On Boars, Booze, and Barbarism
To celebrate the start of autumn, one of my favorite boozy tales, about a wild French boar hunt.
The day before the wild boar hunt, we’d eaten horse meat, which was the traditional weekend lunch of chef Olivier Desaintmartin’s childhood. Olivier had taken me along to visit the village horse butcher, who complained that the younger generation of French didn’t eat so much cheval anymore. The butcher blamed it on inferior supermarket horse meat, 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 school friend 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 that 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 is a French chef who’s lived and worked in Philadelphia for decades. At his restaurants, Olivier has always insisted on bistro staples like organ meats, skate, escargots, wild duck in an antique press — and if Americans weren’t so fond of horses, he’d likely also offer viande de cheval. I’d met him when I was covering the Philadelphia restaurant scene in the mid-2000s, long before the trend of offal meats or nose-to-tail eating had gone mainstream. At that time, animal-rights activists protested outside his bistro on evenings when he offered a $5 foie gras special, shouting at diners with a bullhorn, and decrying what they saw as the barbarism of eating the diseased livers of force-fed ducks and geese. Olivier’s front window, on which he wrote “Foie Gras!” in precious, Frenchy hand lettering, was occasionally smashed by vandals.
In those days, Olivier often waxed nostalgic for the elemental, primal roots of the cooking he knew back in hardscrabble Picardie — rustic and earthy, based on foodstuffs like beets, turnips, endives, leeks, foraged mushrooms, stinky Maroilles cheese, “pre-salted” lamb (“they graze on salt marshes”), and, of course, lots of game, particularly boar. Olivier was convinced people would love a cookbook about this cuisine, and so one autumn he invited me to go on a wild boar hunt with his uncle.
On the morning of the hunt, when Olivier and Uncle Jean showed up at the hotel before dawn, Jean wore his brimmed hat cocked to one side, and with his trimmed mustache looked a little like Ernest Hemingway. “I’ve been up early salting the lamb for lunch!” Olivier said.
I was still full of horse and hungover from all the Champagne. “I thought the lamb was pre-salted,” I said.
The sun rose as we arrived at the meeting spot in the forest, the ground thick with frost. Two dozen hunters gathered around in a semicircle, receiving instructions from the hunt master. No blaze orange or camouflage for these guys. They dressed in spiffy outfits, most opting for tweed caps or berets. Some wore fancy scarves. One guy wore a cape. The hunt master explained where some boars had been spotted the other day, and also pointed out the forest was full of deer. We munched on 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 traqueurs.”
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 tough-looking bald guy wearing a ridiculously tiny knit cap that didn’t cover his ears. On my other side was a woman with hair dyed neon pink — honestly, a pretty good style decision for a traqueur, given the safety concerns.
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 people gathered chanterelle mushrooms that grew on the forest floor. The hunters, meanwhile, were mostly wealthy, privileged, middle-aged men. 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 the 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 — genuinely offended — insisted that Olivier and I come join them. 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 few good-comrade sips, Olivier and I just pretended to swig from the bottle. This bistouille burned. 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 shape. 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 traqueur 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. It was the lunge of a coward, yet the hunters seemed to be impressed. They mistakenly believed I was diving to catch the deer.
No one ended up shooting a boar that afternoon.
Afterward, 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.
Following the hunt, we joined the rest of Uncle Jean’s family at a rustic hilltop auberge for dinner. Heads of wild boar lined the walls. Dinner was, unsurprisingly, 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 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?”