Hunting horns for a special mass

Seasons come and go. Great events make their mark across the nation. But the real rhythm, the authentic heartbeat of France (or so it seems to me) lies in the rural calendar of custom and continuity.

Seasons come and go. Great events make their mark across the nation. But the real rhythm, the authentic heartbeat of France (or so it seems to me) lies in the rural calendar of custom and continuity.

Among them comes one of my favourites, which is not so much a tradition as a keenly followed cult - the Feast of St Hubert, patron saint of hunters. With a few friends I set off on Saturday evening to attend a local feast, but not before we'd paid homage to Hubert at a morning mass.

It was observed in a country church approached across miles of flat terrain quartered by twisting roads. Not an appealing building from outside, but inside it transforms itself into a cared-for place. 'Repro' architectural features and colourfully painted statuary add further enrichment. It was helped on Saturday morning by mellow sunshine beaming in through the chancel windows.

But a big surprise waited between the windows - a shock, no less. Under generous sprays of green broom, a total of four stuffed heads of wild boar were mounted on the walls, snarling down at an unfair world . . .and each with an unmistakeable look of surprise in their glassy eyes.

But there was still another surprise to come - which gives to the Hubert mass an element of theatre and cult. Even as the priest makes his entrance at the east end - the congregation already in place and packing the place to the gunnels - from outside the west door there surges inward the thrilling sound of traditional hunting horns, playing music whose span embraces ancient pays Basque music, hints of the Renaissance and salutes the arrival of the 21st century.

The hunt's historical colours, worn by all alike, of dark green and gold, add a final touch. Colours, livery and hunt were all the brainchildren of the founder president, Michel Soreau, who is a neighbour of mine - that is, he lives about a mile and a half away on an otherwise empty ridge.

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Michel gave his hunt the title Rallye du Bois l'Abbé and bought a modest forest of that name to keep his dogs occupied. Sorry, I'd overlooked that he acquired a pack of his own - 36 hounds, no less.

But let's return to Saturday evening and the Hubert feast. And “feast” was an appellation really deserved. It fed 150 people. It was five courses long.

We had asparagus soup; a very good salmon quiche; loin of roast pork (excellent); salad and cheeses; and chocolate fondant with crème anglaise.

Plus the trumpeters playing a tad too loud - but with such spirit that you forgave them briskly. If you have never heard hunting horn music, the next concert of the Rallye du Bois l'Abbé is on April 28 next year. Venue is the church of Usson du Poitou, here in the department of Vienne. From Poitiers Airport it is less than 30 miles.

You could make a long weekend of it and enjoy a bit of the real France.

Footnote: It was only when we got home from the feast, soon after midnight, that we learned of the great electricity shutdown over huge chunks of mainland Europe.

A brief check revealed that power to my home had been cut for two hours. The small village where we spent our evening was spared the blackout by a few miles. Saint Hubert undoubtedly made his influence felt!

Sunday 6, a cold and beautiful morning. Difficult to believe, as I look out on a peaceful vista of fields, crops and woodland, that elsewhere in France violence is welling up again.

It is only a little over a year ago since the suburbs of major towns and cities were ablaze and criminal acts were rife. Now they are back, though this time the battleground is centred on Marseille. The incident which has shocked the country is the burning of a passenger trapped on a bus. Last week the French cabinet met in an emergency session to discuss ways of stemming the violence, in which a 26 year-old Senegalese-born woman suffered 60pc burns.

Hooded youths threw petrol into the bus in which she was travelling, and set it alight. A major police operation was swiftly put into action. Within days the police reported that they had arrested “all the actors in the Marseille drama” Anyone found guilty of involvement in the criminal arson could be imprisoned for up to 30 years.

President Chirac, one notes with a tinge of cynicism, has backed calls for tougher penalties for young offenders - while admitting that more needs to be done to improve conditions on France's run-down estates.