A Game Journey
On a French boar hunt, life as a traqueur is not easy.
The day before the wild boar hunt, we’d eaten horsemeat, which was the traditional weekend lunch of chef Olivier de St. Martin’s childhood. Olivier had earlier taken me along to visit the village horse butcher, who complained that the younger generation of French didn’t eat so much horsemeat anymore. The butcher blamed it on inferior supermarket horsemeat, which he said came — like everything else — pre-packaged from America. “There’s also this idea that the horse is the friend of the man,” said the horse butcher, who also happened to be an old schoolfriend of Olivier’s.
That night, in Charleville-Mézières, near the Ardennes Forest, we drank champagne with Olivier’s uncle Jean, who proudly showed off a local hunting magazine which had published his snapshot of a huge, bloody, dead boar he’d recently killed. “That’s what you’ll be flushing out of the bushes tomorrow,” Olivier said to me with a laugh.
Olivier de St. Martin is a French chef who now lives in Philadelphia. He’s a superb chef and his restaurant Caribou Café was recently named Best French Restaurant — this in a city with exceptional, renowned French restaurants such as Le Bec Fin and Lacroix. At his restaurant, Olivier insists on bistro staples like organ meats, skate, and snails — and if Americans weren’t so fond of horses, he’d offer viande de cheval. Olivier is also a friend of mine. We’d both been complaining about the present fussiness of contemporary foodie culture, and he expressed a desire to get back to the basic, primal roots of the cooking of his childhood in hardscrabble Picardie and Champagne. This is cuisine based on unsexy vegetables like beets, turnips, endives, and leeks, as well as forest mushrooms, pungent Maroilles cheese, “pre-salted” lamb (grazed on salt marshes), and game — including boar. Olivier suggested we visit, and he invited me to go on a wild boar hunt with his uncle.
The next morning, still reeling from horse and champagne, it was time for the hunt. Olivier and Jean showed up before dawn at the hotel. “I’ve been up early salting the lamb for lunch,” Olivier said. Uncle Jean wore his brimmed hat cocked to one side and with his trimmed mustache looked a little like Ernest Hemingway.
There was frost on the autumn ground as the sun rose and we arrived at the meeting spot in the forest. Two dozen hunters gathered around in a semi-circle, receiving instructions from the hunt master. No blaze orange for these guys — they were dressed in spiffy outfits and most opted for tweed caps and berets. Some wore scarves. One guy wore a cape. The hunt master explained where some boars had been spotted the other day, and explained the forest was full of deer.
We munched bits of a pastry called galette au sucre as horns blew and the dogs barked inside their kennel. “Where are our guns?” I asked.
Olivier laughed and handed me a fluorescent yellow vest. “They’re not giving us guns,” he said. “Today, we are traqueur.”
This meant our job would be to walk through the woods, crashing through the low-lying brush, shouting, and generally trying to flush wild boars out of hiding. Meanwhile, two dozen hunters would stand ready to shoot. I was thankful when I heard the hunt master tell them, “No one is to shoot directly into the forest.”
They released the dogs and we traqueurs followed them into the woods as the hunters took their positions. The head traqueur told us to advance together in a line, at arm’s length, so none of us would accidentally be shot.
We were a motley bunch. I was positioned next to a girl who had dyed her hair bright red — for today only, a pretty good style decision. On my other side was a tough-looking bald guy wearing a ridiculously tiny knit cap that didn’t cover his ears. An odd camaraderie developed as we wandered through the forest, waving our arms like idiots, growling “Ho!” I learned that the other traqueurs were mostly local people who were looking to pick up a little extra cash on the weekend. Some of the women gathered chanterelle mushrooms that grew on the forest floor. The hunters meanwhile were middle-aged, upperclass men who had some bucks. So being a traqueur was sort of like caddying, except of course you might be shot.
As the morning wore on, we could sometimes hear the snorts of boar, and would catch a whiff of their musky smell, but we had no luck flushing any. A few times we flushed deer, and some of us would yell, “À la houe! Derrière!” and within seconds we’d hear the crack of gunfire.
After a few hours, everyone regrouped in the clearing and we took a break for lunch. This was when the real class system of the hunt revealed itself.
