Sniffing out luxury
The elusive truffle of the Périgord Noir
The Périgord is a region with a global reputation for its culinary ingredients. For many it is the kitchen of the world, or more specifically, the world’s larder.
The litany of sublime foodstuffs is endless, the result of a happy combination of climate and terroir, tradition and culture. In the top flight are walnuts, once a staple and prized for their many uses. Foie gras, synonymous with luxurious ingredients and decadence (not to mention a soupçon of controversy). The majestic wines of Bordeaux and St Emilion, ranging from elegant reds to crisp whites and some of the world’s most prized dessert wines.
But it is the black truffle, the black diamond of the Périgord, that stirs the passions and enraptures the gourmand more than anything else.
The life of a truffle
The tuber melanosporum lives out a dark, dank life underground. It lurks amongst the roots of oak, chestnut and hazel, feeding on rotting leaves and slowly decaying organic matter. The black truffle is a fickle one, choosy where she takes up residence and notoriously difficult to cultivate. This is no ‘plough the fields and scatter’ kind of crop.
The black truffle is not the only truffle in town. There are others, notably the winter truffle (tuber brumale) and the summer truffle (tuber aestivum) which is best eaten raw. But the black truffle does hog the limelight, it’s the star attraction and the grabber of headlines.
They generally are to be found at a depth between 5 to 30 cm, maturing over 9 months or so – a truffle certainly cannot be hurried, it slowly develops over the summer months before the autumn harvest.
The black truffle can reach 10 cm in size but the optimum is considered to be around 7 cm in diameter and weighing around 100g. They can be much larger: a 1.3 kg monster was discovered in the Périgord in 2012.
The truffle hunters
Many a Frenchman (often professional truffle hunters or rabassiers) can be seen furtively scouring secret spots and jealously guarded enclaves in the ancient woods between November to February.
Some hunters claim a sixth sense for locating these perfumed nuggets, perpetuating the dark art and mysticism surrounding all things truffle. Others less prosaically look for truffle flies in the vicinity or a lack of vegetation around the base of a promising looking tree.
Pigs have famously been used for centuries to sniff out these hidden treasures, with dogs more commonly deployed these days. After all, while pigs are adept at picking up the distinctive scent (apparently similar to a boar’s pheromone), they are, well, pigs. All too often a long hunt has ended in a tasty snack for the pig and a missed opportunity for the hunter.
Truffles are found in many areas across the world. They can be found on shelves from China to Italy, but these are mostly white truffles and, with the exception of the rare white Alba truffle, not a patch on the black truffle.
France accounts for nearly 50% of the global production of black truffles, though they are cultivated in Australia, Chile, South Africa and America. But it is an inexact science and true believers always prefer the naturally sourced variety.
A black truffle is as unique to its locality as a particularly fine wine. The French concept of ‘terroir’ is as important in shaping the truffle as it is in wine making. A black truffle is a black truffle… to a point. But its terroir (the mysterious combination of its soil composition, micro-climate and aspect) all combine to affect its final quality.
Aficionados of the black truffle will go into raptures when discussing its aroma, detecting whiffs of strawberries, cocoa, dried fruits and wet earth. Cooking gently brings out the best flavour, with pungent peppery notes and perhaps a certain bitterness that complements various ingredients.
A truffle left overnight (or even a few hours) in a basket of eggs allows the aroma to permeate the thin shells and add its unique magic to an omelette or a plate of scrambled eggs. The result: the world’s best breakfast, and a truffle that remains intact foranother dish.
Buying your truffles
The little village of Richerenches is regarded as the largest truffle market in the world. L’Albenque in Quercy in the south west of France is also a flagship market, along with Sainte-Alvère, both at their busiest in January and February when the truffles are at their most intense.
The truffle market in Sorgues usually sees a queue forming before the doors open, as the Federation officials do the rounds and check the produce on offer is suitable to be offered for sale. This is the truffle centre of the Périgord, where truffle cultivation was begun in the mid-19th century following the decimation of the wine makers’ vineyards by the phylloxera pest. The Ecomusée de la Truffe in Sorgues is a good place to start your voyage of truffle discovery.
In the Périgord heartland, Périgueux holds its own truffle market on the Place Saint-Louis each Saturday morning in winter. Attracting both consumers and professionals drawn by the allure of sourcing an elusive prize, the scent of pungent truffles and fungi-based excitement hangs in the air. Low key, without pomp and ceremony, the stalls here are nonetheless groaning with some of the finest black truffles money can buy.
Try not to be put off by the dramatic sky-high headline prices. Retail prices can easily exceed 3,000€ per kilo, often exceeded by the rare white Alba truffle. But of course you don’t need a kilo to experience truffle nirvana. Just 50g or so can lift a dish and create a window into another culinary world.
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