Frederika Whitehead goes in search of pungent fungus that drives foodies crazy
SERGE, our guide on the truffle hunt, is twinkle-eyed as he tells us about the aphrodisiac properties of truffles. “Truffles,” he says, “are like women: round, firm and very sensuous. I am passionate about truffles because they are the food of love.”
We met Serge in the small town of Carpentras in the heart of Avignon. It’s deliciously hot and sunny – a great day for taking a walk in a shaded woodland with a trusty truffle hound.
Before we leave for the woods, Serge points out the site of Carpentras’s world famous truffle market, which runs from December to March each year. “80 per cent of all the truffles in France are sold here” he says. “It is the biggest truffle market in the world and it has been running for more than 500 years.”
This year was a good year for Carpentras’s truffle hunters, with the price of French black truffles reaching €4,000 a kilo.
For Serge, the joy of truffles lies in their unpredictability. Lots might grow at the base of a particular tree one year and the year next, nothing. “No one really understands,” Serge shrugs, “I hope they never solve this mystery.”
What they do know is the 99 per cent of truffles grow on the roots of oak trees. That they need plenty of water and the ground around the tree roots needs to be relatively clear. The rest is the subject of heated discussion, usually over many glasses of wine.
We arrive at Joel Gravier’s farm and are introduced to Zuzu – our truffle hound for the day.
Zuzu is a three-year-old border collie. Joel began training her for life on a truffle farm when she was a tiny puppy, sprinkling her mother’s teats with truffle shavings and mixing truffles into her food when she moved onto solids.
Fully trained, she is now worth about €3,000 but Joel would never sell her. Truffle thefts are a big problem in this area and the last thing you want is another highly trained dog out there, potentially in the hands someone who might take her out in the dead of the night to steal your valuable crop.
Standing amongst the rows of young oak trees it is a matter of minutes before Zuzu finds her first truffle. She places her paws either side of it and barks excitedly at Joel. And there it is – just a few centimetres below the soil surface, attached to a root close to the base of the tree. Joel plucks it as easily as you would pluck a button mushroom from the soil – because that’s all it really is, an underground fungi, albeit one with an incredibly strong flavour. So strong, in fact, you only need a tiny shaving to flavour a whole dish.
It fills around two thirds of my palm. It’s a summer truffle, tuber aestivum, so it will be mushroom-coloured inside and have a much milder flavour than winter truffles, tuber melanosporum, which are as black as coal inside and command around five times the price. My specimen is worth around £15; still not bad for five minutes work. Joel picks truffles with Zuzu twice a week, netting around 100kg a year from his one hectare of oak trees.
In our short walk Zuzu found three truffles – although Joel only managed to pocket two of them – Zuzu ate the third while we weren't looking. Joel is relaxed about his loss: “What’s interesting is that she is very calm after she’s eaten a truffle. She’s generally quite boisterous.”
So we stroll with the chilled-out young collie back towards the farmhouse. My hotel – Crillon Le Brave – has arranged a wine tasting for me with another local expert, and Joel and Serge have some truffles to cook.
WHERE TO STAY
Crillon le Brave in the picturesque limestone village of Crillon offers cheese tastings, vineyard visits and truffle-hunting tours from the hotel.
Nightly rates including breakfast are available from €220pp/£190 based on two persons sharing a room in summer and €140pp/£119 in low season. To book, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or telephone +33 (04) 90 65 61 61.
HOW TO GET THERE
British Airways offers a seven-night fly-drive to Marseille from £239 per person in July and August and £199 per person in October and November. Price includes return British Airways flights from London Heathrow, Avis inclusive car hire for the duration, based on two sharing. Visit ba.com/marseille or call 0844 493 0758