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« Gaining Momentum | Main | Rack 'em up »
Wednesday
Dec142011

Crashing boars

WORDS CHARLOTTE METCALF / PHOTOGRAPHY SIMONE TORRINI

Of all Castello di Vicarello’s esoteric charms, a traditional Tuscan boar hunt is the rarest thrill

With the hunt's dogs in hot pursuit, a boar charges through the forest of the Castello's private hunting reserveIt’s 4am and the stars are dwindling over the Maremma mountains. Carlo Baccheschi Berti bids me good morning in Castello di Vicarello’s vaulted, flag-stoned kitchen. He curses – it is too early for staff to be up making coffee. After much clattering he finds an espresso pot and, as flames hiss on the stove, surveys my makeshift shooting outfit – my trousers are the right colour (moss green) but are more pedal-pushers than breeches and I am in trainers in lieu of boots. He sniffs: ‘I did warn you not to wear perfume, didn’t I?’ I stammer about scented soap, but he knows I’m floundering, and laughs: ‘The boar will smell you a mile off.’ 

It is late August and the Tuscan caccia – or hunt – doesn’t officially begin until November, but, today, at the request of some keen local huntsmen, there is a wild boar shoot.

Le dolce vista: the magnificent 12th-century Castello di Vicarello sits amid the rolling panorama of Tuscany's lushly wooded Maremma mountainsI am staying with Carlo and his wife, Aurora, in the 12th-century fortress that they stumbled across in the Seventies, bought as a ruin in the Eighties, then spent over a decade restoring. Now, this mighty, ancient block of apricot-hued stone is one of Tuscany’s most beautiful historic houses, surrounded by pencil-thin cypresses and lording it over a stupendous vista of thickly forested hills and steep terraces of vineyards and olive groves.

Carlo and Aurora opened the Castello as an exclusive hotel with seven suites, spa and two pools just over 10 years ago, furnishing the rooms with eclectic treasures collected on their travels. They welcome you as if into their own home, which indeed the Castello is – although it is increasingly renowned as one of Europe’s most outstanding establishments, there is no sense that you are in a hotel. Less well known is that a stay here also affords the opportunity to hunt wild boar in the Baccheschi Bertis’ rolling 1,300-acre private hunting reserve.

A hunter takes his place on a palchettoCarlo and I set off in his Land Rover before 5am. We drive through dense oak forest and, half an hour later, emerge to see twin hills looming up ahead in the dark, the lights of the villages of Buriano and Vetulonia twinkling round their brows like tiaras. We drive through sunflower fields, then stop to open a gate into a meadow full of wild flowers and long-horned creamy cattle. We have arrived.

Several men have already gathered by a wooden lodge roofed with pine branches. A spaniel hurls itself ecstatically at Carlo. I am greeted warmly by Alessandro, who wears a pork-pie hat and an apron decorated with ducks. He hands out espressos and pastries striped with chocolate. We sip the scalding, viscous coffee gratefully as the dark sky dissolves into inky wisps. The men are in good cheer – it’s going to be a glorious morning, apparently. They line up to hand in their gun licences. Maurizio, who is in charge, ensures that we are all provided with luminous orange waistcoats. Someone plonks an orange baseball hat on my head and chuckles.

Minutes after the quarry is shot, a cook begins to prepare it for a celebratory feastThe air smells deliciously of trampled grass, coffee, smoke and dogs. Bullets are distributed and the men gather round for Maurizio’s briefing. He blows his horn and the hounds, now slobbering with excitement, are taken by the beaters to the outskirts of the wood, through which they will drive the boars, flushing them out into the meadow. 

I follow a silent huntsman into the forest. He doesn’t look back. I’m grateful as the incline is steep and I’m panting. Along the path, about 20 metres apart, are palchetti – high wooden seats where the huntsmen will sit once the dogs drive the boars out. For now, we stand silently at the crest of the hill, listening and watching. Apart from the baying of the dogs in the distance, it is quiet. Then a radio crackle ruptures the silence and we hear two blasts of the horn as the beaters let the dogs loose. There are gunshots. My companion explains that the huntsmen can tell from the sound the dogs make on the leaves whether a boar is approaching or fleeing. 

We slither back down the hill to the palchetti. The stillness is almost oppressive as we wait. The beaters’ yells, till now echoing distantly, become high-pitched and frenzied, the bloodlust almost tangible.  I sense them closing in. Maurizio’s horn blows again. Suddenly, six dogs belt up the hill, yelping hysterically. I hear squeals and snorts, astonishingly loud and close, then a big boar, dogs on its heels, erupts out of the wood three metres in front of me. Someone fires, but the boar is out of sight and I see another escaping sideways across the path. There are more shots, more shouts, and then Maurizio’s horn to signal it is all over. Four wild boar have been shot, one out in the meadow where it lies among wild flowers, already glassy-eyed and stiff, flies buzzing round the blood.

We return to the lodge where Moreno, the cook, is stoking a fire outside. We sit on rough wooden benches as he toasts ciabatta. It’s only just 11am, but bottles of red wine are uncorked. Everyone is smiling. The boars are laid out on the grass and the huntsmen cluster behind them for a photo. The faces of those who shot the boar are daubed with blood and everyone fires into the air and choruses, ‘In the name of all the hunters of Maremma, I now officially anoint you a hunter of boar.’ I have seen stag hunters blooded in Scotland, but the wildness of the ancient forest and the formality of the anointing make this ritual feel truly medieval.

The boars are dragged off to be expertly butchered behind the lodge, while Moreno prepares lunch. We sit at long trestle tables decorated with antlers and stuffed ducks, a big boar’s head with formidable tusks glaring fiercely from the back wall. Moreno and Alessandro bring platters of silky charcuterie, tiny smoked cheeses, pepper pickles, fire-toasted tomato bruschetta, sausage and beef tripe with tomatoes, which all agree are exquisite for the time of year. Then come bowls of spicy penne arrabiata, followed by shoulder of boar (twice-roasted to ensure it is tender and juicy) and boar stew with olives and bay leaves. Alessandro ensures that every plate is full and offers up a toast to Moreno.

If you have a gun licence, I can think of no better way of spending the weekend than gathering a dozen friends and heading for Castello di Vicarello, with a day out on a boar hunt. There is even an Indian masseuse on site, who specialises in Ayurvedic therapies, should your shoulder ache after shooting.
So determined am I to return, I have already booked my first shooting lesson.

Hunting season runs from 1 November to 15 March. Groups of between eight and 25 can book ‘cacciarelle’ (driven hunts with dogs) and, occasionally a ‘caccia al cerca’ (stalking on foot). Price on request, as each hunt varies. As a special offer to Brummell readers, Original Travel is offering five nights at Castello di Vicarello, b&b inc flights and car hire, from £990pp.

020 7978 7333; originaltravel.co.uk