Tuesday, October 25, 2016

L'Ouverture de la chasse

The second weekend of October, Pierre and I went back to his family’s home, the converted mill at Spoir, for the opening of hunting season. The family has a fair amount of wooded land, and has managed it to support native wildlife—deer, grouse, ducks, woodcocks (go on, giggle), and hares. Pierre grew up hunting on their land; both he and his mother are hard of hearing in one ear from the cumulative sound trauma of shooting. The Deckers are hardly a family in the Duck Dynasty mold, but they are a family of hunters. This may surprise those who consider guns and hunting a uniquely American obsession; while it is true that it’s less common in France as a whole, in rural areas like Spoir it is no less deeply engrained than in rural Virginia.

That said, while I grew up the daughter of a hunter, I have never personally taken to it, so I recused myself from an active part in the opening hunt. I have accompanied Pierre hunting before, although never with the aim of being useful; think the duck hunting scenes in Downton Abbey, where the ladies stand beside the men making small talk and drawling “Oh, well done”. It's not because I'm a lady, it's because I have no interest in shooting but a keen interest in being in the woods. For the opening weekend Pierre’s father had organized a hunting party of ten, however, so the stakes were rather higher. While I resented the implicit gender narrative of not joining, I knew it would be worse if I joined but declined to shoot, so I bowed out.

Saturday morning brought crisp fall air, and the courtyard of the mill began to fill up with men and dogs. Someone had brought a bag of croissants, and everyone stood around sipping coffee, changing into boots, and munching on pastries. Finally Mr. Decker started to draw lines in the gravel to map out the plan for the morning, and the hunters trooped off.
The Moulin de Vilaine, although on a different day, with Pierre in farmer mode rather than hunter mode.
I rejoined them for lunch at the Moulin de Vilaine. Unlike the Moulin de Spoir, this mill has not been reconverted into a house; it is an imposing, square tower with a massive fireplace and a long table inside. We drank an aperitif outside on the grassy bridge that spans the remaining watermill structure—although the mechanisms and wheel are long gone, the architecture remains—then piled into the mill to eat.
What's left of the structure of the millwheel. 
And eat we did. Roger, a retired gardener with tufts of white hair and bright, bird-like eyes, produced a rabbit terrine, a sort of meatloaf of rabbit, pork, lard, onions, and seasoning. “We bagged the rabbit last weekend!” he announced, then, anticipating the problematic math this invoked at the weekend of the opening of hunting season, he added, “…with the car, of course. Roadkill. Eat in small bites, there might be some asphalt.” He spoiled the fib by winking largely, but no one seemed to mind, and the terrine was delicious.

This was followed by the main course, pork in paprika sauce and gratin dauphinoise, potatoes swaddled in cream and garlic and baked into a swoon under a crunchy lid of cheese. Bottles of wine were passed along the table, the hunters knocking back glass after glass to wash down the rich lunch. “You are going out again after this, right?” I asked incredulously. “I mean, with guns? You sure you’re not going need a nap first?”

After a smelly cheese course we waded our way to dessert: Mrs. Decker had made an enormous bowl of chocolate mousse, the annual end to the hunting party lunch. It made its way around the table twice; unable to take more, I tried to pass it back to the head, but Roger stopped me. “Non!” he cried indignantly, scolding me as he snatched the bowl with his bony fingers. “It would be a shame not to give this bowl back clean.” Someone else laughed. “What are you planning on, sticking your whole head in there to lick it dry?” Roger’s stern look implied he might just, if need required.

The team somehow waddled back out into the woods, and Pierre’s friend Tof—also a non-hunter—picked me up in his bright orange Dyane 6. We spent the afternoon at the Chateau de Maintenon, the residence of the infamous Madame of the same name, a marquise who became the mistress and later secret wife of Louis XIV. The castle is beautiful, well kept, and informative without being heavy-handed. It was built over centuries with different materials, and the resulting aesthetic—that of a castle put together from the spare parts of three other castles—is unique, and quite charming.
It was overcast all afternoon, but the sun came out just when I needed it for a great shot. Tof is, of course, rocking his signature orange foulard and round John Lennon-style sunglasses.

The gardens, meticulously bordered in the French style with trim hedges and swept gravel, look out onto a centuries-old aqueduct project that never came to fruition. It was ordered by Louis XIV to re-route the waters of the River Eure in order to keep the fountains in the gardens of Versailles fed “day and night”. The Eure is the river that flows past the Deckers’ house at Spoir; at one time there were mills every 500 meters along its length. It was a vital source of water, agriculture, and livelihoods for the communities on its banks, and yet had the project been achieved, it would have been diverted. This capricious and entirely self-centered—not to mention unnecessary—desire, in keeping with the absolute nature of the Sun King’s monarchy, drained the royal coffers, led to the deaths of hundreds of workers over a decade in unsanitary, swampy conditions, and left behind a 32-mile-long folly that stands today as a reminder of exactly why the French of the 18th century were getting so fed up with their kings.
Although for all that, it is pretty.

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