France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

May 3, 2010

Les Eyzies Law and Order

Well, after a week in which the dead chicken sat on a stake in Mr. Malraux’s cornfield waiting for the fox that had killed it and its sister chicken and two roosters to return and get snapped up by one of the five traps that encircled it, the long arm of the Law finally caught up with it.

On returning today from the little Monday market in the village, where I’d scored six bottles of Bergerac from the last millenium for 15 Euros, directly from the producer Marie-Rose, to impress my Parisian potes with, I saw Mr. Malraux’s mobilette not at his house but above the house at the other end of the path, and him standing below in the garden doing nothing. Approaching our end of the road, I waved at what looked by the tell-tale walking stick like a tourist emerging from the plain leading to the cornfield. Two minutes later he startled me by appearing at my door, whereupon I saw the “police’ insignia on his tan uniform.

“Ca va?” he asked, looking into my eyes as if something wasn’t. “Do you know who put the chicken there?” “Mr. Malraux put it there to trap the fox that killed most of his chickens.” “Is that his house?” the officer asked, pointing across the path. “Does he ride a mobilette?” “Oui!” “Si non, ca va?” I made mundane comments about our six-month winter of discontent here in the south of France, which does not seem to want to end, and this or perhaps my stumbling French (my level depends on who I’m talking to; Mr. Malraux, tres bien; a beautiful fille or the long arm of the law, barely understandable).

I quickly divined that Mr. Malraux must have spotted the policeman as he drove up to his house, figured out it was about the dead chicken that had been sitting in his dead cornfield for a week, and kept on driving, and was now hiding out.

The officer patiently waited, emerging from his yellow four-wheel-drive occasionally to take photos with a camera on a tri-pod, and not just in the direction of the dead chicken.

After about an hour, Mr. Malraux surfaced, in the company of another officer — they were neither gendarmes nor the police national, but forest rangers.

All three quickly marched down the path by our house to the cornfield, where, after one fetched a stick from the riverside, they sprung all five traps, gathering them up but leaving the chicken.

From my post behind the curtained bathroom window, Mr. Malraux did not seem unduly alarmed, but continued to bavard with the rangers, until he bid them, “Allez au revoir!”

I quickly ran over and knocked on his door to get the scoop, above all to find out if he was in trouble. “Not me, because I didn’t put the traps there! The guy who put the traps may be.” Essentially, it wasn’t leaving a dead chicken to roast in a cornfield for a week that was interdit, nor even using it to set a trap for the fox, but the type of traps (which to me had seemed antiques), which is why they had confiscated them. Above all, Mr. Malraux was upset that he’d lost two good traps, which he uses mostly for rats. “It seems to me that you’re the victim here,” I told him. “And they said they’re not going to help me trap the fox!” he added. Yet another way in which France version 2010, with its infinite interdictions, doesn’t seem to be working for the little guy, above all the beleaguered farmer which just last week, the fish and agriculture minister was giving lip service to sympathizing with. A fox had killed four of the five fowl that were all that remained to Mr. Malraux after a lifetime of farming, and which help supplement his social security by providing a few eggs he can sell. Before he gets any more chickens to supplement the one that’s left, he needs to trap that fox. And yet the long arm of the Law is more concerned with the form of trap than with Mr. Malraux’s livelihood.

I thought maybe the fox trap man Michel might feel betrayed that Mr. Malraux had apparently ratted on him, but no, he was back at 6 this evening, rushing down the larger cornfield next door where one of the four remaining farmers in Les Eyzies was turning the earth with his tractor. He held a little bucket and Mr. Malraux trailed him. Thinking it must have some rapport with the fox — the fox traps prohibited, were they now looking for smaller bait? — I braved the wind and rushed out and over the wet turned soil to ask what it was about.

“We’re looking for worms!” Michel said. “Large ones!” The fox trapper was going fishing. I joined in as they continued to traipse down the edge of every new gully Frank the farmer unearthed. “You’re the only one that’s working!” Michel thanked me as I tossed a palm-full of wet creatures into the bucket. “Oui,” said I, “mais c’est degoutant (disgusting)!”

