In France, as in Britain, everyone is a log expert. The woodman leaves a heap at the bottom of the drive and almost everyone subsequently walking past it stops to tell you’ve been conned, that that’s never a stère, it’s half more like. (A measure of logged wood in France was set in 1793 at one cubic meter and is called a stère. It’s about 12 wheelbarrow loads.)
How much did you pay for that, they say? So you tell them and they laugh in your face at your inadmissible complacency. High-ranking log police might then select a log from your heap and weigh it in an etiolated hand and pronounce it wet or unseasoned and further evidence that you’ve been taken for a royal idiot. And that’s before your small, costly log pile has been examined for tree species. A predominance of pine excites them to paroxysms of derision. ‘Oak, pine, pine, pine, pine, oak, pine,’ they go, analyzing the top layer with a forefinger. ‘What you want is ash,’ they say. ‘Ash is best. Or beech.’ Dickheads.
The other day we ordered a stère from a woodman recommended by an expat English friend. He dumped his load at the foot of the path and climbed up to the house for payment and a drink; €70 a stère is the norm. He wanted €90 and a whisky, ice, no water. I made him a belter and passed it over along with the cash. Would he like to sit? He consented to perch on the arm of the sofa. Our elderly bitch, deeply asleep on the sofa, was woken nostril first by the combination of rare and unusual scents emanating from this thick-set man in his mid-fifties.
He managed his heavy-bottomed whisky glass with an exaggerated delicacy that looked a bit like parody. But his expectant conviviality suggested a previous acquaintance with the expat English bourgeoisie, who, for all their faults and absurdities, offer strong spirits at 10 o’clock in the morning and defer obsequiously to the opinions of a man of the woods and forests. Then Catriona came in and sat and accepted a whisky also.
The woodman had noted with approval the stuffed boar’s head wearing Ray-Bans fixed above the side door. This moved the conversation in the direction of boars and boar-hunting and it turned out that we were entertaining the president of a local boar hunt. He owns 19 hunting dogs, a small arsenal of rifles and shotguns, and only yesterday had organized an 80-gun shoot followed by a wood-cutting session and piss-up. Another whisky, young man, we said? The empty glass was smartly presented while our old dog fastened her nose to his trousers.
Catriona interrogated him about his sex life. He was currently living with a much younger woman, an obstreperous vegetarian, he said. Then, suspiciously: we weren’t ecologists, were we? (An ecologist in his book was a shorthand term of abuse for an animal rights supporter.) I put it on record that I was not an ecologist and in fact had taken part in a boar hunt in which the chef had one leg shorter than the other and three dogs were gravely injured by boars’ tusks during the course of the day. Ah, said the woodman. His dogs were fitted with Kevlar jackets. Expensive but he no longer spends half the time sewing up his injured dogs.
At this point I put the inevitable question. The woodman cleared his throat and said that so far this year his hunt had accounted for more than 500 boars. Catriona immediately capitalized on this perhaps incredible number by extracting a promise from him of a haunch of boar for one of her famous boar daubes. Then I put the second inevitable question. Seen any wolves, I said? (A wolf pack was rumored to have been seen in the locality last week.) Wolves? he said. Wolves? Don’t make me laugh. Wolves are ubiquitous these days in France with so many young wild boar to feed on. There are so many wolves about the place he no longer gets excited about them. On his unsteady way out, the woodman spotted my old Barbour on a hook near the door, fastened his nose on it and inhaled fanatically, much as the dog had done to his trousers. ‘Barbour,’ he said. ‘Oh-la-la-la-la.’
So I would say to the log police: look, all right, we paid €20 above the usual price. But for that we got a side of boar thrown in, an open invitation to hunt boar, and our lives are more romantic knowing that wolves lurk in the woods. Moreover the stère he left us was a generous one of well-seasoned oak. Like bloody cast iron it is. Put a log on before you go to bed and it burns all night.