Emmanuelle Jary - 2010-12-06
Walk through Quercy between December and mid-March and it’s not unusual to see a man or woman with a dog, or occasionally a pig, digging around trees. In the South West of France, the long sought after truffle has become an iconic product of French haute cuisine.
In Quercy, a former French Province in the Dordogne, trufficulteurs (truffle growers), with a lifestyle a thousand miles away from Parisian high society, refer to the truffle as mysterious or even temperamental. Unsurprising, given their great difficulty in cultivating it, despite an intimate knowledge of the land. Although the mere mention of ‘cultivation’ is a form of heresy as far as truffles are concerned, this unique practice must have some kind of a name. Despite decades of ongoing research in laboratories such as the INRA, and numerous experiments by the truffle department of Cahors-Le Montat agricultural college, the harvest is never assured.
It was neither mineral, animal or vegetable until the 20th century when, following the discovery of its spores, it was recognised as a mushroom. The truffle has for a long time defied all understanding and any attempts at classification. It’s the fruit of an underground fungus that is always found near truffle trees, oaks in most cases.
But why is it found underground? What can be done to increase the odds on its appearance? Nobody really knows, because this sombre mushroom thrives in hidden places. For a truffle the happy life is a hidden life!
Wwe set off on a lovely, cold January afternoon to the truffle terrain of Lalbenque in the company of a trufficulteur and his pig. “The pig will only hunt out mature truffles” he states. The French have a word for hunting out truffles – le cavage,from the Latin cavare “to dig.” This cavage only takes place in fine weather. “You shouldn’t hunt for truffles when it’s raining as this ruins them. A truffle is a jealous thing!” We start to look between a well formed line of trees. “Go on Kiki, look!” The pig stops but the trufficulteur, used to his animal’s behaviour, knows this isn’t a truffle.
“Hey you’re not looking properly, you’re just having fun!” Suddenly, the pig digs his snout down into the earth. Pulling on the string that acts as a leash, the man stops the animal before it’s too late and rewards him with a few crunchy cat treats, before kneeling down to continue the digging himself until the truffle is found. He then lifts it out delicately so as not to damage it. Immediately, the powerful smell of the mushroom pervades the atmosphere. This is perhaps the greatest mystery of all as it is so hard to describe the smell of a truffle. It is unlike any other but it is certain that once you have smelt it, you will never forget it.
Lalbenque Truffle Market
Lalbenque on a winter Tuesday afternoon. The first trufficulteurs arrive around 2pm with their baskets filled to varying degrees with truffles. The village is home to the most important truffle market in all of South-West France. In theory it’s a wholesale market, only the professionals can purchase there, though individuals do come from time to time to buy a few truffles. There is just one rule - you have to buy by the basket, the contents of which can range from a few grams to several kilos, depending on the seller and the season. Standing behind benches, the trufficulteurs wait patiently for a whistle to sound in order to complete their transaction. Dealers, restaurateurs and a few charcuterie sellers stand and chat with the vendors, a rope separating them from the market goers. At 2.30pm precisely the whistle is blown and the rope falls and the buyers begin negotiating with the trufficulteurs who will cover their baskets with a cloth to signify a sale. The truffles are then weighed on a municipal scale and the sale is official.
Whilst it would be an exaggeration to say that all this takes place in secrecy, it must be said that you rarely see any banknotes for the purchase of the truffles changing hands. It seems a certain amount of discretion is required at Lalbenque. Rumours set the average price for a kilo, but getting a price from the trufficulteurs on a case by case basis isn’t easy.
The village, rather quiet for most of the week, is invaded by hosts of large vehicles on market days. For decades Lalbenque has been a place where crowds of tourists come to look at the truffles being sold; but not just for looking. The Lion d’or, an establishment situated on the main road serves a seasonal “truffle” menu with pâté, omelette, cabécou and pastis as well as a tart from the South-west made from a form of filo pastry and apples, all of which is washed down with alcohol. The restaurant in Lalbenque’s old railway station offers more refined dishes. Finally in Cahors, Gilles Mare, who works at the stoves of Le Balandre, has some different dishes on offer including the famous Pierre Marre poached eggs with pan-fried foie gras and truffle sauce. This should be enjoyed with an old Cahors vintage which is said to develop aromas of truffle as it ages!
Information from Lalbenque Tourist Office
Rue du marché aux truffes ; tel: +33 (0)5 65 31 50 08
Le café du Monde
Ancienne gare de Lalbenque ; tel.: 05 65 24 20 76
Tuesday lunch during the market: Truffle menu. Prices on request
Le Lion d’Or
104, rue du marché aux truffes, Lalbenque ; tel: +33 (0)5 65 31 6019.
On two floors, the restaurant is packed on market days. Relaxed atmosphere. Reservations recommended. Prices on request.
5 av. Charles de Freycinet, Cahors ; tel: 05 65 53 32 00.
Gilles Marre has a high standard of Quercy cuisine on offer with an abundance of everything that the region is renowned for: Quercy lamb, confit de canard, foie gras and of course... truffles! His brother Laurent Marre, a great scholar of Cahors wines, will advise on the best accompaniment for the divine tuber.