April 25, 2010

Cock-a-doodle done

When we last left Mr. Malraux, my neighbor the retired farmer, he was planning to set a trap for the fox that had killed one of his two roosters and absconded with two of his three chickens, probably to nourish his fox puppies, using the carcass of the late rooster as bait. He abandoned that plan because, he told me, “I might accidentally trap a cat.” As the remaining coq-au-vin loitered on his porch last evening seeking morsels — even trying to enter the house — we considered whether maybe it was better to kill this one while we could still cook ‘im up as coq-au-vin a la vin blanc (better, according to M. Malraux), because if the fox came back, it would be too late. Coq-au-vin — the remaining rooster, I mean — had avoided his usual meandering around the ‘hood all day, until, unusually late for him — after 8 p.m. — his cry alerted me that he’d strayed over to my side of the path. I menaced him lightly with the bamboo cane to keep him away, and he went down the road in the other direction.

M. Malraux had told me to yell if the fox came back; the death cry of the other rooster had woken me up at 1 the previous night, while M. Malraux had slept through it. (The cry had been followed by what seemed to me more than one chicken clucking, which is why I’d been surprised that that the next morning only one chicken and rooster remained.)

I did better; as this was Saturday night, I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning watching Law & Order Special Victims Unit (maybe they should start a new one for roosters?) and Law & Order. No rooster cry or fox prowling could be heard. I even opened the window before going to bed; nothing.

And nothing to wake me up the next morning. The remaining rooster hadn’t got going until 7:30 the previous morning, so when I hadn’t heard anything by 7:30 I wasn’t alarmed. But as time went on, it was pretty clear that the fox had returned and killed the remaining rooster and chicken. Also a bad sign was that the carcass of the dead rooster M. Malraux had left at the opening to his shed was gone. Sure enough, around 9 a.m. I spotted M. Malraux from the window — looking very pissed and evidently looking for the fox, with his rifle strapped to his shoulder.

He was actually looking for a rat (a real rat I mean), he explained to me when I hurried across the road to get the latest. As for the rooster and chicken, he pointed to the shed, where two fresh carcasses were stacked up next to one of the tractors; apparently the fox had taken the one he’d left the day before and left two new chicken cadavres. “Now I have nothing!” the farmer said, more perturbed than usual, as I made sure to stay on the good side of his rifle. (The deaths of the other rooster and two chickens, while upsetting, had not crashed the threshold of the “what can you do?” shrug.)

When the fox trapper, who we’ll call Pierre, arrived in his small blue ’60s compact station wagon, he immediately set to work figuring out the best terrain to set the trap. Putting it right before the tractor shed — where the chickens and roosters actually lived — was out of the question because of all the people that pass by with their dogs, let alone the cats. So he decided to put it in the middle of M. Malraux’s corn field, which is on my side of the path and by the Vezere river. M. Malraux found a stake, which Pierre cracked was “certainly large enough!,” then they drove down to the river, me following on foot. The dead rooster or chicken (I can no longer tell them apart) he posted there looks like those corpses that you see bound to stakes in bad Cowboy and Indian or war movies as a warning to others. (“Roosters! Show your ass ’round these parts and you’ll meet the same fate!”) Around the stake Pierre placed five rusted traps, panting heavily as he opened and braced the jaws. Then he gently placed dead corn stalk morsels on each one, then covered them with dirt. Basically, there’s no way that fox can get to that dead rooster without getting trapped. For my part, I reminded Mr. Malraux that if he wanted the fox to bite, he should probably hide the other dead chicken.

While they were finishing, Mr. Malraux’s best pote Jacques showed up for his morning visit and eau de vie session. I hailed him. This probably makes me sound more important than I was, which was just a by-stander or witness with occasional wisecracks… But around here, it’s understood that any event — my tearing and burning down the dead walnut tree with my bare hands to open up the view and stop the annual bee sejour, for instance — is open to spectators.

And maybe that’s all I am here; when we all got back to the path, Mr. Malraux, Pierre, and Jacques went into Mr. Malraux’s to boire un coupe; I did not feel like I was in the coupe; one more threshold I can’t cross.

But my role as witness wasn’t terminated. Back home, out the bathroom window I saw what looked very much like the silhouette of a chicken on the path right across from Mr. Malraux’s. I ran over. “Mr. Malraux, Mr. Malraux! Vient voir!” It turned out I was not mistaken in believing I heard more than one chicken clucking after the first night’s carnage. One of the two chickens we’d assumed the fox had carted away to feed to his/her little ones that night had apparently just been hiding for two days. “Now at least you can have eggs,” I told M. Malraux, who was clearly happy all his remaining animal stock was not lost. “One a day!” said Pierre. “That’s all you need.”

