We met a man the other night named Eurl Jean-Marie Bitaube, who is a traiteur. His specialty is summer escargot parties, and we followed him in his little white truck to a trail in the huge Foret du Landes, which is a 2.4 million acre planted pine forest, the largest in Europe, outside of Buzat. We were going to have dinner in a Palombiere, which is a hunting lodge and a series of blinds that’s a very old French tradition. Many local hunters pay dearly for the chance to spend time in these blinds during the short season to hunt for palombes…small pigeon-like birds.
But the way they hunt is complicated…and a challenge. First Bitaube showed us a pair of long wires. “We attach nets to these,” he said. They snap up very quickly, and he said people have been injured when they’ve stumbled upon them in the woods. They are designed to catch decoy birds who then have their little feet tied together and fly up a vertical wire, to attract more of their brethren to the hunting area. Other decoy birds are caught like this and then gently affixed to a paddle, which is lowered to simulate them landing to eat corn.
When it’s time, after a long period of absolute silence in the blind, it’s time to shoot. Each hunter is allowed just one shot….and in an average year just 50-100 of the birds are actually shot down this way. It’s an elaborate ritual of using the decoys to lure them in…and then the men repair to the cozy hunting lodge where candles illuminate a table and behind it, a bubbling stove.
The first course in the palombiere is always escargots. Bitaube had them waiting, a huge bowl, garlicky and waiting for us to pluck them out with toothpicks. The main course is often one which Henri IV was fond of. Poule au Pot, a stewing hen cooked for 2 hours served with a mushroom sauce. We drank heartily of the wines set before us, and enjoyed the repast in the lodge, while he told us more about his hunting clientele. They take days and weeks off from work for the privilege of spending quality male time here in this blind.
After a long meal and a few drinking songs, it was time to make our way back out the dark road through the pine forest. No birds had perished because of our visit, as is I’m sure often the case in this lodge. But that wasn’t really the reason to come here anyway.