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Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Firemen’s Roast Boar

This was definitely a first for us. An experience that, understandably, would not be favoured by some, but one that fully immersed us in a traditional French annual celebration.

For some reason which escapes me, we were invited to the local fire brigade’s annual pig roast.

The event was to be held in the grounds of our local village, a gorgeous, typically French setting. Ancient, wood-shuttered, stone homes line streets backing onto miles of orchards and meadows – it’s simply gorgeous. 

I ignored Jack, my husband’s, hermitic moans about being socialised to death, telling him he should be very grateful to have been asked. I didn’t concede that he had a point, it’s true we’ve been to numerous ‘dos’ recently. That’s simply a feature of living in a place with hot summers, and many outdoor gatherings.

Our community primarily comprises farming folk, who tend to shut up shop in the winter once the crops and main beast jobs have been dealt with. They’ll hunker down, stick to basic maintenance work only, and keep a low profile during the cold, wet months. Conversely, the arrival of spring stimulates a flurry of activity.

Shutters are thrown open to bring in fresh air and early warmth. The land is worked and animals prepared then, from May onwards, most every week there is a fête somewhere in the area. I absolutely love these outings and drag Jack out to as many as possible. A man who generally prefers his own company, this year he has been unusually amenable – but it seemed it was becoming rather a strain for the poor dear.

On the appointed day we duly turned up at 12.30pm, accompanied by my sister and nephew, to find the place already alive with fire fighters and their partners. Introductions had to wait in favour of our first priority, to admire the pig. As it turned out this wasn’t any ordinary pig. Typical of our hunting-mad part of rural France, the usual domestic pig had been rejected and replaced by a recently culled wild boar. And why not?

We went to congratulate the chef, a man we knew from his day job. Monsieur Genna is usually the oil and gas delivery man, and also works part time as a fireman. Now, bearing in mind we were in the middle of a heat wave, it can’t have been an easy job for him that day. It was already around 37 degrees Celsius (98 degrees Farenheit), and there he was, fully clad in his fireman’s overalls and an incongruous hunter’s camouflage hat. The poor chap looked about as broiled as the beast.

Monsieur momentarily abandoned his basting to say hello. Fortunately, I managed to avoid the full-on cheek-to-cheeker kisses in favour of the forearm proffering. This is a courteous form of welcome, used when the person involved is grubby, sweaty or in some way unsavoury. In his case, monsieur was sweating profusely, nevertheless looking extremely proud of his creation.

We ignored the searing heat and cooed at the rather gruesome sight. The great creature was slowly rotating on a spit above a bed of fiery, red-hot embers. It could easily have been a medieval setting.

We left monsieur to his boar and joined the rest of the party, enjoying an aperitif in the shade of a grand old oak tree. Here we were met by the station commander, who made the introductions. This can take a while in France and I’m still foxed by the social etiquette as each occasion requires a slightly different mode of greeting. When faced with a complete (clean) stranger, my sister has decided the best way forward is to take assertive action and thrust out a hand. This is an excellent idea, but one that has its drawbacks when the recipient is moving in for a cheek-kiss. On more than one occasion I have witnessed a slight winding as her spade-like hand has caught the person squarely in the guts. It’s a tricky one.

We finally completed our formal ‘hellos’, aside from one old gentleman. It appeared he was a gate crasher since nobody seemed to know who he was, but it didn’t matter, supplies were plentiful so we just gave him a cheery wave.

Our small talk about the heatwave was interrupted by a loud cheer. I turned to follow the gaze of my nephew, whose eyes were the size of saucers. He was staring at a massive wall of fire.

We were looking at a skinny metal table heaped with straw, and the whole thing had just been set alight.

“Bloody hell, it’s a towering inferno. I wonder if they’re going to perform a practice drill?” murmured Jack, as we watched a group battle with the boisterous flames.

Bravo”, yelled one of the diners, “c’est les moules!

Monsieur Genna was once again in the thick of the catering, but now it was all to do with mussels. My poor nephew. Typical of many teenagers, his tastebuds are still at the cheeseburger stage, and have not yet become attuned to the delights of charred pieces of meat, let alone molluscs on fire. A youngster with apparently hollow legs, he looked on forlornly as the realisation dawned on him that this was lunch.

Diners gathered round to watch the spectacle, chattering happily as more straw was piled on and flames engulfed the table – this was flambé big-style.

Finally, we could see enough to spot an amorphous heap covered in wet newspapers. It was spitting and hissing in the heat. Wafts of garlicky fumes mixed with smoke drifted our way; the conflicting aromas were deliciously tantalising. 

The toot of a fireman’s whistle announced our first course was ready. We were good to go.