I was relieved for M. Malraux. Earlier I’d told him, “You’ll be without an animal for the first time in your life!” A farmer with no animals; how’s that for an existential crisis? Later today, France Enter radio interviewed a man (in the Dordogne, as it happened) whose farmer father had committed suicide after 40 years in the metier because he just couldn’t keep up with the bank bills. Apparently, in the Dordogne (my department) more people die every day from suicide than traffic accidents. M. Malraux is retired so supposedly has a pension or social security, but still, I was worried. Indeed, given that he like me complained about one of the roosters always trying to attack him from behind, and pointed out that they weren’t really good for anything (you don’t need them to make eggs), I think if he held on to those roosters, it was because they have always been a fundamental part of his identity, even if he doesn’t need to be woken up before dawn any more.

As for me, it makes me feel guilty to give in too much to feeling relieved that I’ll no longer have to put up with that horrible rooster cry. And I can’t help wonder if the explanation for coq-au-vin’s crossing the path last evening at such an unusually late hour to my side was that it was his way of saying goodbye.

April 24, 2010

RIP, coq au vin

I was thinking of calling this one ‘cock-a-doodle-dead’ or even “I had a little red rooster,” but when you actually live in the country across the path from two roosters, and find yourself asking, “I fled the sound of 7 a.m. jack-hammers for the sound of 5 a.m., 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1, 3 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m. rooster crowing, sometimes in stereo?” the cock-a-doodle-doo of roosters is nothing to cackle about. And as my subtly referring to his roosters as coq-au-vin has not yet convinced my neighbor, a retired farmer we’ll call Mr. Malraux, to reduce his rooster roster, I have to confess that as anguishing was the cry which awoke me at 1 a.m. this morning, I found myself hoping it was the rooster, not one of the chickens, that had met his death this night.

When I opened the storm windows (I know, it’s not even winter, but I close them to try to reduce the rooster noise) this a.m. and looked across the road, I was initially disappointed, as the thing lying on its back with two claws frozen in the air in clawing position was all light brown with no red to be seen, thus, I thought, one of the three chickens as opposed to one of the two roosters. It’s head seemed to be missing. The chicken was on the incline under the grand walnut tree leading from the farmer’s shed, tractor garage, and chicken coop to the path/road. Above it next to the shed and below strewn for about 20 yards along the path was a detretious of brown and white feathers. I waited until 7:45 to gingerly knock on the farmer’s door, but he was still asleep. Finally at 9 I moseyed over and,hearing him open the storm doors, announced, “Mr. Malraux?” “Oui?” “J’ai du mauvaise nouvelles.”

When he opened the door, I said, “I think you were right about the fox, come and see.” He too remarked the trail of feathers above and on the road, and, seeing the bird, turned it over. “It’s the rooster. The mean one.” According to Mr. Malraux, this rooster was wont to attack him without provocation from behind, to the point where he carried around a baton whenever he went near him. Then he held it up to me. “Do you want to pluck it?” “No merci, but can we still make coq au vin out of it?” I kept insisting it must have been a fox, but he pointed out, “If it was a fox, it would eat it or take it with him,” and not leave it there. He also dismissed the possibility of another creature, whose name I couldn’t make out, but which is black and white and the size of a small dog. “It usually bites the head off… It must have been a dog.” Then he started looking around for the three chickens. I could have sworn that after that terrible cry, I’d heard the chickens chucking as normal, as if slightly perturbed, then silence. In the end, though, he found only one chicken and the remaining rooster. (Which, fingers crossed, must be the one that sleeps in as he didn’t get going until 7:30.)

A couple drove up, the male half of which Mr. Malraux later explained to me is a retired sgt. of the gendarmes. “Fox,” he concluded. I tried to console Mr. Malraux by reminding him he’d been planning on buying some new ones as the chickens weren’t laying anyway, but he said he could at least have eaten them. I think I finally convinced him — by the fact of the disappeared two chickens who must now by fox baby food — that it could have been a fox. Tonight he’ll be laying a trap, hanging poor dead coq-au-vin as bait.

