A recent sunny, January afternoon, with a clear blue sky and temperatures hovering above freezing, got me thinking about a similar January afternoon just over ten years earlier. My wife and I had recently purchased a walnut farm in the Périgord region of southwest France. I didn’t want to raise a family in a Parisian apartment, so all of our vacations over a three-year period of time were spent with agents of the SAFER, a French agency that is responsible for rural land planning. It buys and sells farms to keep them from being turned into housing developments, golf courses, or other non-agricultural purposes.
We loaded the contents of our apartment into a small rental truck, and, along with our nine-month-old son, made the 800-km (500-mile) drive to our new home that the SAFER had helped us to find—a 22-hectare (almost 50-acre) farm with 600 walnut trees. In reality, the trip was more like a step back several centuries in time. Sheep outnumbered the hamlet’s year-round population, which almost doubled with our arrival. We loved the beauty and solitude, the warm welcome our new neighbors extended to us, and the experience of living in the French countryside (OK, maybe I appreciated that more than my wife, who was more concerned about the inadequate heating in our 200-year-old stone house and its effect on our baby’s health).
I won’t say that it was truffles that clinched our decision to buy this property—I’m certain that we would have bought it even without them, but when René, the owner, mentioned to us that there was a truffière (a truffle field) on the farm, my ears immediately perked up.
As a long-time fan of gourmet food magazines, I had read many articles about truffles. However, none of my cooking or dining experiences had ever included this revered member of the mushroom family that can cost up to €1,000 a kilo (around $750 a pound).
Moving to France in 1990 got me closer to truffles. When window-shopping at Fauchon’s famous gourmet food shop in Paris, I would press my nose to the glass and try to imagine how the black truffles in the small, jewel-like containers smelled. But that’s as close as I could get–until now. I had been bugging René for months about truffle hunting—through the harvest of eight tons of walnuts in the fall, through the hunting season when the hunters chased wild boar and stag through our fields (occasionally leaving a wild boar leg or a part of the hindquarter of a stag on our porch for me to trip over), through the preparations for Christmas, which included selecting and cutting one of the pine trees that René and his wife Yvonne had planted years earlier.
Finally, on the last day of the year, René said that we were going truffle hunting the following week. This was early in the truffle-hunting season, but I guess that he had gotten tired of my pestering him. The day was sunny and clear, with no breeze and the temperature around
40° F–perfect truffle-hunting conditions, according to Rene. After putting on my overalls and boots, I gathered together the tools that he said I would need: an old screwdriver for unearthing the truffles and a plastic bag for carrying them home.
We set off on foot for the truffle patch, which sat on a plateau high above the walnut trees. I had noticed, when Rene arrived, that he had not brought a pig or a dog, the two animals that I had read were used in hunting truffles. This had me perplexed, but I resisted asking how we were going to locate the truffles. I knew from prior experience that, given Rene’s fondness for discussing any topic, any questions would risk delaying our hunt even further.
Rene had planted each of the farm’s walnut trees more than 30 years earlier when he and Yvonne bought the property. Each tree was like a child to him, and he could recite a story about nearly every one of them–how that tree had lost a limb in a particularly violent storm or how this tree was a favorite resting spot for the wild boar and stag that roamed the property.
He and Yvonne were like our surrogate parents. As neophyte farmers, we relied on them to explain each detail of the farm’s operation. And despite having sold the farm because of their advanced ages, they helped us with the walnut harvest, working from morning to night. It was not until we had lived in the region for some time, and I learned how closely people guard the secret of truffle patches, that I realized the level of their generosity. In fact, one day I discovered during a casual conversation with them that the man who had sold them the property had never disclosed the fact that there were truffles there. It was not until years after the purchase–years during which the man had undoubtedly returned annually to harvest the truffles–that they stumbled upon the truffle patch.
