Some consider its fleeting, heady perfume evocative and divinely sensual. Others rate the truffle simply as a gourmet’s delight. I myself think the truffle’s scent is unmistakeably and un-apologetically carnal, reminding me of the muskiness of an unmade bed after an afternoon of love in the tropics…
On the aphrodisiac scale, it scores alongside oysters, chocolate, rhino horn and bulls’ testicles – reinforced by literary references as to its ability to “make one’s loins smoulder like those of randy lions” (Balzac) and of being “the luxury of wealthy men and their kept women” (Brillat-Savarin). Couple this with its reputation of having empowered Napoleon to conceive his only legitimate son, and it is not hard to grasp why so many revere this insignificant, ugly, underground mushroom.
Such indeed was the truffle’s reputation, that the Catholic Church excluded it from its celebratory feasts, believing it to be the embodiment of lust and evil…
But whatever opinion we may have of this black, knobbly fungus, its reputation almost always precedes our actual experience of it. (I remember hesitating – albeit at the age of 16 and for only ONE second! – before having a stab at my first sampling of it.) Furthermore, whatever claims are made, much of the truffle’s secrets remains shrouded in mystery. So what are the true facts of this ugly fungus and why all the fuss?
Well, truffles can be either black (also known as melanospora) or white (magnata). Other varieties do exist but are not as highly prized. They grow underground, usually close to the roots of certain species of shrub oaks and hazelnut trees. Truffle hunters greatly depend on luck and insight to find them and have, for centuries, relied on sows to locate them. Turn a sow loose in a truffle orchard, and she’ll sniff like a bloodhound. And then she’ll dig with manic passion. Why? It all boils down to androstenol – a male pig hormone. Research has shown truffles to contain twice the amount of androstenol that is found in a male pig – hence the sow’s interest. The
fact that boar pheromones are chemically close to human male hormones probably explains why we find the scent truffles arousing too. Here I would like to pause and give a thought to the poor frustrated sow. Imagine her trotting through a truffle orchard that seems to her positively vibrating with sexy boars, every single one of them panting for her. Yet all of these potential lovers are, for some inexplicable reason, doing their panting underground. So here she is, driven wild with desire, and to fulfill her passionate cravings she starts digging. And then? Not only does all that frantic digging merely lead to a strange, lumpy, splotched mushroom, but then the farmer snatches it away from her. All she can do is try digging for another potential suitor… I cannot think of a sadder story, can you?
For most of us truffles are simply a luxurious treat, one that perhaps borders on hedonistic gluttony. And not many of us can afford them very often. Because of their exorbitant cost, truffles are shaved into very thin slivers or tiny dice and added to pasta and egg dishes, or sprinkled sparingly over risotto, thinly sliced beef or shellfish – its decadent flavour attainable only to those who can afford its price. For truffles can fetch as much as 3000 euros a kilo at a connoisseurs’ market – a place where an amateur risks being bamboozled into buying heavy, clay-covered or even fake specimens for the same exorbitant price.
It is the end of January and I’m on my way to what is probably France’s largest and most famous of truffle markets – Richerenches, in Haute Provence. It is a sunny but crisp, cold winter morning when we set out, driving through a landscape that is dotted with immaculately kept vineyards, plantain lined avenues, sandstone farmhouses with pale-blue shutters and leafless vine-covered pergolas. Here and there patches of land are still covered with the white morning frost and black-bereted men in blue denim can be seen, hands tucked deep into their pockets, inspecting their dormant crops.
truffle market at Richerenches
It is 10 am and at the open-air market, farmers and brokers are poised for business. There is no dealing yet – everyone huddles in small groups, stamping their feet against the cold, measuring each other up from underneath the rims of their caps. There seems a lot of bragging and bluffing and teasing going on but the car boots remain firmly closed. Small-time truffle hunters roam from dealer to dealer, rustling a plastic bag and occasionally allowing someone a furtive glance or a quick sniff at its content. Men with dirt under their fingernails and last night’s garlic on their breath huddle around a shabby old van. Behind them several rows of arching necks are trying to glimpse at the treasures on offer.
At 11.30 a frisson ripples through the crowd. After all the strutting and boasting and haggling, it seems a price has been established. Today this is somewhere between 1500 and 1700 euros a kilo. Car boots are opened and the strong, intoxicating truffle scent suddenly pervades the air. One man cooks truffled omelettes on a portable gas cooker, offering small pieces to potential customers. The provocative scent becomes almost too much. Buyers dressed in expensive leather jackets stand beside their gleaming BMWs, many with Swiss number plates. They drop their noses into small plastic bags. If they like what they see, they’ll weigh the loot by means of ancient hand-scales and make an offer. Everyone watches intently – wads of crisp, just-issued Euros are double-checked with much licking of thumbs and glancing over shoulders. Cheques are not accepted and receipts are never given, because truffistes are not eager to participate in that cracked government ploy the rest of us call taxation. One vendor has only seven truffles left – he’s been selling large ones – at 300 euros each.