“Well, can we at least eat the fox?” I said. “Ca se mange pas,” he answered. “There was one particularly muscular guy that caught one and tried to eat it, but it was inedible.” The remaining coq au vin is laying low…

October 22, 2009

Sour Grapes: Time to stop my whining and start making wine

Much as I’m hankering to be back in a city and resume my search (I almost wrote ‘cherche’; thinking in French, translating into English) for la femme de ma vie, I’m at least conscience that for many Americans (and even some French city denizens) the idea of a guy living in a medieval stone house in the south of France surrounded by green pastures, 100 yards from a river, and looking up at magnificent limestone cliffs dotted with pre-historic caves trying to get out of there might seem a bit *fou.* And I hate not living in the present. So, where I can, I try to take advantage of what’s unique and and typique in my experience, be it that of living in the country, living in the country in France, living among (to a degree) paysans, living in duck country, or other unique aspects of this milieu. (Never been much on pre-history, so that I’m writing you 300 yards from the first cro-mag discoveries, made back in 1860 when they were building the railroad bridge that crosses the river, is wasted on me.)

Saturday night, it was the hunting. Not me hunting — I cringe even hearing the rifle fire resound off the cliffs, or, worse, seeing a hunter toting a rifle over his shoulders in my backyard — but the booty of my pal Stephan’s hunting. The crisp autumnal day was already heading towards perfect. I’d been bugging Bernard to bring his electric saw over and cut up the long branch I’d extracted from the petit woods in the ‘yard.’ (More than a yard, really a field, and which used to house a roof tile factory, ergo the terra cotta fragments that encrust the soil, and the name of my ‘hood, le Tuilerie, not to be confused with one of my favorite endroits in Paris, le jardin des Tuileries.) Of course, being Bernard, after he’d swiftly disposed of the branch on the terrace, he insisted we tramp down to the woods and cut up some more wood. After Bernard had reduced about a dozen branches into logs, he commanded me, “Now clear them out!” In the process, I spotted what looked like a sort of lever peering out of the ground. Removing some of the dirt around it, I found a small semi-oval steering wheel. When I yanked at the lever, they separated. Feeling around the ground, I discerned what seemed like the rusted carcass of some sort of metal apparatus — perhaps a mill for grinding up corn? It turned out to be what looked like a child’s car, complete with pedals and engine.

“Vient voir!” I urged Mr. Marty, the retired farmer who lives across the path. “I think I found Bernard’s first car!” He was impressed. “C’est un vraie antiquité! Tu peut le vendre!” I couldn’t wait to show Bernard, who’d said he’d return in the evening to see how I’d progressed on the wood. I was lying around listening to “Our Miss Brooks” when he drove up at around 7 with Stephan. “I have a surprise for you!” I announced. “I found your first car.” “Mais oui, c’est ca,” he confirmed, but all it provoked was a smile, no marvel, and he was not interested in taking it with him; he only laughed when I proposed he show it to his daughter Mathilde. Bernard and Stephan had other business; they’d brought over deer liver and heart from a deer Stephan had shot that morning.

I hadn’t had venison since we lived in the country in Northern California in the late ’60s, and the taste lingered still; I was salivating already. Mr. Marty rushed over to see Stephan, whose matrimonial future he continues to worry over. (“Mais, quand est-ce que il vas se marrier?!”)

“Got garlic?!” asked Bernard.

“Mais oui!”

“Chop it up and let it cook first before you add the meat.”

“I have even better!,” I said, pulling out the grater.

“Pepper?!”

“Bien sur!”

If you’ve seen the kitchen/dining room, most of which is taken up by a mahogany picnic table and benches, the rest by a large armoire set on cinder blocks (to protect its contents from the annual flood), a long counter, an over-stuffed easy chair, a range, a bicycle, and half of a huge two-piece late ’50s era rose and off-white formica cabinet-armoire (40 Euros at the Emaus ((or Salvation Army)) in Perigueux, later spotted in the identical model for 400 Euros at a Menilmontant brocante), you’d know that adding four people to this space, running excitedly around, two cooking, two commenting on the cooking, makes for a bit of an obstacle course, but to me it felt festive).

After the liver had started already started cooking, Bernard, taking in the dozens of apples strewn over the picnic table (more local booty, along with the walnuts strewn in even more quantity) and the 1/2 of the ’50s cabinet suddenly said, “Ah, I should have said, add apples!”