As we walked, my mind wandered to the Lascaux cave with its world-famous prehistoric paintings in the village of Montignac, just to the west of us. I wondered whether the artists who painted this Paleolithic Sistine Chapel might have enjoyed a truffle with the wooly mastodons and other prehistoric beasts that they hunted 17,000 years ago in this region. It’s almost certain that the Romans, who came to fight the Gauls here 2,000 years ago, knew of these underground delicacies. They, like the ancient Greeks before them, valued the truffle for its taste and rumored aphrodisiac qualities.
My thoughts of artistic Cro-Magnons and love-seeking Romans were interrupted as we reached the truffle patch. The casual hiker would undoubtedly pass right by it. The most prominent sign was a tall oak tree that, unlike the other surrounding oaks, still had its leaves hanging from its branches even though it was early winter. On either side of the oak tree were the characteristic rings of “burnt” grass, or brûlés as they are called in French. These rings are caused by the symbiotic relationship of the truffles and the oak tree’s roots, which inhibits other plants from germinating by monopolizing all of the surrounding nutrients and water. The framework for this symbiotic relationship is a mycelium, an underground network of hair-like filaments that supports the truffle’s growth.
Truffles, which can be anywhere from the size of a marble to a man’s fist, grow in loose, humid, sun-soaked soil that is rich in chalk or limestone. Although there are at least thirty different varieties of truffles, the two most interesting, from a gastronomic perspective, are the black Périgord truffle, Tuber melanosporum, and the white truffle, Tuber magnatum, found primarily in Italy’s Piedmont region. Which truffle variety is the tastiest is a subject of much nationalistic concern. According to culinary experts, black Périgord truffles have a musky, nutty, earthy flavor, while the white truffle combines these flavors with a slight garlicky taste.
The truffle trees on our property were undoubtedly remnants of the extensive plantings of oaks to cultivate truffles that occurred in the late 19th century following the outbreak of the Phylloxera disease that decimated vineyards throughout France. This golden age of truffle production resulted in a harvest of 2,200 tons in 1890. Today, with almost all of the rural population gone, the harvest is between 25 to 150 tons per year.
Traditionally, truffles were hunted with a female pig, or sow. Sows are naturally attracted to truffles because the truffle’s odor resembles sex pheromones given off by the male pig. Sows, however, present the truffle hunter with a variety of challenges. Being heavy, they are difficult to transport to the truffle site. They also do not navigate steep or uneven terrain very easily. But the real problem begins when the sow discovers a truffle. The combination of a tasty truffle and pheromones is irresistible to the pig, which explains why truffle hunters in old photos are always shown holding a large stick that they used to try to beat off the sow before she ate the truffle. Dogs are now more commonly used to hunt truffles, with mixed-breeds reputed to be the most effective.
As it turned out, all my research and knowledge about hunting truffles with pigs and dogs was not going to be put to use. Rene, selecting a long, thin branch from a bush and instructing me to do likewise, explained that we were going to use les mouches à truffes (“truffle flies”) for our truffle hunt. This technique, he explained, relies on the fact that a number of species of flies lay their eggs above truffles. Once the eggs hatch in early spring, the tiny larvae burrow down to feast on the truffles that, by then, are beginning to decompose. The branches that we had selected, he said, would be used to gently probe the brittle winter grass that covers the flies. The tiny flies, I was soon to learn, are transparent, making them difficult to locate.
Explaining that any hint of a shadow would alert the flies to our presence, Rene instructed me to keep the truffle patch between me and the low winter sun at all times. He then demonstrated the proper truffle-fly-hunting technique: moving forward in a low crouch, the truffle hunter pokes and probes the grass with his stick. The objective is to watch for the slow ascent of flies that have been driven aloft by the stick. When disturbed, they fly for a few feet, alighting quickly on a blade of grass or a plant.