Soggy layers of Le Figaro newspaper were peeled back to reveal piles of juicy mussels, their shells newly opened by the steam. Plastic plates were thrust into our hands and ladles full of crustacea shovelled on our plates. This created an immediate overload causing a few skimmers to whiz off the edges, but luckily most survived.

As this was going on, Jack completely confused our nephew with a typically sardonic explanation about how the soggy newspapers cradling the steaming mussels were especially selected to comply with France’s rigorous interpretation of Brussels’ health and safety rules. I sighed as I listened to these sage pronouncements. The poor lad, I thought, eventually he’d cotton on to his uncle’s special form of humour.

The next arrival cheered my nephew up considerably. As we sat down to enjoy our starter, crates of beer were produced and bottles thumped on the trestle tables. These were accompanied by loaves of French bread, seemingly one each. It’s evidently hungry work being a fireman.

As I ate the succulent starter our station commander explained how their team was structured. Most of the local firemen are volunteers, who come from several walks of life. Farmers, of course, but also shop keepers, businessmen and a doctor, all ready to down-tools at a moment’s notice when an incident occurs.

The fire station is manned by a core group of full-timers, who alert each volunteer on duty via a pager system. He demonstrated by showing me his, which indicated they had already dealt with a fire earlier that day. Their station is linked to the main depot, which has a team on permanent standby to help if additional support is required. To me, the whole system seemed simple yet efficient. In a sparsely populated area like ours, it was good to know that help was always on-hand when needed.

During our discussion we’d managed to consume a vast number of mussels. Even my nephew sampled a couple, grudgingly conceding they weren’t as bad as ‘all that’. The empty shells were expertly scooped into dustbin liners as we witnessed the arrival of the main course.

Six men lugged the boar, still on its steel spit, over to the carving table. Judging by the colourful language that emanated from them, the spar was still extremely hot. It’s amazing the number of new words one learns in situations such as this. I went over to have a look.

Monsieur Genna was in control again. He said the boar had been cooking since 6 am that morning. It was now 3 pm, which explained two things. First, the reason why the poor man was beetroot red and dripping wet – he must have been absolutely boiling in that fireman’s kit. Second, it explained why the animal was now black and crispy. As he reached for his pliers to unpick a line of wire stitches he explained what was inside.

The recipe is generations old and originated in Armenia, where Monsieur Genna’s family came from. Wild boar was cooked every weekend and was a firm favourite with the local villagers. He learned the technique from his grandparents when they came to live in France.

Whilst the cooking time was lengthy, the preparation was simple. The boar had been stuffed with three kilos (over six pounds) of tomatoes, bay leaves (one bush, would be my estimation), onions (lots) and seasoning (loads). After the initial few hours gentle roasting the heat was increased. If I understood correctly, the skin was regularly basted with water, then butter. Some of the cuts would be fried-off, others eaten from the bone. He was confident the process would work its usual magic and produce a culinary triumph. One look at the charred mass and I wasn’t so sure.

Once again piffling issues such as safety and hygiene were cast to the winds as monsieur and his sous chefs got to work. Bloodied gauntlets were donned and, with cigarettes hanging out of mouths, they unpicked the steel stitches that contained the gubbins. With an expression of sincere regret monsieur explained that, shame though it was, the stuffing couldn’t be eaten. I think we were all relieved.

With our hearts in our mouths we lined up to receive our portion of meat.

Back at the table and huge tureens of herby, sautéed potatoes were passed around together with more French sticks javelined in our direction. Beakers of rosé were poured and we took our first tentative mouthfuls of the main course.

The meat was unbelievably tender.

Appreciative murmurs rang around the tables as we feasted on our simple fare – all washed down with the locally-produced wine. I looked around at the healthy, tanned faces of our fellow diners; all fire fighters and their families enjoying a perfect day. Living here didn’t get much better than this.

Once the last scraps of our main course were cleared away it was time for pud, and it quickly became evident this was going to be another ‘no frills’ affair. Two men appeared with cardboard boxes. Questions were demanded of us. Did we prefer chocolat, vanille ou fraise? Unsure what to expect, I chose fraise, strawberry. A grunt of approval followed by a short rummage in the box and out came a cornetto ice cream, which was slid across the table. It was the perfect end to an unexpectedly lovely meal.

With the dining over and Monsieur Genna beginning to return to his normal colour, we were treated to a short post-feast ritual, in honour of the beast. This was decidedly pagan in nature, and definitely inadvisable for the faint hearted. What remained of the boar’s head was triumphantly paraded around the group. This was gamely supported by the headman’s daughter, who acted as single tooth carrier, although I must say she didn’t look entirely thrilled by the occasion. Nevertheless, it gave us all the opportunity to mark a moment’s respect for the animal, which had enabled us to have a wonderful meal. It also allowed us to congratulate Monsieur Genna on his superbly executed recipe.

