"The truffle is not exactly an aphrodisiac, but it tends to make women more tender and men more likeable." - French food expert Brillat-Savarin.
That may sum up modern day beliefs about truffles, a little more tempered than those of medieval peasants who dedicated truffles to Venus, or those of the Greeks and Romans who considered truffles a reliable aphrodisiac.
The scientific name for this culinary legend doesn't do much for its sexy reputation: "Tuber Melanosporum". Belonging to the mushroom family, T.M. gets dressed up in glamorous names like The Black Lady or The Black Diamond, and when you buy them they are weighed against "Black Lead" or those familiar brass gram weights. Truffles, which vary from the size of a nut to an egg, are finicky mushrooms that only grow in loose, humid, sun-soaked soil, particularly beneath elm and oak trees, where their mycelium are nourished by the roots. Their harvesting season goes from November to the beginning of March. Their celestial flavor and delicate upbringing make them luxury commodities, creating a lucrative industry in otherwise quiet, provincial villages of the South of France and parts of Italy.
You'll have to "be in the black" as well in order to buy those black ladies, as you'd have to shell out over two-hundred dollars per kilo. That may be the honest price, but to buy them at the market where the "trufficulteurs" sell direct, you'll have to know more than their euphemism to get the right price. Truffle-purchasing transactions are totally encoded rituals, where yes may mean no, no, yes, and where even mild misunderstandings about quality or price taints your buying credibility. The transaction takes place away from the crowd after the price has been accorded, and which is often written on paper, not verbalised, to avoid competitive eavesdropping from fellow buyers. The transactions may demonstrate the brawn of a Wall Street trade, but these mysterious rituals take place in rustic villages and are executed by simple country folk.
But before the truffles go to market, and way before they end up in an omelette, salad, or sauce, they are coaxed out of the ground. One can't imagine a more peaceable occupation than truffle harvesting. The materials needed for truffle harvesting are a trained dog, shovel, and a human being, also trained.
For the purposes of this article, I had the rare privilege of spending a day with a truffle harvester. I suppose he figured an American couldn't be a threat to his trade! The truffle harvester, we'll call him Antoine since he didn't want to give me his name (part of the mystique of the trade), had three dogs with him. He actually raises dogs to hunt for truffles, and contrary to popular belief, the best are not Labradors. He had a Lab on hand, but in the group dynamic (i.e. one man, three dogs, and a shovel), the Lab deferred to a sprightly little mutt. In fact, by the end of the day, the Lab was having a bit of an inferiority complex, because he never really found a truffle without his co-worker getting there first. (What makes the Labs practical is their steady temperament and their good sense of smell, however, they have bulky paws that get hurt on the rough terrain.)
In this case, each of the three dogs had a particular role. A black sheep dog often sniffed out the good ones and let the second, a young mutt, dig out the truffle. Finally, the Lab liked to claim the discovery as his, so he would strut over to the truffle siting and sit regally, like someone posing with someone elses trophy.
Antoine is a specialist in dog management. Whereas some truffle harvesters rely on Draconian methods to boost their dogs' efficiency, like depriving them of sight to increase the smelling sensitivity and depriving them of food for obvious reasons, Antoine has more of a positive reinforcement method. Whether dog A, B, or C finds the truffle, they all get equally rewarded (with a piece of raw meat) and even if they find a false truffle, which to the human nose, seems like a small version of the real truffle, they get rewarded. Since jealousy is inevitable to some extent, since only one dog finds the truffle, Antoine is especially vigilant not to show any bias for one dog over the other. Every dog gets their share of raw meat.
A champion truffle dog is often the result of seven generations of mom and pop truffle dogs. Thats a heavy investment, but so is truffle growing.
In fact, you have to count on 15 to 20 years before elm trees will start kicking up truffles. As Antoine says "Il ny a pas de euphorie". Truffle harvesting is an activity for the patient, and definitely not for people who are out to make the fast buck.
Although people have attempted the "fast buck" approach with regards to truffles, the harvesting tradition is usually kept within the family. Grabbing a piece of truffle land is surprisingly easy as its simply auctioned off by the mayor of the region, but establishing a reputation for yourself and dealing with centuries-old competition are two discouraging tasks for the newcomer.
Modern attitudes have also touched this rustic endeavour, as a truffle harvester's offspring often stray from the hill to the big city, diminishing the trufficulteur pool and driving up truffle prices to rival with those of gold.
These cherished nuggets are most frequently found in Provence. The Perigord truffle is not necessarily the one that is found in Perigord, as the name has become an appellation for the whole Southern truffle territory. 80% of the truffle production comes from Provence, where the climate is practically ideal. A truffle needs a certain amount of rain: some storms in May and one or two in July or August, plus the frequent storms in September, while they also need extensive exposure to the sun and need to be cushioned in loose soil where they can feed off the roots of elm (orme) or oak (chêne) trees with enough space in which to grow.
The truffle hunt begins in November and ends at the end of March. Like many trufficulteurs, Antoine has rights to several hectares of truffle territory spread out over the Mont Ventoux region, so for six months of the year, he and his three dogs sniff, hike and dig their way to a nice revenue.
Working with Transhumance, a cultural/sport tourism organization which offers a truffle weekend package, Antoine takes as many as five people on his truffle hunting day trips, and he even invites them over to eat a four-course truffle meal, made and served by his wife.
For information on the truffle weekend which includes 3-star accommodations, two meals featuring various truffle dishes, a visit to the truffle market, and a truly exceptional opportunity to accompany the truffle harvester as he digs for the Black Diamond, contact:
- Transhumance Voyages
- BP9 84004 Avignon Cedex 1
- tel: (33) 490 95 57 81; fax: (33) 490 95 66 41
Jennie Dallery Dessay has published articles in Philadelphia Magazine, Poor Richard's Journal, and the Paris Free Voice, covering Victorian architecture, historic building rehabilitation projects, restaurant reviews, and others.