Despite living here for nearly 14 years, I have never done one of the must-dos in this region – visiting a truffle market. I promised myself I would do so this year (see my post on things to do in 2011). The Quercy region, with the Dordogne and parts of Provence, is noted for the production of the truffle. This mysterious fungus (tuber melanosporum) defies attempts to cultivate it, is becoming increasingly rare and is therefore a very expensive treat.
Black diamonds – and almost as rare
In 1900, around 800 tons of truffles were produced in France per year; by 1980, there were only 35 tons. Efforts to revive truffle production have resulted in a slight increase to 50 tons per year. However, attempts to cultivate the truffle in special oak plantations are hit and miss.
A combination of factors has contributed to the truffle’s rarity. First, farmland has encroached on its natural habitat, since it will grow only on the roots of certain oaks. Second, increasingly dry spells make for less than perfect growing conditions. Third, wild boar, whose numbers have exploded in recent years, are particularly partial to truffles. Now you can see why the truffle is known as the ‘black diamond’ of Quercy.
I had read that the truffle markets are run – almost choreographed – according to strict rules. The trufficulteurs (producers) display their wares on trestle tables in small baskets and the punters are separated from them with a rope until a bell is rung. Then the wholesalers move in and the haggling begins. I wanted to see this for myself.
Rather than going to the biggest and most famous truffle market in the region at Lalbenque, I decided to go to Limogne-en-Quercy. It’s closer to us and I felt that, being smaller, it might be more authentic and less tourist-ridden. I wouldn’t describe Limogne as particularly picturesque. It’s rather bleak in winter up on the causse and the main road between Villefranche-de-Rouergue and Cahors bisects the town. However, I have a soft spot for the place and it has a good Sunday market.
So it was with a mounting sense of excitement last Friday that I drove the 20 km to Limogne. The market started at 10h30 so I arrived a few minutes early. Then I wandered about for a while feeling increasingly foolish. There was no sign of the tiniest truffle, let alone a market-full. I had actually phoned up the tourist office the previous day to check that the market was on, since it’s getting late in the season. I was assured it would be. The tourist office was open, so I went in.
“Isn’t there a truffle market today, Madame?” I asked the lady behind the desk.
“Yes, Madame, but it started at 10h00 sharp and it was all over in five minutes.”
“But I read that it started at 10h30.”
“Ah, that is in the summer. In winter, it’s 10h00. There is unlikely to be one next week since it’s getting late in the season. Désolée.”
I didn’t argue with the woman, but it does in fact say 10h30 on the Limogne Tourist Office website . Here are the correct details:
- Winter: Friday mornings at 10h00 from the first Friday in December till early March
- Summer: Sunday mornings at 10h30 from mid-June to mid-August. I think I’m correct that Limogne is unique in the region in having a summer truffle market.
As the winter season progresses, the volume sold decreases. At the market’s peak in early January 2011, 35 baskets were sold (26 kg) for prices ranging between 350€ and 750€ per kilo. By mid-February, this had dropped to 10 baskets (4.2 kg) between 500€ and 600€ per kilo. (Figures from Tourist Office website).
Somewhat crestfallen, I repaired to the café to contemplate my next move. So as not to waste my visit and the diesel (which is becoming as costly as truffles), I decided to visit a nearby dolmen. The Causse de Limogne is riddled with prehistoric remains, including 200-300 dolmens and some rare menhirs, or standing stones.
There is a particularly fine dolmen, le dolmen du Lac d’Aurié, close to Limogne. Fortunately, it was well signposted, since it would have been easy to get lost in the warren of dirt tracks that criss-cross the area. I was mystified by the name, since I couldn’t see a lake anywhere. But on consulting the map, I noticed a small pond further on, described as ‘le lac’ and a hamlet called Lac d’Aurié. On the notoriously arid causse, even a tiny pool constitutes a lake.
Dolmens vary in size. This one has an immense slab of stone (said to weigh 18 tonnes) perched on top of two standing stones. How they raised the capstone without modern equipment is beyond me but I imagine they must have used techniques akin to those of the pyramid-builders. On a slight rise, the spot is lonely, almost eerie. The only sign of modern civilisation is a wooden signpost marking the site.
The truffles will now have to wait until at least June. But last week’s springlike weather and the visit to the dolmen almost made up for missing them.
I did get to see the truffle market at Limogne in the end – but had to wait a year to do so. See my post here.
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