This could have been the end of our day, and really should have. Sadly for some, it wasn’t. The finale of the event turned out to be a needle tournament of Pétanque – it’s hugely popular here. Also known as Boules, it is a game where a small ball, the Jack, is thrown to the far end of a gravelly ‘court’. This becomes the target. Teams of two or three then throw their metal balls at the Jack. The closest wins. The game is very simple but, as I was about to demonstrate, the execution isn’t.

Just as we were preparing to watch politely for five minutes before leaving, the station commander insisted that we have a go.

Noooon, merci”, I gasped, having never hurled a Pétanque ball in my life.

Mais oui, vous devez!” he replied, insisting I have a go.

My sad fate was sealed, or rather that of my unfortunate playing partner.

I, along with my sister and nephew (both of whom put up a much better show), were pressed into service. I’ll spare you the agonisingly disastrous details of how I got on. Suffice to say, a metal Pétanque ball doesn’t react in at all the same way as a tennis ball.

After several failed rounds, one lost ball (I mean, has anyone ever managed to lose a ball in this game before?) and one suspected broken toe, I bowed out gracefully. The relief on my playing partner’s face was palpable.

And finally it was time to go. Aside from my playing partner, whom I dare say was delighted to see the back of me, all the other guests were kindness itself. We were the only Brits among the group, but that didn’t seem to matter a bit. It was another example of where we’d been welcomed as active members of our tiny, pastoral community, and we’d loved every minute of it. 

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Macarons and the French Fair

It was the Lavit fair, the first main social event of the year and I was ecstatic. Jack, my husband, less so. He claims to hate fairs.

“Oh, come on, Jack. You’ll be fine when you get there. There are always lots of interesting machines to poke around with, you’ll love it.”

“No, I won’t. It’ll be full of people who aren’t looking where they’re going, and you’ll spend one of half the day gossiping. The other half you’ll spend clucking over useless goods, wanting to buy things we already have, or don’t need.”

“I promise not to. But I do want to buy some plants.”

“My point exactly!”

“One can never have too many plants, Jack.”

I finally got him to agree by playing the ‘my knee is too crocked to carry heavy items’, trump card.

We took my sister, Di, along and arrived at around 10 am to find the three-tiered, bijou town already teeming with fun-lovers.

For no particular reason we started with the middle street, which had shrunk to a quarter of its normal width. Market traders lined either side, their stalls bursting with intriguing goods. Most had spilled onto the road forming highly effective booby traps. Those entangled were obliged to stop and examine the display, spurred on by the persuasive stallholders. It worked like a charm.

Cheese makers offered specialty concoctions from several species of plant and animal. Some were soft and gooey, others were hard and flaky. Cheeses with bits in, others lined with veins of mould, plus there was another lot that smelled like stinky socks. These were in a class of their own.

Samples were proffered on the end of skinny forks as enticements to would-be buyers. ‘Goût!’ ‘Goût!’ the vendors cried joyously, wafting a cube of something pungent under our passing noses. With those banks of goodies it would have been easy to fill our paniers within the first 20 metres, but we resolutely resisted temptation and continued browsing.

We had obviously found the foodie section. There were stalls laden with bread, honey, olives, chillies and garlic. Imagine the deliciously conflicting pongs.

We passed a gentleman from Spain selling cooked meat from the leg of an indistinguishable creature. We had no idea what it was, but it was proving very popular. We watched for a moment as he slashed wafer thin slivers of meat off the limb with a sword Zorro would have been proud of. Tiny tasters were harpooned and the sword-tip poked in the general direction of onlookers. Piffling issues such as health and safety were of no consequence here.

Thus far, we had been keeping a relatively steady pace. Jack was coping well on the whole, and only moaned once when he received a glancing blow from an over-excited lady with a particularly long loaf under her arm. Swinging it around like the limb of a windmill was doing it no good at all as each collision caused more damage. It would be no more than a bread roll by the time she got home.

Then Di spotted the macarons. My sister loves macarons.

We ground to a halt. An agonising ten minutes passed as she, eyes as large as saucers, cooed and twittered over the multi-coloured display of chubby hamburger-shaped sweetmeats. I chided Jack for getting impatient. It was everyone’s day, I explained, I was certain she wouldn’t be much longer.

Sadly, Di found the creator of the little discs and delighted herself (and to an extent the chef) by trying to guess, in French, the flavours of each one. Might the pink ones be raspberry? The yellow ones orange? Surely the rich green ones would be kiwifruit? She was completely diverted by the mystery of it all. Jack quite clearly couldn’t care a jot and I was beginning to feel the same way.

