Winter is not the best time to visit the South of France. Most of the tourist sites are closed and the weather is not conducive to spending a lot of time outdoors. However, there are the carnivals and the truffle markets.
I start my search for black diamonds in the picturesque village of Cordes-sur-Ciel which sits on steep cobbled streets, almost touching the sky, as its name suggests. I’ve been told that there is a regular market on a Saturday and that there may be truffles on sale there. Indeed, as I enter the village a sign greets me “Samedi Marche – Truffes”. However, next morning I search the market stalls but there is not a truffle in sight. To make up for my disappointment I buy some strong cows cheese studded with fenugreek seeds and then climb up to the top of the village. There are many art shops and restaurants in the village but all of them are closed. In fact the only shop which is open is a well-stocked regional products store where I am dazzled with tins of expensive foie gras, jars of fruit preserves and honey, bags of pungent lavender, bottles of wine and, just to tease me, truffle oil and vinegar. However, they don’t actually contain any truffle, just a chemical flavouring.
The next day I drive 10 kilometres to the tiny village of Villeneuve-sur-Vere. I get there early for fear of finding nowhere suitable to park the motorhome but have no problems. Hidden behind the grey stone town hall is a huge marque lined with local producers proffering their wares, some of them truffle related. At the far end of the marque is an area dedicated to the Syndicate of Trufficulteurs where the black diamonds are carefully weighed and set out for sale. There’s still 30 minutes until the official opening of the market but the sales are already well under way. There is a fixed price of €80 per 100g and prices range from €20 to well over €200 for these strange muddy brown, knobbly fungi. Personally, I wouldn’t know a good truffle from a bad one and I’m not sure what I would do with it anyway so I defer to just taking photos and wondering if there are any famous chefs among the buyers.
Having decided not to buy any truffles, I search the other stalls for a souvenir. I’m not ready to create my own truffle forest so the small saplings and tools of the trade are not much good. A local saffron producer catches my eye but the saffron scented honey is rather foul and I tend to use the much cheaper turmeric for my pilau rice and paella. The sunflower oil stall is intriguing as they have a miniature oil press on the go but I inevitably end up at a wine stall where the enthusiastic young owner tells me all about his new venture while I sip his Syrah. I buy two bottles and he throws in some grape juice for free. Tickets are on sale for a truffle omelette to be served at 11.30 but I need to leave as snow is forecast and I want to get to my next destination before it arrives.
Two days later, I’m parked up in the small village of Lalbenque, just south of Cahors. At 10am I shuffle through a thin layer of snow to the tourist information office for a “truffle experience day”. For the next 90 minutes a small group of us are educated in the production of truffles. I had no idea that there were so many different types, but it seems that the local Perigord black truffle is prized among top chefs.
Most black truffles are produced in Europe, with 45% coming from France and the rest from Spain and Italy. In 1937 France produced about 1,000 tons of truffles, but harvests these days only peak at about 50 tons in the best years. Today I’m told that there is a total of about 60kg of truffles on sale, though during previous weeks that has been as high as 200kg, though none have been as big as the 1.3kg truffle sold in Sarlat three years ago.
The vendors are all lined up behind a rope with their offerings on display in small straw baskets covered with red and white checked cloths. Each has a small certificate authenticating their wares as true local Perigord black truffles. Across the rope, baskets are being inspected, truffles are being smelled and deals are being made. There’s no fixed price here.
At 14.30 exactly, a bell is rung and the rope is dropped allowing the buyers to collect their reserved hoard which they then take over to the official’s booth to have the weight confirmed and to hand over their money. I see flashes of several €50 notes being exchanged, but I only have my budgeted €10 in my pocket. Luckily, a lovely local lady named Huguette recognises my situation and pulls from her pocket a small black diamond. A nearby official confirms that although small it is good and I happily hand over my €10. Later, a big, beaming truffle merchant hands me a tiny round piece for free. Clearly he is having a good day and now, so am I.
Unfortunately, the planned truffle hunt is cancelled, but then we can hardly expect the pig to smell the truffles through an inch of snow!
2 days and 80 kms further north in the Dordogne valley, I am heading for the Truffle Farm near Martel where I hope to finally partake in a truffle hunt. Delphine welcomes me with a hot cup of coffee while we wait for her other guests to finish their gourmet lunch. They seem very satisfied with their meal though I’m not sure how happy I would be at having to wear my coat to eat such an expensive lunch. It’s even colder outside and there’s a bitter wind but Serge, Delphine’s father, decides we can give it a go and offers me a lift in his beaten up and very dirty Peugeot van to the truffle area.
I had expected to be traipsing through dark, overgrown forest but this is a carefully laid out plantation of young saplings, each surrounded by a circle of small, pale stones and rocks. Rosabelle, a golden retriever and the trained truffle hunter, does not seem keen to work but eventually she starts sniffing around and finds a truffle about the size of a golf ball. We are all excited by her find and despite the raw wind we continue our search. Rosabelle is rewarded with small cubes of cheese for each find. She’s not the only truffle dog on the farm, there is also Neige (which means snow), a 3 month old golden retriever who they were training to hunt truffles. She was stolen by thieves who hoped to cash in on her value of €3,000. Luckily she was chipped and when she was located several months later, she had been dyed black. Poachers have also been known steal truffles directly from the farms but Serge says they don’t have any problems with that.
After our successful hunt, I am once again greeted by Delphine who hands me a slice of baguette slathered with truffle butter. Personally, I think truffle is a bit like marmite – you either love it or you hate it – and much as I love marmite, I’m not a huge fan of truffle. But at least I’m glad to have had the full experience in learning about this black diamond and the people who cultivate it.
See recipes page for some ideas of how to use truffles.