The truffle is a mysterious thing. Aesthetically not pleasing, it is revered in cuisine throughout the top kitchens across the world – I will try to explain in layman’s terms why this small tuber has an elevated reputation.
A PRIZED AND PRICEY FUNGI
Expect to pay more for the privilege of a few shavings of truffle atop your meal – truffles aren’t a dime a dozen like herbs. They grow on the roots of trees such as oaks, poplars, beeches or hazelnuts with the fruiting body growing up to 30 centimetres underground. The truffle-hunting process is time consuming and labour intensive for a scarse product, and indicative of the high prices in restaurants.
There’s no way to trump up their appearance – they don’t have the delicacy of parsley or robustness of a stem of rosemary – aesthetically they look like warty bumpy rocks with small veins inside and unlike mushrooms they don’t grow caps or stems.
What do truffles taste like? I’ve tried truffles grated in eggs, in and on top of pasta, risottos, shaved on top of pizza etc and to describe them it’s a woody, musky, nutty flavour. (It’s similar to asking a New Zealander to describe the taste of a feijoa or L&P drink to somebody who has never tried them…). The aromatic intensity and truffle flavour decreases with time so it’s best to eat them close to harvesting.
Many people are exaltant about truffles, some are indifferent about the fuss around one of the world’s biggest delicacies or find them too pungent. Almost 65% of the population either doesn’t register or like the smell of androstenol, the chemical that contributes to the truffle scent or are extremely sensitive to it and they say it smells like rotten wood, urine or sweat!
WHERE TO FIND TRUFFLES
There are black truffles (truffe noire) and white truffles (truffe blanche). Alba in Piedmont in Italy is famous for their white truffles, the highly valuable tartufo bianco known as ‘White Diamonds’.
The Alba White Truffle Fair (Fiera del Tartufo) is held annually and very popular. Watch this video of last year’s Alba Truffle Market:
There are also truffle fairs every year in October and November in central Italy in the province of Pesaro and Urbino. From Acqualagna to Apecchio, Sant’Angelo in Vado to Sassoferrato it is known as ‘The Truffle Valley’ and Acqualagna (best known for the bianchetto white truffle) is the only territory that has fresh truffles of all kinds, all the year. The National Fair in Acqualagna is not to be missed with truffle events also held in Apecchio, Pergola, Morra d’Alba and Sant’Angelo in Vado.
In France, the premium black truffles are found in the Périgord region. In the Vaucluse, Drôme Provençal and French Riviera they are found under truffle oaks in barren, calcareous soils.
In our region, the hills of Grasse, Vence, Puget-Théniers and the middle Tinée valley hide these illustrious culinary diamonds. The Alpes-Maritime region hopes to increase truffle growing grounds (truffières) to restore truffle hunting (trufficulture).
French truffle hunters (rabassiers) harvest truffles with the aid of truffle dogs who are trained to detect the strong smell of mature truffles underneath the surface of the ground, sniffing them out, indicating their find and digging at the soil to unearth the truffle. Once discovered, truffles can be collected in subsequent years at the same tree as they bear for up to 30 years.
In the past, female pigs have been used because they have an innate ability to detect truffles beneath the ground by using their acute sense of smell. Sows are naturally attracted to truffles because they contain a compound very similar to a pheromone secreted by boars – the main problem with truffle pigs is their tendency to scoff anything they find!
I know residents living in hill towns here who battle with wild pigs digging up their gardens each year, hoping to sniff out truffles.
Truffle season stretches from December to March and is marked by seasonal menus at many restaurants and a whole calendar of truffle markets where the finest specimens are plonked on the scales and command a price from €250 – €1000 or more a kilo.
TRUFFLE MARKETS ON THE FRENCH RIVIERA & BEYOND
The most famous truffle market here in the south east is in Richerenches in the Vaucluse. Truffle events can be also found at Aups, Carpentras, Puyméras and Valréas.