There was a relatively iffy looking sweets and candies stall next door so I tried to distract her by pointing at a trunkful of liquorice allsorts. Sadly my wheeze failed. The mistress of indecision, she pooh-poohed my suggestions and agonised over which macaron she might buy. After the sixth change of mind, Jack cracked. He grabbed two at random, bought them and plonked them in Di’s hand.

“There,” he glared, “cadeau. Can we get on now please?”

We continued to the end of the middle street, fighting our ways through the ever-growing masses. Di was pouting a little and, still in denial about her apparent lack of alacrity, but this didn’t last long. She’s a cheery soul and there were plenty of display items to re-ignite her interest.

Then the theme changed. We had chanced upon the technical section.

Jack entered into a dreamlike state as we found an impressive display of what seemed like Lilliputian steamrollers and tractors. Despite being tiny, they were all in perfect working order. Oily cogs and springs gleamed in the hot sun, causing Jack to pause, and launch into a gleeful engineering lecture. Of greater interest to me, though, was the collection of industrial machines beyond.

19th century kilns, knife sharpeners, rope-makers and clog makers. Each was either being operated, or fiddled with, by an expert in costume.

“Would I like to have a go at making a clog?” asked a wizened old chap, as he thrashed around with a particularly mean-looking chisel.

“No, not for me thank you,” I replied, suddenly bashful. I’d much rather watch the master at work.

The next display was particularly curious. A trestle-table was covered with a variety of instruments, some of which dated back to the 15th century. Our job here was to guess the function of each. There was an ancient sextant, a candle holder and a thumb screw – that one was pretty obvious. The gentleman placed two pieces of formed iron in my hand.

Devinez ce qu'ils sont!” he demanded, asking me to try and guess what they were.

Di and I pored over the ancient devices and then it came to me. There was a click as I slid the slim piece into the larger housing. It was an extraordinarily shaped padlock. Suitably impressed by my response, our jolly gent waved us away, ready to wow the next visitors to his stand.

We had been at it for a while now and decided it was time to eat. Much to our chagrin, Jack steadfastly refused to sample any of the street food. There were woks galore, each one filled with something slightly different, each equally tasty-looking and all smelling divine.

 Pouf! None of that for us. Noooo, Jack had spotted a burger van half a kilometre away and frog-marched us briskly towards his goal. It’s just as well long-loaf lady wasn’t in the way; her bread would have been reduced to crumbs in our bow wave.

Sadly our timing was out. The last burger had just been sold, so we ended up with twice re-fried chips instead. It was one of those meals that kept on giving a long time later, but not quite in the intended way.

Replete with stodge, we temporarily parted company. Jack returned to the technical area, and Di and I headed off to find our promised cheap-as-chips plants. We were directed to the first tier for these and found ourselves surrounded by yet more gastronomes. Delicious smells pervaded our noses, taunting our taste buds, but it was too late – our tummies were full.

Raucous music started up behind us. We turned to be faced by a group of travelling ghouls and witches. I have no idea what their purpose or story was, but they cackled their way through an eerie tune in great humour.

It was early afternoon now and progress was somewhat slow for several reasons. Meeting people we knew meant lots of kisses and a friendly chat. There were emergency halts as someone in front decided to browse, or was apprehended by a taunting ghoul. It was all part of our French fair.

We finally made it to the plant area. Ironically, gorgeous though they may have been, they weren’t what we were after at all. But it was difficult to be disappointed that day, and especially in view of our next discovery.

We found a fritter man. He was creating bite-sized flatties with secret ingredients which smelled stupendous. Full or not, these were not to be resisted. We followed our noses, made a couple of speed-buys, and devoured what can only be described as taste-sensations. Quite honestly, I haven’t much idea what was in them, but they were heaven.

We tracked back to all-things-diesel and, after a bit of ferreting around, found Jack in the beer tent.

He was in shock.

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, concerned as to why he should be rabidly swatting himself.

“Look!” he hissed, pointing at the tent canvass.

“Have you been stung by something?”

No! Look at that bloke. He’s just lashed me with his hair. Bloody hell, I could have suffocated with that lot all over me. Urgh!

It was then that I understood the reason for Jack’s latest attack of xenophobia. A young man had rearranged his magnificent mane of extra-long dreadlocks as he had passed by, momentarily cloaking Jack in the process.

“Oh that. Wow, how impressive. Never mind, darling, you look fine.”

