leave. After we finish coffee, he says. Even though the hunters are reluctant to accept, I insist that I chip in 100 francs to cover my share of the food.

Finally after dark we say our good-byes and shake hands all around. Max doesn't know the way home, so we follow his friend. Both of them, full of pastis and whiskey and wine, drive like demons. It takes us 30 minutes in the dark to return, whereas it took us 45 minutes in the light of morning to arrive. I am never so happy as when I see the outlines of Panou's village in the distance.

As I slide out I thank Max for a day to remember. Watching his tail-lights fade, I give further thanks to keep a promise I'd made during the hunt.

"Thank you, God, for getting me through that. I'll never go hunting again."

A week later Max stops by for lunch. I give him copies of the photos I took, to distribute to the hunters, with my thanks.

"Hunters can't be fooled," Max says. "They don't say much but they are sensitive to a guy's vibrations--and they like you very much. They think you've got the right attitude for a hunter. And they want to invite you to another hunt, this time with shotguns."

"Uh, Max," I say. "Tell them I really appreciate it. But I think I'm scheduled to be somewhere far, far away--like Timbuktu."

Recipe Five

Fillet of Mackerel in White Wine

Everything I ate at the hunt was very good, not excluding Max's vividly described calf's stomach dish. The former bistro owner and his wife were excellent cooks. But I was bowled over by their filet de maquereaux au vin blanc.

This is a starter known to everybody in France, and so common that you can buy it in cans like sardines. One wouldn't describe sardines as being an elegant dish. Yet elegant is a word that comes to mind when a homemade fillet of mackerel is served as a starter for an informal dinner with friends. Elegant, that is, if it is really prepared right--with no shortcuts.

The day ended the way it began-- with great food and wine. This was the first time I'd ever had calf's stomach. It is very hard to find now because tripe shops all over France have gone out of business since the advent of "mad cow disease."

To do it right you must use fresh mackerel, emptied, with the head cut off, but not de-boned. Removing the bones before cooking any fish removes some of the delicate taste --a lesson that has been lost to many Americans.

So we start with four small mackerel which have been emptied and washed to remove all traces of blood. And first we parepare a court bouillon in which to poach them.

The liquid must cover the fish, so choose your casserole accordingly. Since a certain amount of heating followed by cooling goes on, the court bouillon may be made in advance.

In a casserole pour two cups of dry white wine and two cups of water. Add a sliced onion, a carrot cut in thin slices, a tablespoon of rock salt, four peppercorns, a bay leaf, a small branch of thyme, and a strip of lemon peel.

Bring the court bouillon to a simmer for 15 minutes, then turn off the heat and let it cool completely.

Now place the four mackerel in the liquid and turn the heat to a level that brings it just shy of a simmer. Do not let it boil and try to keep it at just a wink of a simmer for ten minutes. Then turn off the heat and let it cool.

When the fish are a little cool, take them from the casserole. Using a knife, gently remove all skin, which will peel away quite easily.

When the fish are quite cold, turn them into fillets and remove all bones. Then reheat the liquid and reduce by half. Stir a little French Dijon mustard into the liquid, and pour over the fish. The mackerel should be served only when cool.

The dish combines the three best elements of French cooking: attention to detail, freshness, and wonderful taste.

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