From December to February, the world descends upon the Dordogne region to sniff out the celebrated black truffles or black gold as they are known. The tiny medieval town of Ste Alvère is well known for having the only truffle market in the area and one of the best in France. Every Monday at 10 precisely the doors open to the covered market, set up in the village square, opposite the church and it is there that the goddess Tuber Melanosporum is laid out for the shoppers and experts to buy on tables covered with white cloths. There is something quite bewitching about the grainy surfaced little balls with powerful aromas. All around are loud voices, negotiating prices and very fast money exchanges. By 10:30, almost all the truffles are sold and the sellers pack up and go home, much richer.
We set out a few Mondays ago and arrived as the market was in full swing. The deals are done quickly and one buyer, a well known distributor was walking away with several large zip lock bags full. He sells to the rest of France and the world. At about 600 Euro the kilo, that was a very expensive zip lock! That was the price 2 weeks ago, last week they were at almost 800 Euro and by Christmas and New Year will be at 1000 Euro the kilo. This is the wholesale price at the market and the price in stores will easily reach 2000 Euro! Not knowing much about truffles, we found a very friendly lady selling a few smallish ones who took great time and patience to explain the process and how to choose a good one. She explained the difference between a ripe one and one that would be ripe in a few days, the difference in aromas, color, size etc. I found it fascinating.
I am definitely not a truffle connoisseur, in fact, I have not touched a truffle in 20 years. It is not that I have not had the opportunity or even wanted to but I was too scared to allow a piece to enter my mouth. You see I had a rather horrible experience 22 years ago. I was in Florence, Italy, on vacation and 2 months pregnant. I had never eaten a truffle in my life before. At the time, it was not something readily available in South Africa where I had lived until soon before that. We went to a lovely little trattoria and I had the most amazing plate of pasta with fresh truffles and Parmesan. It was rich and buttery and melted in my mouth and the smoky, earthy flavor of the truffle was quite an experience. All good you might be thinking, so why did I not eat truffles for the next 20 years? Well, about an hour or two after dinner, back at the hotel, I became quite itchy. It started off as a little uncomfortable and itchy, like a few mosquito bites but soon spread all over my body from the top of my head to my toes and felt like I had been invaded by millions of tiny ants. Soon, it became difficult to breathe and that is when I thought it best to go to the emergency room. By the next morning, I was back to my normal self and was diagnosed as being allergic to truffles. Not sure if it was a permanent thing or due to my pregnancy, I steered clear of truffles for the next two decades and it was only having settled in the Dordogne, the truffle market of the world, that I decided it was time to test the waters, so to speak. So, last year, while here, buying our house, I ordered some foie gras with a few truffle shavings. I gingerly placed it in my mouth, nothing happened, but, it was very good, very good indeed. I must admit that I was a bit nervous for the next few hours, imagining an itch here and there a few times but finally about 4 hours later, I proclaimed myself no longer allergic to the truffle. Now, I must admit that I have yet to eat a large quantity, in truffle terms that would be a few slivers, but I have had a bit on a number of occasions and so far so good. Now if only it was cheaper, I could really indulge. Only kidding, the truffle has such a powerful aroma and flavor that a little really does go a long way. unlike white truffles, the aroma of black truffles does not diminish when they are heated, but becomes more intense. In fact, you do not cut pieces of it but use a special implement, the truffle slicer, to shave very thin slices to use in your dishes.
Back to the market and what I learned from the lovely lady selling her wares. Tuber melanosporum, called the black truffle, Perigord truffle or French black truffle is the most expensive edible mushroom in the world. The truffle has a black-brown skin, very strong aromatic smell and usually reaches a size of of to 10 cm / 3.9 in. Their flesh is initially white then dark. It is permeated by white veins that turn brown with age. Once picked, they last about a week. Truffles are not easy to find. They grow at a depth of about 5 cm / 2 in close to the roots of certain trees. The main one is the French oak. Not all oaks have truffles growing under them however. I know this as I have a few oaks in my garden and although I have looked very well, I have yet to find a truffle. Truffles used to be harvested with the aid of a female pig, trained for this purpose but pigs are now becoming less common. The main reason is that pigs have a natural tendency to eat almost anything remotely edible and several truffles have been lost to a greedy pig. Can you imagine looking at about 1000 Euros having just been gobbled up? So, dogs are now being used. They are trained to sniff them out and are happy to be rewarded with a treat or a pat on the head. Some farmers hunt for them themselves, as the lady who was chatting to us did, by looking for the truffle flies hovering around the base of a tree. These little flies land on the spot where the truffle is buried as they lay their eggs there. Then the harvester has to dig very carefully, so as not to damage the prized mushroom nor the tree root, until they find it. Quite a process.
Cooking with truffles: Usually the truffle is scraped or grated onto food, into sauces and soups just before eating. Veal, chicken, fish, soufflés, omelets, pasta and rice can be glorified with thinly sliced truffles. Cream and cheese sauces avidly take up their flavors.
Watch this space for some recipes soon.