October 26, 2010

the strange world of the elk, turtle blood and deer penis

I was invited by a friend to visit an elk farm in southern Québec. Fantastic I thought. It was my birthday and that seemed perfect. Turning off the 202 (note previous blogs), we head down the old Dutch. A beautiful winding country road threading through wild and cultivated landscapes. Arriving at Wapitis Val-Grand-Bois the first thing we see are those wild turkeys. Out of the car we quietly follow them for a short distance, observing their nervy little hyper walk maneuvers. All I could think was I wish I had a sling shot or a gun. (I was later informed that it takes not only one permit but two, and that you are allowed one day and one bird.). We return back to the house, which is pretty secluded. Across the country road is the huge area for the elks, and from where we stand we can count 8. We are greeted by a tiny woman Francine, with, something I would call, curious, kind energy. Inside the boutique which is tiny room off the living and dinning room, the first thing I see is a bottle of Wapifor pills. I was in backwoods Québec, but also suddenly confronted with the intense and barely understood world of Chinese medicine. Before coming I was reading about Elk antler velvet which is said to relieve symptoms of arthritis, increase's blood flood and also said to have good results for men who lack the confidence of a firm sex drive. In traditional Chinese medicine it is only second to ginseng in importance. This naturally led to reading about even Hippocrates having recommended deer penis. Then deer penis wine. Then turtle blood. Then a ban of these products in the 2008 Summer Olympics. I thought, there must be some truth to this if they are being banned! Already, deer penis wine sounds a lot better than Coca Cola (let us think origins). And given the Chinese the benefit of the doubt with 2000 years of experience.....

But here I was in Québec. We went through the usual introductions and then instead of getting to `business' we sat down in a sort of sun room and began to talk. She and her husband Raymond bought this property 23 years ago, which in its origin was a little run down and abandoned. They took another couple of years to try to decide what it was that they would do. 16 years ago Elk came into the picture. They began with two females (with the aid of ever present Mark Hebert who was the model for all subsequent elk farmers). They built the area all the while taking their needs into consideration. Even the large forest area at the back was planned for the winter months when the elk like to huddle in the thick of the wild. The goal, she admitted was obviously less the meat than for the antlers which fetched extremely high prices from China and Korea. They slowly built their troop, cautiously because all the while they were learning what it meant to live with elks. They learnt slowly through observation, and the occasional help of veterinarians, and other members of the Association des Éleveurs de Wapiti du Québec. Raymond kept working at what is referred to as Le Shoppe but I did ask any specifics. Then came the infamous 2001, mad cow disaster. This changed everything. The borders closed. The market became difficult. There was a commercial 'antler dryer' in Gaspésie that was supposed to pan out but took a lot of time, and there is some non payment gossip surround this too. I am sure given also the lucrative nature of this kind of enterprise there is another story behind all this. So now they concentrate their energies on all the foires, marchés and artisanal markets. But at 60 years of age, they are finding this difficult. In 23 years they have never taken a vacation and were now thinking of Italy. We then moved to the products, and while describing the rillettes and terrines and elk meat I realized that I was more than famished. I really had something like an urge to run out in the field and grab one of those wild turkeys and take a bite out of one. I told her what I was going to do, and instead, telling me that she was also hungry that she had soup, some cheese (Fritz Kaiser), elk charcuterie (Saucisson Vaudois) and some raw sliced garden peppers. Ten minutes later inside of her house we are eating, talking about the pleasures of Italy, her son, Olivier who took photos for a book on beer which was to be out the next day. Then the talk of regrets. They wonder if they have failed doing what they did because nothing really seems to some of it. They had a plan and it never really materialized. This final note affected me. And at 60, they wondered was it worth continuing. I could not answer, rather thinking that it seemed that this was the essential question at all periods of our lives. We talked. (I will edit that part). There was something more profound here than what I came for. I found something more than elk meat and pills.... No marketing, no bullshit. But questions, yes. A desire to do things correctly, yes. Conscience, yes. Living correctly. Without hesitation I bought huge quantities of elk meat for the restaurant and will be back for as long as they are there. I asked about the pills but she laughed saying that I was still young and instead offered me a jar of her home made fir extract jelly (amazing with elk rillettes!) And if they really decide to go to Italy, I am more than happy for them and will definitely expect a postcard. And as a birthday it will be one of the more memorable.

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