Black truffles are a rare, mysterious and expensive delicacy. Lesley Chamberlain visits the truffle's home ground in Provence and discovers that hunting it is better than eating itby Lesley Chamberlain / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
The black truffle is one of nature’s darkest secrets-its existence pitched uncertainly between life and death. Ambivalent, malevolent, it inspires operatic passions. Men fight over it, dogs tremble, truffle flies are reduced to a clumsy hopping in its vicinity. Cult members wear black cloaks and swear lifelong allegiance to the mystery. This is why a perishable, walnut-sized nugget of tuber melanosporum in London costs ?50 -and why adding a nought to that figure, to visit the truffle’s home ground in Provence, is even better than eating it.
Jean-Marie Rocchia is a dentist from the Var region of Provence. Like his fellow truffler Philippe de Santis, he lives in a ch?teau in oak-planted Alpine foothills. Every winter, from November to about March, Rocchia, de Santis and their fellow landowners pull on rubber boots and canvas jackets and set off to dig up a modest fortune-in the four month truffle season they might make a million French francs (?120,000). De Santis runs a small hotel, offering truffle cuisine, to maintain funds year round; while Rocchia at 58 has turned author, emulating his hero, ex-local millionaire Peter Mayle.
Trufflers don’t like to look too prosperous, for fear of inspiring envy. An unofficial green uniform, topped by a trilby, makes them look Tyrolean as they grovel with dignity to Mother Earth, watching for occasional truffle flies to guide them to their prey. The only thing which can stop this labour from being idyllic is winter.
Seven of us, all strangers, made the trip from London in December. This was still the Kingdom of Savoy less than 150 years ago, and de Santis looked like a swarthy, bearded Italian prince in a worn canvas jacket and wellingtons. We watched the men and their dogs go to work. The men had dog biscuits in one pocket; they put truffles in the other. I wondered if they ever made an expensive mistake. It was a disappointment not to participate, but had we been let loose, each with a dog and a truffler’s pickaxe, it would have been like counting money on a guided tour of the Bank of England. The temptation to pocket a souvenir might have been too great.