Mythical, nay mystical, the Ardennes forest attracts visitors as much as it impresses them. In the depths of these woods, crouches the black beast which gives this place its reputation.
Approaching the Ardennes from the south, before delving into this eponymous forested massif, the region offers a most beautiful wooded countryside. During this early autumn season, the evening sun emphasizes the shimmering colours of the foliage majestically. From the summit of Mont Walfroy, where a hermitage originating from 565 A.D. is located, we took in an infinite view that extended to the border between France and Belgium. It was time to meet up with Rémi Dupont, who awaited us on the opposite hill. More precisely, he waited at the Ouvrage de la Ferté, the northern extremity of the well-known Maginot Line, and the stage of one of France’s most tragic battles against the German offensive in May 1940. After four days of resistance, the 107 soldiers entrenched in the building died of suffocation. It was an occurrence that many visitors of the site can feel the effects of whilst walking the entrails of this mastodon of concrete lacerated by the spray of bullets and shrapnel. Returning to the fresh air, we went towards Mouzon to take up our sleeping quarters.
The next morning at daybreak we met up with Rémi Richard, gunsmith by trade, whose establishment located at Mogues boasts a reputation that largely surpasses the borders of the Ardennes. It was perfect timing, since Rémi invited us to Belgium to take part in a big game driven hunt in the Belgian Ardennes. Upon our arrival at Sugny, we were invited to eat a fricassee, a local term describing fried eggs accompanied by slices of countryside bacon, all washed down with a coffee made to awaken the spirits. Whether they were hunters or beaters, French or Belgians, the participants of this hunting day mingled as a very homogenous, international communion.
Other than a few differences in dialect, it was difficult to know whether we were speaking with the French or Belgians of the Ardennes. The shooting instructions were as impeccable as the group of hunters that encircled the leader of the driven hunt. They were all equipped with a walkie-talkie to facilitate the communication in this uneven biotope that is covered by a thick layer of vegetation. The hunters were dispersed around very large enclosures, and oftentimes couldn’t see each other, but very quickly the first shots echoed back to the dogs and beaters who were shouting. Today the deers were safe, but the bag was scattered with wildboars, arranged in the traditional way, with a trio of French horn-players.
Returning to France, we spent the night in the ancient home of the Sommer family. This industrial dynasty of the Ardennes has left their mark on 20th century hunting in France. Not only by introducing management hunting of big game into France’s hunting customs, but also by creating the François Sommer foundation that established the Belval hunting school in the heart of the Ardennes. Today, the Belval estate is to hunting what famous vineyards are to wine. Wine is out of the question here due to the Ardennes climate, but hunting gastronomy hosts its talented apostle here in the form of Didier Villemin. This master butcher commands a tercentennial house where the local venison has a place of honour, and that Arthur Rimbaud spoke highly of. It is true that the products of this enterprise became a poem for the palate. After passing by the oldest Carthusian commune at Mont-Dieu, we spent our second day of the driven hunt in the Sedan region.
Once more, we had the privilege to assist in a hunt where the key-word was safety. As tradition obliged, we ate a fricassee while the morning mist dissipated and the dogs became impatient in the trailers. There were more leaves present than north of the border, which offered vast shooting lanes to the posted hunters, all placed on driven hunt stands as to assure optimal shooting conditions. Unlike the first day, today the red deer were the objects of a few shots, including a nice stag around which the hunters and beaters of the Ardennes, whether they were French or Belgian, gathered once more at the end of the day, to render their respect.
As Toto the beater emphasized: “Friendships must be nurtured.” With regards to these two days spent in the company of the nimrods from the Ardennes, there was no doubt that hunting is a connection that keeps friendships on either side of the French-Belgian border.