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I Went Duck Hunting with Dutch Aristocrats

Only two percent of the Dutch population hunts. Americans call hunting a sport, but Dutch hunters will go to great lengths to make sure nobody interprets what they do as pleasurable—even though they love it.

Welcome to our new column, hunter/gatherer, in which we showcase the resourceful—and hungry—people who gather wild food sources without the help of the grocery store. Photographer and writer Isabella Rozendaal kicks off our first installment with her project, Isabella Hunts, in which she follows hunters in various cultures around the world.

In the Netherlands, hunting isn't all that common. Growing up in the city, I had always thought hunting was something that happened in a Grimm brothers' tale: something mythical that didn't exist anymore. In past decades, hunting has been vehemently opposed in the Netherlands—so much so that it's currently facing further threat by severely restrictive laws that could be passed at any moment. Even though a mere 4 percent of the US population hunts—as opposed to 2 percent of the Dutch population—they have a loud and unapologetic attitude that's enthusiastically flaunted in TV shows, magazines, and advertising. In my experience, American hunters are hardly afraid of bad press, and are generally very willing to be photographed.

Dutch hunters, on the other hand, are quite private when it comes to their activities. If you want to cover what they do, you need to gain their trust by convincing them of your good intentions. Americans call hunting a sport, but Dutch hunters will go to great lengths to make sure nobody interprets what they do as pleasurable—even though they love it. Dutch hunters, even when they feel there is nothing wrong with what they do, will often keep the fact that they hunt to themselves. But since I started photographing the hunting community in 2009, I've found out that what they lack in numbers and visibility, they make up for in enthusiasm and dedication.

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For centuries, the European hunt was an exclusively aristocratic affair, and poaching was severely punished. Wars have been waged in which every man's right to hunt played a vital role. But even though anyone can get a hunting license in the Netherlands today, the middle class lost this tradition centuries ago. In my experience, the majority of Dutch hunters are either people with aristocratic affiliations—if not by blood, then at least in affluence and style—or people in agriculture.

This is partly for financial reasons. In the US, you can get a very affordable license to hunt a deer with no previous experience and hardly more than a few safety instructions (depending on the state). But in Holland it takes six months of studying for a brutal theoretical exam, a rigorous shooting exam, and a practical field and safety exam that will altogether set you back a minimum of a couple of thousand euros. Once you have a license, you'll still need to lease a substantial piece of private land for a minimum of six years to be allowed to hunt, or get a guest license via other hunters who have such leases.

Considering the substantial cost and time one needs to invest to become a hunter, it's hardly a hobby to be picked up lightly. When you become a hunter, you become a hunter. Because this system is not easily accessed by people without connections in the hunting world, hunting is mostly pursued by people whose families maintain the tradition, farmers who already own the land, or people who want to project an image of aristocracy. Joe Schmoe is not on that list.

The Dutch are a highly urbanized people, and as such are completely removed from the source of their food. Butcher shops don't generally show snouts, tails, feet, or anything that could betray the fact that they're selling an actual animal. Yet slowly but surely, following international trends, even in Holland there is an emerging generation of foodies who want to find out where their food came from, and even to grow, forage, or hunt it themselves. But as romantic as it can seem to explore the origins of your food, the commitment you have to make in order to hunt your own dinner is so demanding in our country that very few actually go through with it.

My interest in hunting started with my photography. I followed hunters around for years, comparing the different cultural approaches to hunting in various countries. I've taken the theoretical hunting exam, but haven't been able to bankroll my gun training just yet. But that hasn't stopped me from following hunters on their outings, and many of them graciously share some of their spoils with me. Taking home animals whose death I witnessed has profoundly changed my relationship with meat.

A small game hunt, in Holland, means hunting hare, rabbit, pheasant, dove, and duck, plus the occasional goose. Most small game hunts I've attended were with farmers, and were very down-to-earth affairs, but this time I've been invited by a centuries-old aristocratic family in the east of the country. My host is a young count: a fellow journalist and successful entrepreneur with fluffy golden hair. He is exceedingly modest about revealing his family background, but I've managed to pry it out of him and talk myself into a family hunt. Together, we travel to the estate where we will spend the weekend.

My room is elegant, high-ceilinged, and ice cold. As I get dressed in the morning, the count's ancestors eye me sternly from their portraits on the wall. I put on layer after layer of warm clothing and shake off the cold. For breakfast we have toast and soft-boiled eggs, and at 9 AM we meet the other hunters—friends of the family, in-laws, and neighbors—in the local cafe. The roles are strictly divided: the count's uncle is the jachtmeester, the hunt's host and authority figure, a man with a charming smile and a swaggering walk. He welcomes us all and lays down the rules for the day: geese are allowed, but attempts at shooting a hare are limited to just a few shots per hunter. There is also a gamekeeper, and the rest of the group is divided into "guns" (hunters with weapons) and "drivers" (those who walk the fields, driving the game towards the hunters). Once we all have our boots on, the group is driven out to the field in a cattle car, the dogs squealing and trembling with anticipation.

The day proceeds without incident (that is, if you don't count death), with accurate shots and a fairly abundant harvest. We plow through the mud and get soaked by a steady drizzle. I wasn't sure what a hunt with aristocrats would be like, but to my surprise it turns out to be exactly the same as a farmer's hunt—except for the swanky estate in the background, the clothing brands, and the fact that the drivers eat at a separate table from the hunters. Holland is known for its sober culture, and even the elite take great pride in what we call "acting normal." When hunters are among themselves, they lose their inhibitions and joke around, tell tall tales, and can act a little fratty. But today's atmosphere is far more comparable to that of a stodgy afternoon with old men at the golf club than to the trigger-happy machismo that the Dutch public seems to associate with hunting.

During the course of the day we build up a raging hunger: the kind you can only get from being thoroughly outdoors. When we get back to the village cafe, we are served steaming heaps of mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, and smoked sausage. No game, you'll notice: After a hunt, you don't immediately get to eat what you've shot. The meat needs to be aged for a few days, then cleaned and cooked. No, after a hunt you'll eat something simple, and whatever it is, it is invariably the best meal you've ever had.

After dinner, the tableau is laid out next to the restaurant: a neatly arranged collection of the game that was shot. Today, it consists of a few specimens of each species, but mostly ducks. The jachtmeester offers me two plump mallards, which I gratefully accept. In just a day or two, they'll be aged and ready to cook.

Check back next Monday for part two of Isabella Rozendaal's hunting adventures.