by Lapin Agile
I experience first hand the mysteries surrounding truffle hunting in the South of France.
|I am fascinated by truffles and sure that I am not alone in that respect. I have always wanted to go truffle hunting that is, in part because it always held some mystique, a secret known but to handful of truffle hunters and because I wanted to try my new shotgun which they all tell me I would need because truffles are quick on their feet. I knew that truffle hunting secrets and family secrets are sometimes one and the same. Most truffle hunting secrets are passed down from generation to generation, undoubtedly from one death bed to another. Asking a truffle expert for tips on hunting the black truffle of Perigord is much like asking a Chef what makes for that special something in the sauce. The Chef, ever polite, will gladly oblige with a recipe but may forget an ingredient or two. A secret is a secret mon ami.
Some years ago, I was pretty sure a truffle was a delicious chocolate miracle rolled in powdered cocoa and when tasted came pretty darn close to Nirvana; yes, that state of heavenly bliss which I found it at last. That was then. Today, I am a bit wiser and I know that packing a shotgun to go truffle hunting makes those in the hunting party a little uneasy. I can just as easily catch a truffle with my own two hands. If, I'm quick that is.
The white and black truffle is a fungal fruiting body that develops underground and relies on microphage for spore dispersal. Almost all truffles are fungi and therefore usually found in close association with trees. The white truffle or Alba madonna (Tuber magnatum) comes from the Langhe area of the Piedmont region in northern Italy and, most famously, in the countryside around the city of Alba. The black truffle or the winter black Périgord truffle (Tuber melanosporum) is named after the Périgord region in France and grows exclusively with oak. Specimens can be found in late autumn and winter, reaching 7 cm in diameter and weighing up to 100 g. The 18th-century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin called these truffles "the diamond of the kitchen" then went on to note that the truffle is not exactly an aphrodisiac, but it tends to make women more tender and men more likeable." Somewhat earlier, Cicero considered them as children of the earth. That says a little bit about how long truffles have been in our hearts, minds and stomachs. The largest truffle market in France (and probably also in the world) is at Richerenches in Vaucluse. The largest truffle market in southwest France is at Lalbenque in Quercy. These markets are busiest during the month of January, when the black truffles have their highest perfume. Black truffles were recently sold for about $1,000 a pound in a farmer's market and twice that retail. That's hardly what you would call dirt cheap.
Total annual European production has dipped considerably from 2,000 tons at the end of the 19th century to just 60 tons in the 2009 season. Why the decline? A lost of interest? No blame it on woods gone wild, a result of the population fleeing from the countryside (truffles need a light, airy environment) and some unusual weather patterns. Total annual European production has fallen from 2,000 tonnes at the end of the 19th century to just 60 tonnes in the 2008-2009 season. Some worry that if the trend continues, the French truffles could disappear altogether. This could mean war. Can you imagine armies lining up on their respective borders (all with passports of course) then charging, let's say into Italy, and laying claim to the white truffles of Piedmont. The Great Truffle War. It could happen.
Gaston and his wife Lisette run a small side business, deep in Périgord black truffle country, catering to smart aleck tourists like myself who think they know a little too much and usually end up in trouble. The business of pandering to tourists is relatively new to them but since a number of English mom and pop operations have sprung up, they have decided to do the real thing; and good for them too. Gaston met me out in the courtyard of his ancestral farmhouse at 7:00 AM sharp. He had been up hours before and Lisette had been busy cooking since, well since I arrived she seemed glued to the stove. Gaston was appropriately dressed in green twill pants, heavy farmer boots, flannel shirt, maroon colored wool sweater, tweed cap covering a shock of white hair, a ruddy complexion with a perennial cigarette pasted to the corner of his lower lip. Hand outstretched, his thick gnarly fingers looking more like carrots than human fingers, he grasped my hand which seemed to disappear from sight. Et bien bonjour Monsieur, il fait beau ce matin. He looked me over with a twinkle of amusement in his bright blue eyes, clearly I was not exactly du pays dressed as I was in a nice cashmere sweater, khaki pants and polo shirt and LL Bean leather mocks and leather jacket. I could pass for a native anywhere, I was sure of it and asked if he we were riding in the red BMW 1-Series that I had rented at the airport ever anxious to show off what this baby could do on the open road. Apparently the 1985 Citroen was going to do just fine instead. I got dressed for nothing!
