Continuing with our study of the Republican Calendar's months, guided by Eugène Le Roy, we are now entering Frimaire, the month that takes its name from the French word for frost. It is a time of bitterly cold winds rattling dry leaves that cling to branches. Flowers have disappeared until, later in the month, the hellebores bloom. The long rows of cranes pass overhead on their way south. All is grey, bleak and cold.
Or it was, before global warming. This year, autumn has been glorious, golden, warm, sunny and bright. Paris feels like Phoenix; Dordogne feels like Dorset in May. Long ago, at this time of year, your French ancestors would be dining on thin soup, gathering sticks and broken branches for the fire, pruning trees with numb fingers. Were they to have had a Frimaire such as this year, they would have been astonished, for the combination of dampness from the odd bit of rain and so much warmth has produced a bonanza of mushrooms.
Last week, and utterly out of season, we were presented with a friend's surplus of cèpes :
This week, we were wandering a field and came across a fairy ring of faux-mousserons, of which we harvested a few dozen:
Omelettes! Soups! Stews! Plates full of mushrooms cooked in butter! Your French ancestors then would have been, as are your distant cousins today, giddy with gastronomical glee.
Le Roy wrote also of Frimaire being the time when the peasant hunter (e.g. poacher) was prowling around looking for chestnut shells cut in half, the sign of the hare. Apparently, he would sneak his bloody kill home underneath his coat. He kept well in the brush, where it was harder for patrolling gendarmes on horseback to pursue him though, if they did go after him, he ditched both gun and corpse under a stone and ran for it. If caught, he was fined but, as he usually was too poor to pay the fine, it was waived and he was released. Whereupon he retrieved his gun and the probably quite high hare and carried on poaching.
This romanticizing of the poor continues in France today. Everyone pities "the poor" so much that, when someone who has no money breaks the law, a charitably blind eye is turned. Fines are waived, rent need not be paid, no tenant -- however remiss with the rent -- may be evicted during the cold months (will that change with global warming eliminating cold months, we wonder). The attitude is very ancien régime, the only difference being that what was once an attitude of the rich is now the law. Under the veil of charity is the absolute determination to keep people in poverty and to discourage and block their efforts to improve their lot. In our experience, the French "protection" of the poor is really quite crushing and cruel.
Le Roy completes his chapter on Frimaire with much more discussion of poachers' "rights": (we paraphrase): "The peasant hunter feels he has hunting rights by reason of his poverty and is indifferent or even hostile to all economic considerations and to the bourgeois theories on species conservation." Being both vegetarian and an environmentalist, we hold no truck with such specious reasoning.
These lovely and not so lovely traditions may not last. Perhaps next year's month of frost will see us all at the beach.
©2014 Anne Morddel