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 / 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.
So we hunched our shoulders, folded our arms and shivered as Mandarine, Rocchia’s dachshund, picked up the scent. Any breed or mongrel can be trained, beginning indoors by retrieving a truffle hidden in a clean sock. Truffle-training is the quickest way to add value to a mutt. But ultimate performance is individual. The controlled collaboration between master and dog, with no barking, no excess digging, no wasted energy, is intense.
Mandarine, quivering with diminutive intelligence, was not up to scratch because this oak grove was not her usual patch. “Cherches, Mandarine, cherches!” “O?1 elle est? O?1 elle est?” Rocchia’s whispered encouragements might have whipped up a mild sexual fervour in all of us, had it not been for the wind. Mandarine trembled and scurried and tunnelled. Suddenly Rocchia was on his knees beside her. She stepped aside to let him finish. What a delicate job! He scooped up the cold, friable soil and sank his face into it. “Ah, smell that!” He held up the precious black growth, his nose shaded by a chestnut smear of earth. Encircling him, we waited for initiation.
Tuber melanosporum is a fungus. I cannot think of a single food or poison in nature with less visual appeal. The occasional diamant? sparkle, from the pinpricks of limestone clinging to the warty surface, disappears with washing and brushing to reveal a tuber with a dense skin like a blackberry, but without juice or any nuance in colour. This is a tumour conceived and grown to fruition in Hades. It is a dense, fibrous lump which has killed to live. The smell is famous. It smells of death: a rank seaweedy odour of sepulchres and underground tombs. Tinned sweet corn is a kinder analogy, but too mild. Hydrochloric acid, says someone.
Tuber melanosporum smells so strongly because thus it can attract animal attention from underground and, by being eaten, be secreted and reproduced elsewhere. I ask Rocchia about the poetry and he tells me the story of the truffle’s sex life, which sounds like Orpheus and Eurydice without the music. (I hate men who, when you ask about poetry, tell you about sex.)
The ugly phenomenon we’re studying is a parasite. The roots of these green oaks and, less often, of lime and hazelnut trees, indulge its habit. It sucks the soil dry of moisture and spreads a herbicide in exchange. Grass and most plant life die off, leaving a tell-tale bald ring. The trufflers know then that the fairies have been. The black diamond competes ruthlessly with the lovelier vegetation of Provence, the lavender and the vines, which wither where it takes hold. But the truffle sites usually only last about ten years, and lavender needs replanting over the same time span. Nature practises its own rotation.
Old postcards show the truffle-hunters working with pigs. Pigs dig deeper than dogs, but they also like truffles. They can break a man’s arm, or sever a finger, to keep their find. Getting them into the car is another drawback. You will be hard put to find a truffling pig in Provence today. All of us from London were sad about this, because we had been led to expect one, but “Le cochon est mort,” declared Rocchia-so that was that.
Locals have been eating and selling truffles for centuries, but the industry only began in the early 19th century, with the idea that the naturally occurring tuber could be encouraged. It’s still an inexact science. Truffle farmers brush the roots of young oaks with spores, water the trees, aerate the ground and hope that they have discovered the secret. Sometimes a large truffle reveals its presence by cracking the surface in spring. The hunter covers the earth with grass and leaves as a mark for future harvesting. The biggest truffle in local history weighed around 25lbs. Dug up in 1920, it looks on a slide like the black brain of a creature far wickeder than man.
An annual truffle market, for town dwellers wanting to buy the traditional truffle for Proven?al Christmas dinner, takes place about a week before the feast in the village of Rognes, 20 minutes’ drive from Aix-en-Provence. Aix, with a population of 140,000 (half the size of Brixton) is the architecturally sumptuous, now redundant former capital of Provence. Aix has warm Roman baths, 17th century villas and rows of street caf?s. Everything seems conceived to make life luxurious, especially when a warm sun comes out in midwinter. At Rognes, gourmet stalls selling lavender honey, sweet roasted almonds, cheeses, traditional Christmas vin cuit, and foie gras with light sweet wine from the Jura, stretch half a mile down the main street. Rognes is also the place to buy your truffle infected sapling and pray that it will grow into a pension fund. We’re considering the feasibility of planting one in the garden when a band of men and women in peasant fancy dress parades past us, playing music on wooden whistles and drums. Every food stallholder calls out: try this! You can see why ex-pats in the south of France write books.
Only the truffle sellers stay silent. They are tough, thick-skinned, and seem put out by questions about the price per kilo of their piles of frightful fungi. The going rate has been set, depending on weather forecasts, and the state of the harvest. Any seller who tries to undercut the agreed price is heavily leant upon. Today it is FF3,000 (?450)-between a quarter and a fifth of the retail price in London. Eyes are kept skinned for the lookalike but worthless Chinese truffle. The atmosphere of menace is muted, but the regular wholesale market at Carpentras, where the canners buy, resembles a Colombian cocaine market. The chance to make money while avoiding taxes breeds a ferocity in sellers. Occasionally the French taxman comes along and nabs someone.
Back on the land, where very little ground is available for common hunting, the hunter-landowners turn their violence on poachers. They anoint them with honey, strip them of their clothes, puncture their tyres, or shoot them. The latest threat to trufflers is the very real possibility that tuber melanosporum will flourish in the New World, and French truffles will go the way of French wine. Locals have travelled by the planeload to California to inspect the latest experiments, which are also taking place in Tasmania.
But we have some fine specimens to hand now, and it’s time to eat. The gastronomic attraction has a fridge life of three to four days. It is a useless decoration in those tins and pat?s which command high prices in specialist shops, and loses its aroma at a lowish temperature.
Contrary to most recipes, it shouldn’t be cooked, so we eat it grated fresh into scrambled egg. Three days running. I never want to see another egg. Much better is a truffle-enhanced creamy pur?e of mashed potato and cauliflower, or a warm truffly potato salad.
Truffles grow in other parts of France. The black one usually takes its name abroad from P?rigord, in Dordogne, but mostly it actually comes from Provence, says Rocchia.
But now for the truth. The fact that we are told it shows that we’re in good hands. The white truffle of Piedmont, from neighbouring Italy, reigns supreme. As it turns out, we are not at home with the world’s most expensive food after all. Tuber magnatum, the white truffle which stubbornly refuses to be transplanted from one end of old Savoy to the other, smells not of death but of fried garlic and fresh mushrooms-something ineffably better. Grated on fresh pasta, with butter, it tastes like heaven on earth. It’s worth cherishing the sense of smell over all the others for the white truffle. But you can multiply the black truffle price by two or three at least.
Rocchia relaxes over the wine-almost any good wine, white or red, will complement a truffle dish-and reflects upon his part time life as a rabassier. (Une rabasse is the local name for truffle, and it’s derogatory.) He says that the hunt for the truffle is probably a greater pleasure than eating it. True. Truffle-hunting is a passion, ambivalent for all concerned, often practised under difficult conditions, but compelling and addictive.