Last weekend, on a beautiful sunny January day, I headed off to a village hall outside Airvault, where a truffle market was being held. The car park was full to overflowing and the hall packed with people selling, buying and looking.
In Deux Sevres, where black truffles are to be found, regular markets are held where these delicious delicacies are sold, along with truffle oil, truffle butter, and eggs infused with truffles. From the local horticulturalist selling plants with roots hopefully imbued with truffle spores to artisanal bread sellers, the hall was packed with truffle lovers and the room permeated with the scent of the balls of fungi.
What is a Truffle?
Truffles are a strong-smelling underground fungus that looks like an irregular, rough-skinned potato; not to be confused with sweet chocolate-covered, rum-infused truffles we eat after dinner! The more earthy type grow chiefly in broadleaved woodland on calcareous soils that form in dry environments with low rainfall…..making the Deux Sevres region perfect. They are considered a culinary delicacy and are found, especially in France, with the aid of trained dogs or pigs.
The truffle season is closely regulated and runs from November to March. The best time to go truffle hunting is after the morning dew has burned off, the earth has warmed up and the distracting scents of wild animals have faded. Today, in the main, dogs are used to hunt for truffles, though a seasoned truffle hunter can detect the presence of truffles under the soil by the presence of a particular type of fly hovering above the ground and a tell-tale patch of bare earth under the trees.
Black and White Truffles
Truffles are incredibly expensive, especially around Christmas time when a good truffle can cost €1,200 per kilo….though some can go for thousands! There are various different types, but for the uninitiated, the simplest distinction is between white and black truffles. The typical feature of truffles is their smell and connoisseurs can differentiate between the strong earthy tones.
White truffles are mostly found in Italy and are the most expensive variety. One company dominates the market and export from Italy to America. A truffle in Italy snuffed out by a man and his dog, can be for sale in the USA within 36 hours and on the plate in a sophisticated Manhattan restaurant a couple of hours later!
For €2.50, visitors at the Deux Sevres truffle market we visited can buy a ‘taster plate’, with a selection of truffle-infused dishes. To start, a small glass of truffle-infused soup. Tasting like delicate mushroom soup, it was warm and a delicious treat for a cold January day! A risotto followed along with a cheese that had been cut and fine slices of truffle had been laid through the middle. The top was sandwiched back on and the cheese had been left to infuse with the taste of truffle for days before it was sliced and served to us. To finish the taster plate off was truffle-infused rice pudding. The latter didn’t have too strong a taste and our expert truffle hosts told us that, of course, the very best wouldn’t be served for a local tasting!! Never the less, the delicate taste and the distinctive smell made the experience very special.
There are markets in all the truffle producing areas in France…from Provence to Deux Sevres. The truffle markets are very serious affairs, where sometimes the sellers have their vans parked with the open back doors against walls, so that general passers-by – and possible tax officials – can’t see the sometimes enormous sums of money passing hands. And why are they so expensive? For a number of reasons – they are picky where they will grow. Truffles usually flourish where there is moisture on warm days and cool nights. They are also picky about the type of trees they like to grow around – these can include oak, pine and hazel.
Usually found in the wild, should a landowner decide to plant a truffle orchard, it can take up to seven years to get a result and then only some of the trees will produce the much sort after delicacy. There is no guarantee of a harvest. So, there could be a ten-year wait for a decent harvest and even that can’t be guaranteed.
The baking summer and wet autumn this year in Deux Sevres didn’t do anything to help the harvest. This made the delicacy even rarer and more expensive. Training a dog to seek out the truffles – or a pig – can be a time-consuming affair and jetting the precious fungus around the world only adds to its cost!
Not everyone loves truffles either. One person in our party, who shall remain nameless, said he much preferred the chocolate truffles in the lovely blue and gold box at home!
For a guided tour of a Deux Sevres truffle markets and to join a trained dog and its master on a Truffle Hunt during the winter months, incorporating a stay a Uniquely French property, please contact Paula Dormer at email@example.com
Truffle dishes will be on the menu!
A Tasty Truffle Recipe
Leek and potato soup with truffle oil
1 ½ lbs leeks
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tsp salt
2 cloves garlic
1 lb potatoes
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup double cream
1 cup single cream with1 tablespoon removed
I tablespoon of lemon juice
White truffle oil, optional, for serving
Chives, optional for serving.
1. Chop the white part of the leek and the palest green part finely.
2. Melt the butter on low heat. Add the chopped leeks and 1 tsp salt and cook slowly, stirring for 4 minutes.
3. Add the chopped garlic and stir for another minute.
4. Cook the mixture on a low setting for 25 minutes. Stir occasionally. Don’t let them go brown.
5. Peel and finely dice the potatoes….about 1cm square.
6. Add to the leek mixture.
7. Add the chicken broth. Cook until the potatoes are tender – about 25 minutes.
8. Pure the mixture.
9. When completely smooth add all the cream and lemon juice, stirring until all is smooth.
10. Stir well over low heat.
11. Serve hot or cold, with a dribble of truffle oil and chives.
Suggestion – test for salt in a small bowl before serving. Add salt before serving to guests and before dribbling on the truffle oil.