The traqueurs lit a makeshift bonfire, unwrapped sandwiches, and sat down on logs for lunch. The hunters, meanwhile, set up at long, covered picnic tables. Since we were with Uncle Jean, we were upgraded and invited to the hunters' lunch. We ate pre-salted lamb and lentils and vegetable potage. Other hunters grilled sirloin au poivre, and tripe. There were meat tourtes and pâté. There was lots of red wine. I asked why the hunters and the traqueurs had to eat separately and someone said, “Well, you know, you don’t wash the towels with the rags.”
As we finished our lunch, a group of traqueurs came over to the hunters’ side and — seeming to be offended — insisted that we come join them. It seems the traqueurs had broken open a bottle of local moonshine called bistouille and were drinking shots. They insisted we join in, too. “You had better be careful,” Olivier told me.
The bald guy with the tiny knit cap, in particular, kept passing us the bottle, trying to get us drunk. After a couple of good-comrade sips, Olivier and I just pretended to swig from the bottle. The bald guy, on the other hand, kept tossing back the firewater. Soon enough, the hunters were eager to find a postprandial boar to shoot, and called for us traqueurs to trudge back into the forest.
The first area we flushed after lunch included a steep hill that went up several hundred feet. After all the wine and bistouille, it seemed somewhat discourteous, or even sadistic, of the hunters. At that point, the ways I might die on the boar hunt seemed to be mounting.
All of the traqueurs appeared to be in bad shape when we finally arrived at the hilltop, but the bald guy with the tiny knit cap was in the worst. He swayed back and forth, holding onto a tree. He tried to stand and fell forward, head over heels, nearly a hundred feet down the hill. After that, he couldn’t get up at all and laid back down in wet leaves. Olivier and another guy dragged him, on his ass, to the bottom of the hill and left him lying on the trail. His dog stood guard nearby, and would not let anyone near its drunken owner.
We continued waving our arms and shouting. We continued to hear and smell boar. But all we seemed to be flushing was deer. “À la houe! Derrière!”
Finally, we neared the end of the last flush, and stepped into the clearing. I could see the line of hunters, guns trained. Suddenly, directly in front of me, a deer popped up and broke into a sprint. “À la houe!” someone shouted. With the deer directly in front of me, this was my first thought: The hunters won’t shoot into the forest. Second thought: I am not in the forest, I am in the clearing, and therefore I will be shot. Panic immediately set in. And without thinking, I lunged headfirst back into the woods. Like a total wuss.
At least, I thought I looked like a total wuss. When I stood and brushed myself off, some of the Frenchmen came over with admiring faces. They actually seemed impressed. “You tried to tackle that deer!” they said.
No one ended up shooting a boar that afternoon.
Afterwards, over cocktails in the hunt lodge, there was much bemused talk about the barbaric American who had tried to tackle a deer and wrestle him to the ground with his bare hands. “You are a cowboy!” they said.
After the hunt, we joined the rest of Uncle Jean’s family at a rustic hilltop inn. There were heads of wild boar lining the walls. Dinner was, of course, game. In this case, we were served grives, or thrush. Tiny birds cooked whole and served in a sage butter sauce. We dove in, little heads and beaks first.
In the middle of dinner, a woman at the next table became short of breath. She seemed to be clearly experiencing a heart attack. Uncle Jean calmly stood to help, and her dining companions laid her down on the ground in the middle of the dining room. The waitress phoned an ambulance. About 45 minutes later, the ambulance finally arrived, with the most nonchalant paramedics I have ever witnessed strolling into the dining room — one stubbing out a cigarette. They offered the woman a cup of water and sat her on a stretcher.
The chef, furious that this was happening during his Saturday dinner rush, kept poking his head out of the kitchen. “Did she die yet?” he hissed at his wait staff.
After dinner, as we prepared to leave, Uncle Jean introduced the chef to Olivier, explaining that his nephew “owns a French restaurant in Philadelphia.”
“Pfffffft,” the chef said, a classic French mouth fart, with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Ah,” he said. “It’s barbaric over there, no?” • 20 November 2007
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).