Fortunately, we were saved from any further anguished moans by the sounds of baying dogs. I knew there was a hunting hound display somewhere, and I can’t think why it took me so long to drag us all there. We shooed Jack out of the beer tent and headed to the bottom tier and animal magic.

There were 20 or so picket fence enclosures, each containing a small group of hunting hounds. Griffon bleu Gascognes, beagles, teckels, bernois, you name them they were there. Some were lapping up the attention, others looking hot and bothered in the afternoon sun – all being watched over by a stern-looking huntsman.

It’s fair to say I probably took longer than my allocated browse-time with these dogs, but you know how it is. I could easily have taken one or two of those smilers home with us.

Di skilfully diverted me to a line of what looked like pit-ponies. Not quite Shetlands, the rotund little guys were saddled and ready to provide rides. Jack has never been desperately interested in equine pursuits. His one and only ride confirmed his distaste for any form of transport that lacks adequate brakes or steering and, even worse, makes decisions independently of the driver. This finished off any minute interest he might have had in horse riding. However, in this case, the ponies looked a much more reliable form transport than the aged Thomas the Tank Engine that had been coughing and spluttering its passengers through the streets all day. But Jack would have none of it. He’d become absorbed by what was going on at the other end of the leafy tier. 

A police dog display of all things.

We joined the throng lining a rope enclosure. A naive young man, quite possibly recently plucked from the bar, had been pressed into service. His job was to play the villain with what looked like a strap-on child’s mattress attached to his leg. I suspect he may have thought it was a great way of impressing his girlfriend, but one look at the slavering beast on the end of a flimsy rope changed all that in an instant.

A whistle blew and we all watched, agog, as the dog plunged towards the villain, dragging his handler behind. My goodness these dogs are powerful! The animal connected with such ferocity it was all the poor lad could do to remain standing. Fortunately he was unscathed, but it took quite some time to unlatch the attacker from his leg. Jack, who had perked up considerably, decided it was excellent entertainment, and fully in line with the French interpretation of Brussels’ public liability laws.

More uncertain volunteers were cajoled into service by drunken mates, with similar results. Then the dog was changed for an arm attacking specialist. This one was even more fearsome. At first, the handler couldn’t even part it from its toy – an incongruous blue teddy. Even more unnerving was the piece of protective material handed to the quivering volunteer. It resembled a fat oven glove. We all feared the worst as the whistle sounded. I expect the atmosphere at Roman gladiatorial encounters may have been similar.

Something in the dog’s brain exploded at the sound of the shrill peep. Dropping its toughened rubber teddy, it hurled itself in the general direction of the perp. Luckily, sense prevailed. At the last moment the lad stuck out his padded arm as the dog leapt at him. What a great connection! A brief tussle ensued as the handler tried to disconnect the dog from the material, but it wasn’t having any of it. With a panic-stricken expression, the youth de-velcroed himself and tottered out of the arena. He was physically unscathed, but unlikely to volunteer again any time soon.

We decided we’d probably seen enough. So far there had been no blood lost, but since we were moving up the body, there could be no further guarantees if a head specialist was produced.

We threaded our way through the crowds, along the typically-French leafy avenue budding in anticipation of a hot summer to come. The appearance of Disney’s Minnie Mouse and Popeye gave proceedings an international feel, as did the steel drum band that chimed its way past us – we could almost have been in the Caribbean.

Our trip to the fair was over. We said our goodbyes to a musical clown and headed back to the car. Ironically we had no plants, which made Jack happy. Di still clutched her two macarons, which made her happy and I’d spent lots of time fussing over dogs, which made them (and me) happy. All-in-all it had been another lovely day in our corner of France.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Partridge Release and the Exploding Husband

It all started with an egg. Well, fifteen to be exact.

Last year I was making my routine bird food purchases at our local grain merchants here in France. It’s a very rural outfit, with large warehouses stuffed full of fodder for beasts, cereal seeds and products for farmers. A couple of cats are engaged to patrol the area, but they’re usually seen snoozing in a sunny spot rather than controlling the hordes of mice that make nests in the food bags. I should be used to it by now, but it’s still an unwelcome surprise when one pops out to squeak ‘Bonjour!’ when I open a feed bag. 

It is also a popular hangout for a motley assortment of bored gents. The group on that early spring day were mainly farmers. Some were making a half-hearted attempt at buying, but they were evidently kicking around, killing time while they waited for a cherished bud to burst out of the soil or transform into a perfect baby apple.

I knew most of them, which in some ways was a drawback. My purchases had to wait until I’d executed the customary French greeting. A kiss on either cheek for those I knew, and a warm handshake with the strangers – one of whom stared at me fixedly. This was a tad unsettling. I could already feel the warm, tickly glow on my face where it had been scraped by several unshaved well-wishers. Perhaps my usual rash had erupted earlier than normal. This proved not to be the reason for his interest.

