The dirt path through the woods is shaded and quiet. My sister and her family are ahead of me as I poke along slowly, looking for birds and other creatures. I pass the woods where the night before Claude Lucantis took me looking for mushrooms. I have an uncanny ability to find the most poisonous ones. But I did find a few girolles, golden orange, fluted, which we ate in a delicious omelet, and Claude found some cepes, which we fried up with garlic and duck fat.
The dirt path is bumpy and barely used by farmers coming to cut wood. A few open fields deep in the woods are used to graze cattle. The woods are filled with chestnut trees, the green spiny fruit dangling, beech trees, some holly. The land in the woods is often terraced, a reminder that this region was mostly vineyards until phylloxera destroyed the vines in the late nineteenth century.
Near the house that is now owned by two Dutch women, we turned right. The day before we had visited the women, who have set up shop to make cheese here in this isolated patch of French soil. We had heard of these two for the ten years since they moved in—that they are Dutch is a novelty in an area where the British have come to settle. But more, that they are a couple has pretty much everyone talking. “We’ve seen everything here in Estampes,” Odette says clapping her hands and laughing. But newcomers to the area are scrutinized. Odette knows this as her husband Stanis, came from Polish stock: Baczkowski. She was ostracized from her family for marrying a Pole, who was more French than some Frenchmen.
When I was a kid, people would ask to touch me, saying they had never met an American. Those days are over, as the town has seen an influx of many new people. But a few years ago, my Benin-born friend Senami came for a short stay. One night we stayed up late, playing cards and sampling various Armagnac. Around three in the morning we remembered that Senami had agreed to help Odette with her rabbits and chickens in the morning (8 am sharp!). “You have to wake me up,” she implored all of us. “You know I’m representing my entire country,” Senami joked. But we knew it wasn’t entirely a joke.
The one Dutch woman was wearing trendy glasses and almost clean jeans. She speaks both French and English well and told us she was an optician, her partner an architect. “It’s good to do something new with your life,” she said in her lilting accent. This I agree with. But this change of country and of career seemed dramatic. The house they bought had been abandoned for ten years. They wanted something inexpensive, and they found it. Her partner emerged, broader in the shoulders, her short blond hair unkempt, a light powder coating her arms. She was off to feed the happy pigs we’d seen in the fields. We bought a quarter of a round of cheese, and went on our merry way.
Today we didn’t stop for cheese, but rather continued through the woods, the dry, blond soil rutted by tractors. It’s hot out. I lose sight of my companions and at intersections in the woods they put up cairns and sticks as arrows to point me in the right direction. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of trails through these woods.
I pass a palombiere, an elaborate hunting stand in the woods used for shooting the palombe, the fat, blue wood doves that appear in the fall. There’s a ladder made from tree limbs that rises high into the trees—I want to say fifty feet it looks so high. And then a contraption suspended from lines where a decoy balances. It all sits quiet, waiting for the fall hunt.
Earlier Odette had told me about the palombe, and how much Stanis liked to shoot them. They would be in the fields, bringing in hay, when he’d see a flock of doves overhead. “Don’t move,” he yell at her. He’d stop the tractor, pull out his gun and down a few birds. She’d wait for him to finish his hunt. “I was so stupid, standing there in the field,” she laughed. Stanis liked to hunt and had hunting dogs he prized. He went after woodcock, quail, partridge. But he was most excited by the wood dove. Odette tells me that cooked in a little white wine, they are delicious.