Once a fly is sighted, the hunter attempts to identify its point of origin. Usually, a few dead leaves or sticks will have to be cleared from the spot. Once the ground is cleared, the truffle hunter kneels down and, using a digging tool, slowly and carefully removes the soil. It’s important to search thoroughly and to break up large clumps of earth, Rene said, as a soil-covered truffle can be overlooked easily. At this point, the truffle hunter may attempt to locate the truffle by using his or her nose. Doing so means getting dirty, as you need to lie flat on your stomach, with your nose right down in the hole. Inhaling deeply through the nose, like a bloodhound seeking the scent of its prey, the hunter tries to catch the distinctive scent of a truffle. Another technique is to grab handfuls of dirt or a stone from different parts of the hole. Soil or a stone that has lain close to or against the truffle will have captured some of its odor and will draw the hunter that much closer to the prize.
Occasionally, when the brûlés are particularly effective and the ground vegetation is not dense, the truffle hunter may even observe flies in the process of laying their eggs. The flies stumble across the ground, seeking to position themselves directly above the truffle. In frantic, back-and-forth movements, they locate the truffle with sensory organs found in their antennae. Sometimes, two flies will arrive above a truffle at the same time. Things can then get violent, with the flies tussling and rolling about until one grows weary and leaves to find another truffle.
After searching unsuccessfully for several minutes, I spotted a glimpse of movement up ahead and slightly to my right. My stick had stirred a fly from its resting place. Not having seen clearly where it had been resting on the ground, I crouched down and hoped that it would return quickly from the branch where it had alighted. My patience was rewarded several minutes later when the fly returned to a small, bare spot on the ground, right at my feet. Soon afterwards, the fly began to crawl, first to the right, then back towards me. This seemed to be the spot, as the fly appeared to be ready to start laying her eggs.
Shooing away the fly, I followed Rene’s instructions and cleared the spot of any leaves or rocks. I then began to dig slowly with my screwdriver. A screwdriver is preferred over a shovel or trowel, he explained, because there is less chance of damaging the truffle with any overzealous digging. A shovel’s blade, he added, would also cut through the mycelium’s delicate fibers, which would hinder the future development of truffles. Digging carefully, much like a mine detector probing for explosive devices, I gently uncovered the soil in layers. After I had dug down around four inches without any indication of a truffle, Rene had me lie flat on my stomach and place my nose down into the hole. And, there it was: distinct, from the smell of grass, damp earth, cool rocks and other woody odors, I smelled, for the first time, the unmistakable odor of a truffle.
After sampling several handfuls of earth from different parts of the hole, I was able to determine the approximate location of the truffle by the intensity of its odor. Focusing on that area, I began to uncover the dirt slowly, using my fingernails as much as the screwdriver. Finally, I unearthed a truffle about the size of an egg, its black, pockmarked surface barely discernable from the lumps of dirt surrounding it. I savored the full effect of its aroma for a second, whispered a silent thanks to the fly that had led me to it, and set off in search of another truffle fly. When my plastic bag contained three other truffles like the one that I had just found, we returned to the house tired and much dirtier. Following Rene’s instructions, I brushed the dirt from the truffles and placed them in a tightly closed glass jar in the refrigerator to keep until they would be added to an omelet or a pasta dish, or slipped under the skin of a roast chicken or turkey. Whatever the dish, the addition of a truffle magically transformed its flavor.
Since that truffle hunt, I now have newfound respect for flies, and I’m not so quick to grab a fly swatter when one buzzes me during a picnic. I am also thankful to René, who taught me how one of nature’s tiniest and most unassuming creatures could be used to uncover such an exceptional delicacy.
René, unfortunately, is long gone. So is that property. I have kept the two tins of truffles that Yvonne kindly prepared of some of the treasure that I found that January day. I doubt that truffles, unlike wine, improve with age, and the tins that contain them are starting to show their age. It’s like a good bottle of wine; you always want to keep it for some special occasion. The next time that I prepare a foie gras or a turkey, however, I think that I’ll use them. And we’ll make certain that we drink a toast to René.