I awarded myself a day off yesterday and did something I have been planning to do for a long time – initiating myself into one of the rituals of southwest France, a truffle market. Every Friday in winter, a small truffle market is held at the town of Limogne, in Lot. In 15 years, I hadn’t yet managed to get to one.
Last year, having consulted the Tourist Office website I duly turned up at around 10.20 am. Nothing was happening. The lady in the Tourist Office informed me that, no, it didn’t start at 10.30, it started at 10.00 and it was all over in 10 minutes. Since it was early March, they were unlikely to hold another one.
This year, I turned up at 09.50. Nothing was happening. The lady in the Tourist Office informed me that, no, it didn’t start at 10.00, it started at 10.30. Reassured that at least I wasn’t late this time, I had a coffee and waited for things to hot up.
About 10.15, someone laid out two benches at right angles to each other in the square in front of the church. Ten or so people approached the benches and laid small wicker baskets on them. This was the signal for the punters to examine the merchandise. They picked up the truffles, sniffed them and squeezed them. I did the same. The aroma is incomparable – earthy but not really like a mushroom.
While all this was going on, I had the pleasure of meeting Evelyn who lives by the River Lot and writes a great blog about it (Evelyn has since moved back to the States, and the blog is closed). Unlike me, she has been to the truffle market at Lalbenque, Lot, the biggest one in the region.
An official reminded everyone that no negotiating could take place until the whistle blew at 10.30. At the appointed time, buyers approached the sellers and started whispered conversations behind their hands. You could tell by the body language if they were doing business successfully. When they had struck a deal – a price per kilo – they took the truffles to the weighing table and concluded the transaction. Money changed hands but the notes were folded up, concealing the amount. No cheques or credit cards – no VAT receipts, either.
While Evelyn and I were chatting, a woman came up and spoke a few words to us in English. She admitted she didn’t speak much English, so we slid back into French. It turned out she was a trufficulteur (or trufficultrice, I suppose).
“This has been an exceptional year for truffles,” she said. “I’ve never seen such high quality as we had in January. I sold 9 kilos this winter.”
“How many would you normally sell?” I asked.
“Less than one kilo,” she replied. I remarked that I thought last autumn’s drought would have damaged the truffles. She shook her head.
“The spores set well in March, then we had some rain in the summer, so they were able to resist the drought. There was barely any frost until February, which explains the high quality in January.”
Elusive and highly-prized
She had finished selling for the year and was now ‘seeding’ the truffle spores in her truffière (truffle plantation). Truffles have a complicated lifecycle and grow only on the roots of certain species of oak. Although you can help the truffle along, it resists attempts to cultivate it on a commercial scale, hence its astronomical price and its nickname, le diamant noir (the black diamond). Truffles have also suffered from deforestation and from successive droughts. Formerly unearthed by pigs, growers now use specially-trained truffle hounds to find them.
By this time, all the baskets were empty, except for one.
“He was too expensive,” the trufficultrice said. “He was charging €450 a kilo. If he’d charged €400, he might have sold them.”
Evelyn and I wondered what happens to the unsold truffles. While they keep for about three days, they quickly lose their flavour and aroma after that.
The Limogne Tourist Office website publishes the figures for amount sold and price range at each market. This year, up to yesterday, around 200 kilos of truffles were sold at the Friday market. The highest price achieved was €600 per kilos.
I must admit that I find truffles a little over-rated but that might be because the ones I have eaten were not particularly fresh. The best truffle dish I have ever eaten was scrambled eggs with truffles finely grated on top, served by friends for breakfast one New Year’s Day. It is also said that the flavour of a fresh truffle kept in a box of eggs will penetrate the eggs, making for a celestial omelette.
Our neighbour has often said that there are truffles around our place, although he’s careful not to divulge their exact location. Since we don’t have a dog, I wonder if we could train the world’s first truffle cat.
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