The hunters and hounds that traipse through the wheat fields and oak forests around our house on fall and winter mornings drive our dogs–Maremman shepherds–crazy: the dogs were bred to defend the flock, so the approach of strangers makes them nervous. By January, though, at the end of the five-month hunting season, their barking has become such a familiar background noise that my daughters and I can often sleep through not only that but the regular booms of distant shots being fired. The quiet is surprising, when it finally comes in February.
In Massachusetts, where I grew up, hunting was not a particularly classy endeavor—certainly in my parents’ circle of liberal friends, if they mentioned it at all, it was without first hand experience and in a tone of derision. In Europe, of course, hunting has the opposite reputation, having been the exclusive privilege of the nobility until after the French revolution.
I married into a hunting family here in Tuscany and lived for a decade around their guns and their prey. My father-in-law, Mario, was a legend in the hunting world, a reputedly great shot, who even well into his 70s kept our freezer stocked with boar, hare and pheasant. His bottega—the hunting and fishing shop he owned and ran for decades in Siena—had made him famous around the province, known not only for his marksmanship and deep love for and knowledge of animals but for his good looks and charm, and for being as smooth a salesman as they come. He closed the store a few years before I knew him, but the armoires in our attic (my in-laws lived with us) were stacked with the beautiful hunting clothes (unsold stock) that I grew to love: the olive green moleskin trousers that I was told had doubled in the old days as ski pants, the dark green wool sweaters with leather shoulder patches, the vests and jackets in beige and brown, the handsome hats and truly warm gloves, the indestructible boots. Those clothes kept you warm no matter what, though my mother-in-law never failed to point out that her husband, who always complained of the cold (“freddoloso” she called him), was happy to get out of bed at five on a winter morning to stand motionless in the gelid woods for hours.
Here, boars are hunted in groups. Some of the hunters drive the boar toward the others who are waiting–standing in a semicircle in the forest—and who fire when the boar approaches. Given their formation, this means more-or-less firing in the direction of one another, though ostensibly they are shooting toward the ground. The boar shot by the squad are skinned, and their meat is divided among the group, Mario invariably receiving “a wholly inferior cut,” according to his long-suffering wife.
My husband did not have the patience to hunt with the squad, so he would ride up through the woods at lunchtime to a clearing at the edge of a meadow and stash handfuls of cornfeed under rocks, which the boars would later rout out. At dusk, he would hide nearby in the bushes, waiting for them to arrive.
Usually, he missed, or arrived too early or too late, or fell asleep on the job, but every now and then he would kill one, and call me to come with the Panda, the little Fiat 4×4 that could make it up any trail. We’d heave the beast into the trunk, drive home, and string him up in the cherry tree, urgently calling the butcher to come quickly and clean the carcass before the meat could spoil. The females made tender salami, I learned; the males were better for roasts.
When my mother-in-law came down to the garden to hang the laundry the next morning, she would yelp with surprise and joy at the catch, proud of her son and eager to be part of a project. The cooking we would leave to her, an expert after years of preparing Mario’s weekend catch.
There was venison as well: one stag I remember vividly, beautifully, sadly. Shot in the dead of night at a friend’s property where no one should have been hunting at all, we tracked him through the surrounding fields, his lunging gait–he had been hit in the shoulder–causing his antlers to rise and fall in the tall grass as he moved up the hill, the neck muscles that supported them and the soft grey pelt that stretched across it a marvel to touch when he finally fell and we caught up.
We ate the meat and had the majestic head stuffed to hang in the rustico, our dining-living room, across from the head of a boar, shot half a century before by my father-in-law. “Isn’t he handsome?” I asked one night as we ate dinner under his noble gaze. “What a beauty he was,” my husband answered. “Mi dispiace. Mi dispiace.”