By midday, both buyers and sellers look happy. Tomorrow their truffles can be found in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants across the world; or perhaps in the chic Parisian delicatessens of Fauchon and Hediard and at Harrods’s fine foods counter. The latter do accept cheques of course – only you’ll be paying three times the price… Further along the market stalls a woman sells freshly picked, flowering mimosa branches. Another
peddles dried ceps, salty olives and pungent salamis. Her neighbour hawks homemade quince preserves to eat with the goats’ cheese that her neighbour sells, whilst yet another has truffled olive oil on offer. The man beside him has a stack of oak saplings which he promises are mycorhizes or “injected with black truffle spores”. Maybe I could cultivate some truffles?
But it’s time to leave the action – a truffled lunch awaits us in Bouchet – in a simple small inn called L’Auberge de la Poste. It’s warm and cosy inside and we sit down immediately. No apero is offered for who would want to kill the delicate truffle flavours with an overpowering pastis? Our starter is a buttery potato dish, dotted with slivers of truffle – the ultimate comfort dish to warm the cockles of our tastebuds. En suite we are served small puff pastries, light as a feather, stuffed with foie gras and generously sprinkled with truffles.
Next is an ethereal omelette, generously studded with truffles. We drink various Rasteau vintages – the earthiness, scorched soil and burnt herbs perfectly complementing the aromas of the dishes. Later that night, we were to eat more truffle scented food in the splendid nearby Chateau de Rochegude – grilled scallops with beurre blanc and grated truffles, truffled artichokes, tender veal with truffles…
But first, after lunch, a visit to a truffle orchard has been planned. Nowadays, sows have been replaced by more easily-handled dogs. Unlike pigs however, the chiens truffiers do not instinctively sniff out truffles and must be trained for this work.
It is a labour-intensive and unpredictable business and truffle hunters, like good journalists, protect their sources. For the latter however, watching a truffiste at work can be a dangerous preoccupation – especially if he has a wife. “Ies iet my ‘ousband you take photos of?” she demanded brusquely, taking a swipe at my camera. I volunteer that I merely take pictures to illustrate my article.
monsieur le truffiste
She snorts and looks accusingly towards her husband who seems quite pleased with the attention, seeing as he has by now draped himself seductively over a leaning tree. It does not convince her of my innocence however, and she attempts a neat rugby tackle. Monsieur le mari meanwhile relishes in the struggle and continues to make sure that his profile is at all times perfectly angled for my lens – a problem his wife tries to solve by trying another few clever moves.
Richerenches truffle mass
But the worry about others’ marital demeanours need not have kept me awake all night. For it appeared that all had been forgiven the next day – at the Truffle Mass celebrated in honour of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of truffle growers. Comme d’habitude Richerenches parishioners are asked to donate generously, and as members of the Confrerie du Diamant Noir, in full ceremonial regalia, pass around the collection baskets, large truffles join the banknotes, and once again the evocative scent fills the air.
the collection baskets
Madame La Truffiste sports a heavenly smile on her face as she generously contributes a handsome black specimen towards the worthy cause.
Let’s face it. Where, after all, would the flutterings of love and marriage be without the truffle?
Copyright Petra Carter
SCRAMBLED EGGS WITH BLACK TRUFFLES
1 small truffle
2 tbsp butter
sea salt and freshly milled black pepper
Gently clean the truffle with a soft brush. Peel, then cut into thin, thin slivers. Beat the eggs in a bowl with 1 tbsp water and season. Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the eggs. Cook the eggs, stirring continuously until softly cooked. Divide between two plates, top with truffle shavings and serve with crusty bread and butter.
RISOTTO WITH BLACK TRUFFLES
1 large black truffle
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
350g Arborio or risotto rice
1.6 litre hot chicken stock
salt and freshly ground pepper
50g freshly grated or “shaved” Parmesan cheese
Gently clean the truffle with a soft brush. Peel as thinly as you can, then slice (also as thinly as you can). Put into a small bowl, cover with 2-3 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil, cover with clingfilm and set aside.
Carefully ‘sweat’ the onion in oil and butter for 5 minutes or until transparent. Stir in the rice until the grains are coated with oil and butter. Now add a generous ladle of hot stock, and stir with a wooden spoon until the liquid has been absorbed. Add a second ladle and stir again gently until it has been absorbed. Repeat until the stock has been used and the rice is creamy but not dry (about 20 minutes). Remove from the heat, stir in the oil from the truffle and season. Pile into individual deep plates and top with Parmesan and truffle slivers.
CRUSHED TRUFFLE MASH
Here the potatoes are lightly crushed rather than mashed. Wonderful with shellfish or beef. Serves 4
1 large truffle
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
750g large, ‘old’ potatoes, cut into 3cm cubes
1 clove of garlic, peeled
salt and freshly milled black pepper
Gently clean the truffle with a soft brush then slice as thinly as you can. Put in a small bowl, cover with olive oil and keep in a warm place. Put the potatoes and garlic into a saucepan, add 1 tbsp salt and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for about 15 minutes or until soft. Drain the potatoes and garlic and return to the pan. Add the olive oil from the truffles, salt and pepper to taste, then with a fork gently crush the potatoes and garlic. Now stir in the truffle slivers and serve.
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