Monsieur’s opening salvo was issued at such a percussive rate I was lost after the first couple of words. Happily, Jacques, the store manager, had been listening. A short, tubby chap who shouts his way through every sentence and finds most things in the world, aside from his plague of mice, screamingly funny.

“Ah hah! Monsieur Declerce. Ha ha ha. elle est anglaise!” he roared, guffawing. His information concerning my country of origin was supported by a wafting of his hand to encourage monsieur to slow down. Happily he did.

A short, complicated explanation ensued where monsieur’s purpose was revealed. He was passionate about raising partridges. (Strange how conversations like this emanate here.) He raised so many, he said, he didn’t know what to do with them. Someone had told him that we raised pheasants and would I please take this week’s eggs from him? Since he obviously didn’t want to go down the omelette route, and we had our incubation kit ready for our pheasant eggs, I said I was happy to take a few off his hands if that would help.

Subsequently, I thought very little about our chat, dismissing it as yet another relatively eccentric encounter at the grain merchants. To my surprise, the following week monsieur turned up, laden with eggs. He was terribly bashful. Once again he sped through his explanations, handed over the eggs and rushed off, cradling the bottle of wine Jack, my husband, had given him as a thank-you.

After about three weeks every one of the eggs had hatched. We were now proud parents to a mixture of fifteen grey and red-leg partridges, which grew into fine, healthy young adults.

Ever since we came to live here we’ve been trying to develop the wildlife on our land. And, actually, our new partridges represented an ideal addition. The next stage of their development was a transfer from their existing covered pen into a large release pen which we had built in the middle of our land. Here they would join the pheasants, and begin their transition to freedom and, hopefully, breed in a natural environment.

The timing of this coincided with an unusual phone call. Unlike face to face conversations, I often find speaking on the phone to French people very challenging. For some reason many double the speed of their speech. The antidote is supposed to be a clear and loud exclamation of “Trop vite monsieur/madame, doucement s’il vous plaît.” This has the effect of slowing them down for about five seconds, after which they’re back to full gallop.

Jack, never lost for a colourful theory on any cultural trait, reckons it’s such a consistent characteristic that the technique must have been drilled into them from a very early age as an economy measure, and they haven’t subsequently realised that telephone charges are really quite cheap nowadays. I’m not convinced of the validity of this theory, but the fact remains they are definitely babblers when armed with a receiver.

Luckily Jack got to the phone first. However, it quickly became clear that it was another one of those difficult conversations. He struggled on, becoming exasperated as the tortuous process continued.

"C’est pas à moi de décider. c’est ma femme. Ne quittez pas s’il vous plaît monsieur,” he barked down the phone, and then to me, “It’s your partridge man. Do you want any more birds?”

“Well, not really. Are you sure he doesn’t mean eggs?”

At which point Jack’s comms. overload point had been reached. He grimaced at me, thanked monsieur, telling him I’d ring very soon, and ended the call. 

Work quickly began on preparing the small release-aviary, which sits inside a two hectare open-top release pen. Here the birds could naturalise and learn some survival skills before exposure to furred predators. The pen hadn’t been used for over a year so making the tracks useable for rotund birds, who prefer to walk rather than fly, took quite a while. My sister and I drafted in my unsuspecting nephew and his pal for the job, which they thought would be a cinch. Huh – teenagers!

 Four hours later, the boys declared themselves totally exhausted. Taking pity on the lanky pair, we returned home to patch-up the impressive number of bramble scratches they’d picked up during their labours. After consuming gallons of drinks and many snacks they flaked out, moaning about never having any ‘chill-time’ during holidays and parent people taking more care of animals than their humans. Fortunately, their laments were interrupted by the telephone. Unfortunately, Jack wasn’t about – I was forced to answer.

After my triumphant opener of, ‘Bonjour’, things went rapidly downhill. Communication was disjointed to say the least and the caller was becoming frantic. Finally, I realised it was Monsieur Declerce, and he was definitely saying something about birds. I quickly apologised for not calling him back, still assuming he was offering us more eggs like the previous year. I tried to explain that we were not incubating this year. The word for incubator in French being: incubateur I felt he might understand. Noooo, not a bit of it, I’d lost the poor man without a trace. He terminated the call relatively quickly thereafter, which was a merciful release for both of us. Wincing with embarrassment I sighed, there was nothing for it, I resolved, it was high time I found a tutor to teach me the fine art of understanding high-speed telephonic French.