Lalbenque in the Dordogne hosts a truffle market every Tuesday until mid-March 2017. For the full list of Dordogne truffle markets until March 2017, see here: http://www.vallee-dordogne.com/agenda/marches/marches-aux-truffes
Weekly truffle markets from now until March 2017 are held:
Thursday mornings: Aups, Nyons, Montségur sur Lauzon
Friday: Carpentras, Dieulefit
Saturday: Apt and Richerenches. Richerenches hosts a huge truffle market every Saturday from 9am-1pm open to the public and wholesale traders; the market accounts for around a third of France’s truffle sales so it is highly recommended for any truffle lovers ! On the 3rd Sunday in January, Richerenches will host the Fête de Saint Antoine (Messe des Truffes or Truffle Mass) with a blessing of the truffles, auction and meal.
Saturday 17 December 2016: In Suze la Rousse, Saturday will have a bargain event for just €5 per person for a truffle tasting with wine!
Sunday 18 December 2016: A producers market held all day from 10am-6pm at Place de Gaulle in St Paul de Vence with truffle dog demonstrations, mulled wine tastings of truffle omelette at the truffle growers stand.
Sunday 18 December 2016: Annual Truffle market in Rognes held the last Sunday before Christmas.
Saturday 7 January 2017: Based in Grasse, the Relais & Châteaux establishment La Bastide Saint-Antoine will host the 21st truffle market coordinated by Jacques Chibois. The market will gather local producers for the sale of truffles and regional products, there will be demonstrations of truffle dogs and truffle recipes. The Michelin Man-style poster was designed this year by the painter Théo Tobiasse, one of the great artists of Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
9:30 Opening of the market – Sales of truffles and regional agricultural products
10h30 1st demonstration of truffle dogs
From 11 AM: tasting of truffled dishes on the market place
11h30 2nd demonstration of truffle dogs
Midday 3rd demonstration of truffle dogs
12h15 Lunch with truffles 130 € per person, drinks included
15h00 4th demonstration of truffle dogs
15h30 Contest of Truffle Brouillade
17:00 Drawing of the big contest organized during the day: A basket filled with all the products on the market with 250gr of black truffles (tuber melanosporum)
17h30 End of the Market
13, 14, 15 January 2017: Uzès hosts a weekend truffle festival
Sunday 15 January 2017: In Le Rouret at Place du Village from 9am-5pm, this truffle market is an extension of the one held the previous week in Grasse with truffle dog demonstrations, tastings and stalls.
TRUFFLE RECIPES AND RESTAURANTS
Cream sauces take on the truffle flavour well, as do chicken, veal and egg dishes. The most common truffle recipe you will see here in southern France is brouillade aux truffes, which is scrambled eggs with truffle. You will also find a lot of restaurants offering soup, risotto or pasta dishes with truffle cream.
Truffle butter on baked potatoes sounds tasty to me, truffled popcorn is inventive but I think you can’t beat truffle paté on fresh baguette. Be wary of many truffle oils – there is a common misconception that it is created by truffle shavings steeped or infused in olive oil which is incorrect. Most truffle oil doesn’t use real truffles but is made from a compound called 2,4-Dithiapentane, then mixed together with olive oil. Purist chefs use the real thing!
Jacques Gantié, Journalist and author of Guide Gantié and regional correspondent for L’Hôtellerie-Restaurant offers a simple recipe: sample it sprinkled with salt on a slice of farmhouse bread soaked with new olive oil. Sounds perfect to me.
A chef friend told me if you store truffles in a sealed glass jar with rice or eggs in the fridge, the eggs and rice absorb the flavour and ouila! Sounds like an easy peasy way to prep truffle eggs for omelettes and truffle-infused risotto !
In Nice, Truffe Le Diamant du Terroir (24 Avenue Scuderi, 06100 Nice) retails everything truffles including truffle salt and pastes if you can’t round up a truffle-hunting dog for your own expedition.
Some French Riviera restaurants that feature truffles on the menu (some with a seasonal winter menu) include:
La Bastide Saint-Antoine in Grasse
Le Clos Saint-Pierre in Le Rouret
Table 22 (previously Mantel) in Cannes
Michelangelos in Antibes
Terres de Truffes in Nice
Bistrot Gourmand / Bistrot à la Truffe in St Tropez
I enjoyed researching about truffles for this blog post – Have you tried truffles before? What are your thoughts about truffles? This blog post is part of January’s #AllAboutFrance blog link-up hosted by Lou Messugo which is a monthly blog link-up about France.
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