Searching for Black Truffles the Millionaire’s Mushroom
Black Truffle Season
Right now it is truffle season in the South of France and Uzes, well-known for its truffles, celebrated with its famous, annual Fête de la Truffe in January. Each year a mountain of sand arrives in the Place aux Herbes, planted here and there with oak and hazel branches to create la campagne (countryside) feel. Black truffles are hidden in this scene in the dark of the night (surveyed until daylight hours by security guards). Then, during the day, dog- and pig owners are invited to let their animals search for them. The scent of truffles pervades the town and all the Uzes restaurants will be serving truffled dishes.
Some think its fleeting, heady perfume evocative and divinely sensual. Others rate it simply as a gourmet’s delight. Personally, I reckon the truffle’s scent is unmistakably 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 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). Combine this with its reputation of having capacitated Napoleon into conceiving 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 undertaking my first sampling). Furthermore, whatever claims are made, much of the truffle’s secrets remain shrouded in mystery. So what are the true facts of this ugly fungus and why all the fuss?
The Truffle Finders
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 hazel trees. Truffle hunters used to rely on luck to find them and have, for centuries, depended 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 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 too find the scent of truffles arousing.
Pigs and Dogs
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 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 so to fulfil 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?
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 so truffle hunters jealously protect their sources. But during the truffle weekend and for a few weeks afterwards, you can partake in truffle hunts with various truffistes in Uzes. The most well-known being Michel Tournayre, a 3rd generation truffiste who also offers a spectacular truffled dinner in his restaurant Éphémère.
Truffles = Black Gold
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, then added to pasta and egg dishes or stirred into risotto, on top of thinly sliced beef and shellfish – its decadent perfume pervades everything it comes in touch with. Place them in a bowl with some eggs and the eggs absorb their scent through the shells. Risotto rice does the same.
For the last few years, black truffles have sold at around 1000€ a kilo. Reliable markets like Uzes, have the truffles inspected and vetted to make sure that you don’t risk being bamboozled into buying heavy, clay-covered or even fake Chinese specimens for an exorbitant price. Its season starts in December and finishes in March.
No better time then to try out a few recipes with this highly prized, elusive underground mushroom. If you cannot get hold of fresh truffles, you can use the bottled ones. Beware of truffle ‘products’ (like truffle oil or truffle salt) which are often ‘enhanced’ with artificial chemicals.
Watch for truffle recipes to follow!
Details Le Weekend de la Truffe
Since 1994, this weekend dedicated to the black truffle takes place the third week in January. Most of the festivities occur in the heart of Uzès. The 3-day program changes slightly each year. However, expect a chance to sample local wines or attend the truffle market in Place aux Herbes. Here is more information.