With our dogs in tow as usual, I trudged off to start my daily chores in the bird pens. However, my tranquil husbandry moments were soon shattered by the hooting of a car horn. This normally augurs the arrival of a visitor, and is an immediate prompt for the dogs to erupt into a torrent of barks and frantic dash to lick to death any potential victim. Shortly after, a very flustered Monsieur Declerce appeared with a large bird transport box and a dog hanging off either corner.

“Oh, monsieur, je suis vraiment désolé”, I cried in apology, grabbing the dogs.

“Pas de problème madame, voici les oiseaux.” he replied breathlessly, proffering the box.

It seemed that monsieur, who for some reason was wearing carpet slippers, had brought some birds. This was most unexpected – although perhaps it shouldn’t have been if I’d only understood the nature of his call. Despite actually understanding what he was saying this time I must have looked extremely dim because he asked me what I wanted to do with them.

“Les oiseaux, madame. Voulez-vous les manger?” he asked.

“Non monsieur!” We certainly did not want to eat them.

 Looking slightly non-plussed, he had another go.

“Voulez-vous les tirer plus tard?”

“Oh, non, monsieur!” We definitely didn’t want to shoot them either.

Before he came up with another bright idea I thanked him profusely and suggested that they could go with our existing group. His face lit up and I took him into the bird pen. Still unsure of the species in question, I watched as he turned the box upside down and about 20 mixed partridges tumble out. Completely unperturbed by their journey and dog incident, the birds immediately trotted off to find food. Monsieur, on the other hand was quite different.

Looking decidedly nervous (probably running scared in case I tried to strike up a deep conversation), monsieur explained that the birds were surplus from last year. They were healthy, he said, although perhaps a bit too tame. I wasn’t sure what the ramifications of being ‘too tame’ were. So long as they weren’t going to turn into telly-addicts and perch on the sofa with us I felt we could probably handle that. I bade goodbye to this kind, bird-loving gentleman and continued with my jobs.

We now had too many adult birds in the pen, which confirmed the need to release the younger ones as soon as possible. Jack reluctantly agreed. We catch up birds using a contraption that looks like a gigantic butterfly net, and then pop them into bird transport cases. Easy in theory you might think, but the process is quite different, especially where my irascible husband is concerned.

Despite having a heart of gold (underneath it all) there are two key factors that, when combined, cause Jack to experience meltdown. He will happily labour for hours on any engineering-related challenge but, outside of this narrow field, he has the patience of a gnat. As we all know, partridges do not have predictable moving parts. Furthermore they are quite reluctant flyers, often preferring to sprint off in random directions, but when they do take flight, mayhem often ensues. So, in order to minimise the inevitable histrionics, I knew careful team planning was needed.

Our bird pen is large, and houses a mixture of chickens, pheasants and partridges. They all live perfectly happily together but it does make the job of trapping the correct species a bit more tricky – especially for Jack, who thinks they all look the same. By way of preparation I put all the feeders and drinkers to one side, and removed extraneous leafy materials so the net wouldn’t get snagged.

We were ready to begin. 

Jack immediately grabbed the net, informing me that my reactions and spatial skills had consistently been left wanting, proving that I wasn’t at all suited to this highly specialised netting process. I nodded obediently and got ready to start corralling.

Things started relatively well. Jack adopted his praying mantis pose by crouching down behind one of the shelters, and commenced netting. Initially the birds were taken by surprise and we managed to quickly trap the first couple. But success was short-lived. The remaining 22-ish had witnessed the initial captures and formulated a battle plan. As I herded them along the 25 metre length of the pen, several would outflank me, skip off across the middle, and sprint back down the other end. 

“What’s going on?” came the puzzled cry from behind the A-frame shelter, after the fifth time it had happened.

“I’m trying my best but they’re a slippery mob.” I replied, preparing for yet another run.

Jack’s head popped up like a periscope.

“You’re obviously not doing it properly! Why, oh why do I have to do everything myself?”

That appeared to be a rhetorical question so I chose not to respond. He surveyed the assorted throng of clucking, cheeping, preening birds, and came up with a new plan.

“Right, it’s obvious what the problem is – you’re not driving them quickly enough. You need to make sure their miniscule intellects are occupied worrying about you, and none are left to think about me trapping them. Let me show you. You take the net here and I’ll rush them towards you.”

I duly took up my position, poised for action.

There is a health and safety point to note here associated with the netting process. Netted birds are extremely adept at spinning and tying themselves up in knots. This means that care must be taken in the act of netting (so they don’t get walloped with the rim of the structure), and also removal (untangling beaks and legs). I tend to be overly cautious, and only scoop a bird when I’m 100% certain it won’t be injured. This is another patience-drain for Jack.

“For crying out loud, what are you doing? Just trap the sod, will you? We’ll be here all night at this rate!”

