Called the ‘Black Diamond’ in some circles and the ‘Diamond of the Kitchen’ in others, the French black truffle is exclusive, a luxury item like fine wine, but often more expensive.
It’s hard to believe the plain plastic tray in front of me is filled with mushrooms worth nearly US$ 6000.
As I stare hungrily at the dark little mounds caked with grit, the mellow smell captivates everyone around the tasting table. We nod our heads, trying to imprison the drifting aroma.
The pungent Tuber melanosporum isn’t for everyone. This little gem can provoke instant delight, utter repulsion, or an eventual peaceful entente, a bit of an acquired taste. I admit I’m a fan and if it weren’t for cost, I’d be sprinkling truffles on everything.
So what are truffles, anyway?
Despite its name, the famed truffe du Périgord isn’t limited to the Périgord region of southwestern France, just as Brussels sprouts or Belgian endives aren’t necessarily from Belgium. In fact the Périgord produces only 20% of France’s truffles. The rest come from right here, in the southeastern département of the Drôme, as well as the Vaucluse, Hautes-Alpes and Var near Provence.
“There are 29 varieties of truffle. Some are so small they have no market value but others, like the black truffle, are worth €900 (US$ 1,200) a kilo,” said Gilles Ayme, whose great-grandfather founded the Domaine Bramarel, where I’m learning all about truffle prices and types.
“There’s also the summer truffle, which costs between €250-300. It’s a lot cheaper because it is not as well-known, and it’s smaller so making nice big slices is a lot more difficult. It has a stronger and more peppery taste.”
Truffles are nearly a year-round business and April is the only month you won’t find any.
Finding truffles is hard work
For years truffles were hunted in the wild by sows, whose acute sense of smell mistook the scent for that of a male pig. Unfortunately they often ate what they found, leaving nothing for the rest of us. Dogs may lack the sow’s innate sense of smell but they can be trained to find the truffles – and most important, to hand them over.
“The truffle is a wild mushroom and lives underground so it has to be found by smell. We use Labradors but you can use any dog – just get one you like because she’ll be sharing your life for a dozen years,” said Mr Ayme. He prefers female dogs. He thinks they’re less troublesome.
As a dog-owner I was particularly curious about the truffle dogs.
Training begins early and puppies are fed the cheaper bits of truffle so they learn to like them. Small pieces are then hidden in soft earth (to protect those little snouts) and the puppy encouraged to ‘find’ them – and drop them. When that happens she gets a reward.
“It takes about 15 days to train a dog but a young puppy will only work for ten minutes at a time,” Mr Ayme said. “To work seriously a dog needs to be about four years old.”
Once they are too old they retire, just like we do, but to them it’s a punishment. Raised to love hunting truffles, they are suddenly deprived of their favorite activity.
Truffles don’t grow on trees – do they?
Truffles are found among tree roots and some truffle trees, like the oak, are better hosts than others. They also need limestone soils and sufficient water to grow properly.
Truffles have been around since Antiquity. They lost their popularity around the Middle Ages (some say because they inflamed passions too headily) but staged a comeback during the Renaissance. They really came into their own in the early 1800s when farmers began to cultivate them.
Most of today’s production is farmed. Truffle hunting is a popular pastime in the Drôme and its environs but the best spots are often auctioned off by local authorities as concessions to weekenders or part-time producers. Apparently there are more truffles than there are hunters around here… I’d hunt for truffles if I could but I doubt my dogs would ever hand one over.
France’s truffle production was once huge, up to 2000 tons a year. A combination of climate, depleted fields, wartime deaths and city-bound farmers dealt production a blow. Today the black truffle is scarce but exact production figures are nearly impossible to find.
This elusiveness is part of the attraction – and what keeps prices high. It is also what has prompted parallel markets, counterfeiting and even the arrival of organized crime, according to some.
There are grumblings about the newcomer Chinese truffle, vastly inferior to the black truffle in smell and taste but similar enough to dupe an amateur. Unscrupulous sellers may try to pass them off as French black truffles, not at the well-attended traditional markets where they’d be spotted quickly, but furtively, out of car trunks and in back alleys.
“The only way you can avoid being scammed is to make sure you are buying from a real producer, one with a name, an address, a landline number and a business card,” said Mr Ayme.
“This is why we welcome people to our plantation, so we can explain the qualities of a truffle, the varieties, how to tell them apart and the different prices.”
Keeping your truffle mushrooms fresh
Having spent plenty on buying truffles, you’ll want them to last. You can brush them and place them in an airtight box, wiping the condensation off each day; they last 10-15 days this way. You can freeze them for up to a year. Or you can pasteurize them (add salt to a jar, seal it and cook at 100 degrees Celsius for an hour and a half). Pasteurizing preserves truffles for up to 20 years. If you have that kind of patience.
Once you decide to eat your truffles (in my case that’s about ten minutes after purchase) the best way is on a ‘soft’ support, something that doesn’t have too much taste of its own, like pasta or eggs. Just sprinkle on a few shavings, settle back, and enjoy.
Back inside the Domaine Bramarel, we were served truffle oil on croutons, with delicious local olives from Nyons on the side. Truffle oil is the way to go if you’re not willing to pay a hundred dollars for something so light you can hardly feel its weight in the bag. Oil is certainly a better bet than truffle chips or bits, which have very little taste.
There is huge interest in the truffle market, both from honest and dishonest buyers, and it should come as no surprise.
In 2010 a giant truffle was auctioned off in Macau for US$ 330,000. It might as well have been a real diamond.