“I’ll add them now!”

“And if you have panaché…” Bernard said hopefully, referring to the beer lemonade which is the only liquor he can drink… Unfortunately I’d drunk up my last bottles. “Mais…offer Stephan something!” I offered wine all around but none of the (French) men were into it.

Usually, the French undercook (by my standards) meat. In the case of the liver, though, whenever I’d ask Stephan if it was time to take it out, he answered, “Pas encore. Laisse!”

Finally, when the meat — and, as important, the garlic and the apples — was nice and crispy and dark brown, it was ready, and Bernard, Stephan, and Mr. Marty stood around watching me eat. (None wanted to join me.) It was succulent — perfect. And it was as much the apples taking in the juice of the liver that made it as opposed to the other way around. (Of course, I had to ask if they’d mind if I added ketchup, and Bernard grimaced.) A perfect cap to a perfect day.

Before Mr. Marty left, I’d wrassled him into accepting that I’d do the vendange Monday. I’ve been pestering him about this for weeks, always with the proviso that I’d do the work, he’d just need to direct me. Mr. Marty — as is his right; he is, after all, retired — has sort of let the vines in back of and next to his house go. While he did clear out the sarmantine — dead branches — from last year, he only half cleared the weeds. But as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me — yes I know, there’s supposedly a vineyard in the Belleville neighborhood of somewhere, but I’ve never found it, nor that in Montmartre — I’ve permitted myself to insist. (I also think it will make me feel less guilty when I ask for a third bottle of his famous eau de vie, made from previous harvests, this winter.)

The moment finally arrived Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Marty found four barrels, and his sharp clipper, and I set to working my way through the seven rows, clipping the grapes and tossing them into a red plastic basket. It was harder going that I’d anticipated. Because the branches were lower than me, with many bunches of the fruit close to the ground, I did a lot of bending and, then, sitting, and I wasn’t starting out with a back in full form. I’d also assumed — remembering a previous experience with sour new wine — that I should pick only the sweet grapes, so I did a lot of taste-testing. After four hours without pause (and without getting stung; my desire to make wine in the Bordeaux region tromped even my phobia of bees) (contrary to what you may have heard, the bees are not disappearing, they’ve all become grape tasters in the southwest of France), I’d amassed close to three (medium) barrels full, in each of which swarmed about half a dozen bees. Physically tired as I was, I was ready to continue to get it all done in one coupe (I had three rows left), but Mr. Marty appeared at the base of the fields and said, “Time to stop for today Paul.” As tired as my dogs were, the physical work had also left me exhilarated, so, rather than turn in chez moi, and taking courage from Boo-bah, the Belgium shepherd — collie followiing me, I decided to walk to the railroad bridge, stopping to collect walnuts from Bernard’s trees. The stark grey autumn evening sky and the magnificent setting of the valley surrounding me, the crisp air made for another perfect ending to another perfect day. Until the night anxiety of the solitaire set in, anyway.

I resumed the vendange yesterday. This time what threatened to do me in was the taste-testing. I must have tasted from at least one bunch of every little grape tree, and as about half seemed to be sour, I was starting to get nauseous. After close to three hours, I’d pushed it to three barrels and was, I thought, finished. But when I checked in with Mr. Marty an hour later, he indicated the heights of the rows and said, “There are still grapes to pick.” I explained that all those that were left were sour. “Mais, c’est rien! C’est l’eau!” (It had been raining more or less constantly since the previous night.) Just to be sure, I picked a bunch with some sour grapes, and asked him to taste one to verify. “Mais c’est bon!” In effect, I could pick all. Now that I also know that I don’t need to taste them, I’m all right with this.

On Tuesday, Mr. Marty had offered me some of his eggs after I finished working. These are farm eggs, of course, and are the yellowist eggs you’ve ever seen and fluffiest I’ve ever tasted. Yesterday, and for the first time in the two years we’ve been neighbors, after he’d straightened me out on the grapes he proposed, with a glint in his eyes, “Un petit Ricard?” “Avec plaisir!” said I. Later, when I noted that one of the things I liked about pastis was that, “It’s natural,” he reposted, without missing a beat, and indicating the bottle of cold water, “Except for the water!”

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