“Look, darling, I just want to do it properly. I’m worried about harming them.”

“Harming them? I’m about to have a cardiac arrest here – they’re absolutely bloody fine, as you can see by the way they’re galloping around like sodding racehorses! Get on with it!”

On reflection I might have been a little namby-pamby about things, so steeled myself for a more assertive approach.

Jack rounded up the mob yet again and set a stampede heading in my direction. The five cockerels were in front, they had to be avoided. Then came the hens, high-stepping it after their beaus. Thereafter it was a blur of game birds. The partridges were seriously on to us by now. With the skill of racing cyclists they tucked into the pheasant formation, nicely obscured by their larger kin. As the peloton approached at speed I was absolutely stuck. How on earth was I going to safely pluck a partridge from that feathery mixture?

“Get that one, thaaat one! Oh my god, you’ve missed again. Come on! How can you be so slow?”



“That was a pheasant.”

“Was it? Well, they all look the bloody same to me. Absolutely stupid idea to have them in the same pen together anyway.”

After a couple more failed forays on my part, Jack resumed control of the net, which I felt probably wasn’t such a good idea. He had now used up all his patience, plus reserves and had begun muttering to himself. It never augers well when Jack starts muttering. On the other hand, the partridges seemed to be delighted. They’d devised a fun new game – hide and seek.

This saw Jack thundering around the pen after the feathery scamps, mostly swatting thin air, as they dodged in and out of the A-frame shelters and behind the lean-to nesting boxes. As he became more agitated, the net was swung with less accuracy. No problem for our team of synchronised sprinters, who evaded tackles like skilled rugby players, but a major problem for the equipment.

Bigger and bigger holes appeared as the net snagged on bits of foliage. Poor Jack finally lost the plot altogether. He exploded with a rant-a-thon about the idiocy of raising animals. Luckily, these histrionic outbursts never last long. I tried my best not to giggle and instead ignored him and got on with the job in hand. Running repairs were made, and little by little we gathered our small group of feathery Houdinis.

It had taken nearly two hours. As we surveyed the bird carriers filled with noisy partridges, an important thought occurred to me.

“Ooh, Jack, hang on a minute. Perhaps we ought to keep a couple of breeding pairs back just in case we have a major problem with predators when they’re fully released.”

Jack, dripping with sweat and covered in dust, stared at me.

“I don’t believe you just said that,” he croaked.

“It seems to be a very sensible idea.” I replied, convinced of my wisdom.

“That confirms it. You are, in fact, stark raving mad! You’ve just had us thrashing around in this godforsaken aviary for half a day – just so you can fill the forest with fat little buggers, who, by the way, make a dreadful noise anyway. And now you want to take some out of the boxes? I honestly don’t believe my ears. My god, I’m nearly dead!”

“You certainly don’t sound it, darling,” I replied crisply. “Don’t worry, I’ll do it. You can have a nice rest while I’m sorting them out.”

A short tussle ensued while I selected a couple of suitable pairs. Two escaped in the process, which Jack steadfastly refused to re-capture, his comments being predictable, unprintable and possibly understandable. Finally we were good to go. We loaded our precious cargo on our little utility truck and drove to the paradise that was to be their new home.

We placed the boxes in the small covered pen. They would spend three nights here to acclimatise to their new surroundings before entering the open-top penned world that surrounded them. It had been quite a morning so I wasn’t too sure what to expect. Would they come out charging? Panic-stricken even? Happily, there was nothing to worry about where these stoic little citizens were concerned. To a bird, they strolled out and immediately started inspecting their new leafy world with interest.

The following day I returned to re-fill their food, and was greeted with a happy surprise. Two perfect eggs had been laid in the middle of the pen. Definitely no trauma here, the birds were perfectly relaxed. Then, on release day, when I opened their gate, rather than dashing off, none of them showed the slightest interest in leaving their cosy new home. Instead, this part of the process happened gradually over the next two weeks until only one pair of grey partridges remained. They had set up home and were extremely content.

On the whole I was very pleased with the way things had gone. Jack is always full of bluster; I’m quite used to that. The main thing was that our feisty crew were unharmed and apparently energetically embracing their freedom. I commented on this over a beer a few days later.

“D’you know, those birds are flourishing out there, let’s hope they breed as planned. It makes the whole process so worthwhile.”

Humpf – s’pose so! Just don’t expect to get me involved in another one of your brilliant bird-release programmes for a while, I’m still recovering from that one.”

I looked over at sleepy Jack, who was being used as a chaise longue by our cat. Both his feet were obscured by equally snoozy dogs.

Yep, for an ‘animal-hater’ he coped very well!