Gaston opened the back door and whistled softly then Carlo quickly appeared from somewhere in the kitchen looking just a bit guilty then proceeded to hop into the backseat. Carlo was a Lagotto Romagnolo which is a breed of dog that comes from the Romagna sub-region of Italy. The name means "water dog from Romagna," coming from the Italian word lago, lake. Gaston explained that the breeds traditionally function as a gun dog, specifically a water retriever. However, they are often used to hunt for truffles. And Carlo had already made a name for himself as a sharp nosed black truffle hunter to be taken quite seriously. He had large round dark yellow eyes, a thick curly woolly coat which was off-white with brown patches.
On the way to our truffle hunting destination, Gaston explained that the female pig's natural truffle seeking, as well as her usual intent to eat the truffle, is due to a compound within the truffle similar to androstenol, the sex pheromone of boar saliva, to which the sow is keenly attracted. He laughed but clearly truffle eating pigs were a problem. Carlo on the other hand, did not have that problem. I asked Gaston about the market for truffles. He told me that he had heard from a reliable source that Chinese truffles worth no more than wild mushrooms were being doctored and sold as Périgord truffles. Apparently they look just like Périgord truffles, so it’s easy to get taken. He pulled out a bag and handed me what looked like a truffle; it smelled as I expected a fresh truffle to smell like. "These are real?" I asked, somewhat hesitantly?" "Ahhh, mais bien sure que non Monsieur, c'est du Chinois!" Dishonest dealers were putting genuine truffles among their Chinese mushrooms to pick up the aroma and pass the sniff test and then selling them to people, well like me who thought knew pretty much everything. That's downright underhanded I thought to myself.
So how does one know a real truffle from a fake truffle? Well from Gaston's School of Truffles, I learned there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Good truffles are harvested at the height of maturity and their aroma and taste after ten days is fleeting. So be sure and ask "the little man" (it's always a little man) selling them at his stand when did they arrive or when were they picked. You also use the sniff test and if the strong pungent truffle smell is faint or non-existent, do like the song says "just walk on by." Like all good things in France - of the food and drink varietal, truffles are regulated every which way but Sunday. To translate, truffles that 1 to 1.4 ounces in size would be classified as an Extra Grade truffle. Truffles are graded Extra, Category 1, Category 2 and Unclassified. There are both weight and aesthetic considerations. Extra truffles must weigh a minimum of 30 grams and be the size of a ping-pong ball, with a similarly round shape; they must have “very slight” defects. If not you're taken to truffle prison in Perigord's very own Bastille, kept in the dark and eventually you'll be let out with a few slight defects of your own.
Gaston's family has owned a piece of truffle land for a number of generations - not that long in truffle history time - but the land, the five acres, have been good and every year he has managed to make "a little money" and then some to put away. I did not doubt for one moment that his conservative temperament combined with the bounty of the land had indeed been good to both he and Lisette. True to form, Carlo was out the door in a heartbeat. I think he knew the drill, nose to the ground, it was a pleasure to watch. Soon enough, Gaston grinning, handed me a dark ugly, odd-shapped object and told to smell and let him know if I thought it was real. It had an incredibly deep, pungent, earthy aroma to it. I had died and gone to heaven. I could have used a glass of red wine, perhaps some cheese with bits of freshly shaved truffle to better enjoy the sport of it all.
For all our hardwork that morning, we were treated to a wonderful lunch with a tasty dish that's really quite simple to make. It's called Eggs with Black Truffles or Brouillade de Truffes which we had together with fresh baquette bread and a glass of local red wine. Truly delicious. I have included the recipe below:
Brouillade de Truffes Recipe
This eggs with black truffles recipe is a special egg dish that is served throughout France during the height of truffle season. It’s one the one hand a luxurious meal elegantly simple and country. This is a very rich recipe so hold on to your arteries. If you don't happen to have truffles one clever substitute with truffle paste or drizzle truffel oil at the end. The French culinary police will not come knocking at your door.
8 large eggs
1 ounce black truffles, finely chopped or shaved
6 tablespoons butter, softened
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
Heat water to simmering in a double boiler.
Whisk together the eggs and truffles in the top portion of the double boiler and add the butter.
Continue whisking the eggs over the simmering water until they form small curds resembling cottage cheese.
Remove the eggs from the heat, season with the salt and pepper, and then serve immediately, while hot.
This recipe makes 4 servings