It was still dark when chiming clock downstairs woke me and reminded me how early it was. Five thirty in the morning and handful of stubborn stars still hung in an inky sky. The mountain air was dewy and cool and after packing a small picnic I walked the couple of kilometers down hill to the next village where I needed to be. A middle aged Citron rumbled in the road, its exhaust billowing warm fumes into a cold morning and Monsieur Plont sat at the wheel. He greeted me firm handshake , opened the back door and I climbed in. Bundled against the cold metal in the back of the van next to a high powered rifle, Ms Plont took to the twists and turns through sleeping stone villages and peering out of the small rear windows, to gain some idea of where I was, soft light began to emerge behind the dark mountains.
Announced Monsieur Plont swerving to halt and crunching his hand break. The rear doors swung open and slinging his rifle over his shoulder I followed into collection of stone buildings that in the darkness grew from the hillside.
Inside a collection of five hard -faced Frenchmen gathered under a fluorescent light in a shallow cellar. They greeted Monsieur Plont. Dusty bottles of Pastis filled the shelves and while a percolator of coffee clicked and hissed, Monsieur Plont sat down and scratched with a pencil on the relevant paperwork needed to commence the first day of the wild boar hunting season, while the others sipped at small cups of coffee and turned shiny rifle rounds in their hard-skinned fingers. Under the impression that I had walked into a clandestine résistance meeting, the welcome from these hard men was as frigid as the Ardeche morning. Apprehensively I sipped at my coffee and remained silent.
Leaving the cellar and back in the back of the Citroen we joined a convoy of jeeps and trucks snaking higher into the mountains. Twisting tarmac became broken asphalt. Asphalt became rocks and bumping and scratching high into the hills over broken stones we came to a halt at a wide clearing surrouned by the dense cover of chestnut trees. The bushy spikes of these trees husks littered the floor and climbing from the back of the van I was handed a high-vis waistcoat and ordered to remain silent. Scrambling through the woods I followed the line of men higher into the hills and resembling an armed gang of construction workers, we walked up abandoned stone terraces burst by the roots of chestnut trees whose canopy cut out what little light the morning was now providing. Silently sharing in an exchange of hand signals the men began distributing themselves around the rim of a steep gulley and squatting on my haunches next to Monsieur Plont, we waited.
Wild boar have been hunted in France for over two thousand years. The Romans were keen hunters and in the 14th century prominent hog hunting King Philip IV died when an enraged boar charged down his horse. Widespread in France, wild-boar, sus scrofa or sanglier as it is known by the French locals, are much maligned by farmers who blame this powerful omnivore for the destruction of crops. But as well as being a pest its lean meat is delicious and much prized in the French kitchen. Hunted with dogs, some which are given protective Kevlar vests to offer protection from the boars tusks, 10′s of thousands of sanglier are killed in France each season.
Six, Seven, Eight. The soft chime of church bells struck another hour from a distant village and we were still in the same position. The squeak and crack of the trees and gentle babble of cold water in an unseen stream the only other soundtrack in this otherwise silent woodland.
Another round of bells and a few welcome shards of morning sun broke through the canopy spot-lighting areas of the forest floor or catching the bare skin on my arms providing a luxurious moment of warmth. Trying to remain silent I shifted my weight to try and ease the cramps and spasms in my legs. Monsieur Plont remained motionless. Until like an alert dog Monsieur Plont’s eyes widened. His back straitened and after slowly raising his gun I following my eyes along its glossy barrel to a handful of dark pigs make their way up the steep gully carved out by seasons of falling rain and running water. Rising a little on his haunches Monsieur Plont squinted.
The reverberating explosion shook the ground and rang in the trees and cold air for moments and while I remained in shock Monsieur Plont had run around the gully only to return moments later to declare a miss and simply gives that most French of expressions by blowing over his bottom lip and shrugging his shoulders, before , going through the rigid and mechanical motions of loading another round into the chamber of his rifle. Returning to his position waiting.
As the hours passed every so often the skittish dogs tracking the boars scent, jumped and hopped up the hillsides following the smells noises unknown to us while trying to flush out the quarry. A scruffy and impatient sausage dog, wiry terrier and an effortless bloodhound working as a team, the small bells around their necks endlessly clinking like a tray of glasses, notifying us where they were. Moving to various positions around the mountain it wasn’t until the sun was high in the sky that another shot cracked and then echoed off the hills followed in quick succession by another. A course horn sounded three times signaling a kill and walking through stiff brush to a sunny clearing the animal lay warm in the tall grass, the first shot inches from the desired target smashing through its rib cage, the second on target taking the animal down. With a rope attached to its snout in a crude muzzle, the animal was dragged back to the vehicles. This 60 kilo animal dragged with ease by each man in turn.
Back at the trucks we were joined by the dogs who excitedly tugged at the fur and licked the blood of the boar, their owners allowing them time with the carcass to remind them of the scent that they would be now be following every weekend through the winter and into next year. Gutted on the hillside, lungs, intestine and bowls left for scavengers, including other omnivorous wild boar, the body was put on the tailgate of a truck before being driven back to the cellar where the morning began.
From the low stone ceiling the boar was hoisted on a winch by its back legs and Monsieur Plont went to work. Sweating and puffing as he moved around the animal efficiently taking it apart with strength, skill and a series of sharp knives. The head removed, the skin peeled from the ribs, the hooves snapped off until all that hung from the meat hooks was a skinned and bloody carcass unrecognizable from the fur covered animal shot on the mountain.
From here the animal was split down its spine as hard blows from a heavy clever crunched and cracked through vertebrae. With the carcass split in half each side of meat was laid on a simple wooden table and cuts of meat were organized. Haunches, legs, ribs and shoulders butchered while off cuts of fat and gristle were tossed to the floor, discarded for lucky dogs.
In the space of half an hour Monsieur Plont was spraying the blood soaked floor, directing scarlet rivers through a drain under the wall with a hose before washing his hands and laying down his tools. Out of breath, and wet with perspiration this man clearly appreciated the art of butchery and the need to quarter an animal as fast as possible. The meat was put into black plastic bags and divided amongst the men in the team, who after a few glasses of Pastis and a display of prized photos said their goodbyes.
Over the season the meat from the hunt would be cured, frozen and dried. Made into sausages, pate and terrine. This weekly cull providing a supply of cheap clean meat for these men and their families through a long and cold winter and it was an honor to be allowed to spend a morning with them.
This team of men were not taking part in a mindless slaughter or profiteering trophy hunt, but were an incredibly skilled and patient group of locals who understood their environment and were living from it. They understood the processes of what they were doing from start to finish. They understood the terrain; were marksmen, knew how to butcher an animal and respected it as a basic ingredient and took responsibility for it.