I live in the heart of French hunting country and now the sound of gunfire can be heard regularly. Most of the hunters in this part of the world are fairly undiscerning and will take wild boar, deer or pheasant given the opportunity.
Hunting is a sport that has seen a serious decline in recent years and the wild boar and deer populations have grown so rapidly that specialist cull teams need to be brought in to try to manage their numbers.
When walking in the normally deserted countryside one may well run across men dressed in an interesting combination of camouflage and bright day glow orange security clothing. One supposedly allows you to sneak up on unsuspecting quarry whilst the other stops you getting shot by your fellow hunters — a fairly regular occurrence each season. There are over a million hunters in France making it a pastime that is deeply ingrained in French culture, even though numbers have dropped by half over the last thirty years.
Although most French hunters are quite generalist in terms of the game they pursue, there is one group that tends to be a little more specialized.
The bécasse (woodcock) is one of the fastest and most challenging of game birds and some hunters hunt this bird to the exclusion of all other game.
With eyes on the side of its head giving it three hundred and sixty degree vision, and a tendency to break late, bagging a bécasse becomes a real reaction test. Despite the amount of skill required and a bag limit of just two birds per day, French hunters still manage to shoot about 1.2 million birds per season. As a keen conservationist, that always struck me as an alarmingly high number but ornitologia.org has been monitoring the population since 1992 and there seems to be no dramatic drop in the bird count.
The bécasse is a migratory bird, moving from its breeding grounds as far away as Russia to spend winters in Europe, and travelling as far north as Scotland. In medieval times, when bird migration was little understood, it was believed that these birds had magical powers and that they flew to the moon for the summer months. With their long beaks, of which the top half is flexible, combined with the unusual courting flights of the males at dusk, they became ideal candidates for mythological status. There have also been occasional sightings of the female bird flying with one of her chicks held in her feet, which has further deepened their mysterious reputation.
It is just about impossible to hunt these birds without a reliable gun dog and bécasse hunters tend to favour English setters as their hunting companions. The bird has a sharp feather on the leading edge of each wing known locally as the ‘plume du peintre’ (painter’s feather) and a hunter will often wear these feathers tucked into his hat band as a trophy of his success.
Tradition here stipulates that when a good gun dog dies these feathers should be buried with the dog in recognition of his hunting achievements.
Of course, this being France, there has to be a food connection here somewhere and the bécasse certainly brings with it some unusual culinary traditions. They are highly sort after by connoisseurs of fine game. The most widely practiced recipes calls for the bird to be hung for a few days and then feathered and strung by its neck over an open fire. As the bird slowly rotates and begins to cook the intestines flow out and are captured on a piece of toast which is then served as a starter. The birds feed only on vegetable matter so there should be no health risk here. It may sound a little unpalatable for those with more delicate foreign taste buds, and the flavor is definitely strong, but certainly not disagreeable. There are plenty of other less dramatic ways to eat this bird including roasted and wrapped in bacon or stuffed with foie gras.
The famed author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas believed that the bird should always be eaten with a fork.
His fear was that the delicious juices might trickle onto the diner’s fingers causing him to lose control and eat them.
It is rare to find bécasse on the menu. They are largely consumed within the close-knit hunting fraternity. If you do, I would definitely recommend you try it; just be careful not to touch the juice.