In Search of Black Diamonds in Lalbenque

You can’t buy them fresh in the supermarket and certainly not on Amazon. They are referred to as Quercy’s black diamonds, but these knobbly tubers look nothing like a gemstone. Selling them follows an arcane ritual, and a kilo can cost upwards of €1,000. They are a highly prized gastronomic delicacy, but they are almost impossible to cultivate reliably. Last week we went to the small town of Lalbenque in the Lot to penetrate the mystique that surrounds the tuber melanosporum, or black truffle.

A visit to the Tuesday truffle market in Lalbenque has long been on my bucket list. I’ve visited its much smaller sibling in Limogne, but the marché aux truffes in Lalbenque is the biggest in the region. Thanks to friends, we finally got our act together and went.

The truffle has been in decline for decades. Erratic climatic conditions, changes in agricultural techniques and land use, and a variety of other factors have contributed. This elusive fungus remains resistant to attempts to cultivate it on a commercial scale. Trufficulteurs (truffle growers) jealously guard their patches of white oak, for the truffle likes to grow on the roots of these trees, which are predominant on the dry causse.

His truffles aren’t for sale

The signs that truffles are beneath the surface are equally elusive: a patch of bare earth around the base of the tree, known as un brûlé; a fly that lays its eggs on the truffle (no doubt adding a certain je ne sais quoi). To root out truffles, you need a pig, or better still a trained truffle hound, since restraining a pig in pursuit of sexual gratification (the truffles exude a pheromone) isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Last Tuesday, the first priority was lunch. And for that, you need to book. Of the three restaurants in the Rue du Marché aux Truffes, I chose le Bistronome, a jolly café-style place. We selected the truffle menu with a choice of risotto or omelette aux truffes and a dessert.

Suitably fortified, we made our way down the street to the market. At 2 pm a retail market takes place in the Mairie, where the public can buy sachets of tiny truffles for a price that isn’t too ruinous. But the real action happens in the marché au gros, where the serious buyers acquire truffles for Paris restaurants.

The sellers’ wares nestle in red and white checked cloths in baskets on low trestle tables. On one side are the more upmarket truffles. These are the ones that have been selected and canifées, i.e. cut into to ensure the flesh of the truffle is black all the way through. On the other side are the ones that haven’t been subject to these additional checks.

Each basket is sold as an indivisible lot. A ticket shows the weight of the truffles, and a card in front of the basket gives the name and address of the seller and their declaration that they respect the rules of the market. The card is then given to the buyer once the transaction is done.

At 2.30 sharp, an official blows a whistle, the rope cordoning off the tables from the public drops, and the serious business of buying takes place. It all happens very quickly. The buyer proposes a price and the seller accepts or declines. Money changes hands in the blink of an eye. No credit cards here; strictly banknotes only. I saw a couple of €50 notes quickly palmed out of sight, but the transactions are not obvious.

A few of the sellers on the less upmarket side failed to sell their truffles and looked rather disconsolate. I wonder what they do with the unsold truffles.

People watching is one of the main attractions of this event. One can’t fail to notice the contrast between the local people in jeans, flat caps or berets and sensible boots and the city slickers in their tailored coats, shiny pointed shoes and fashionably knotted scarves. Alien worlds that coincide only on a Tuesday afternoon in Lalbenque.

One chap clad in traditional farmer’s gear obligingly held up his basket for me to snap.

“You can photograph the truffles, mais pas le bonhomme!” he said, grinning.

Rather natty headgear sported by a trufficultrice.

The official website of the trufficulteurs posts the volume of truffles sold each week, along with the minimum, maximum and average price per kilo. At this end of the season, the truffles are more mature and therefore of higher quality, but they are less abundant. Last week, 38 kilos were sold. The prices were: minimum – €600 per kilo; maximum – €900; average – €780.

The highest yield this season was recorded on 7th January: 84 kilos sold for €300 (min), €750 (max), €420 (average).

I have to admit that most of my encounters with truffles have been disappointing. They keep their aroma and flavour for only a few days after harvesting. But get hold of a fresh one, and culinary bliss is assured. The best truffles I’ve ever eaten were freshly grated over scrambled eggs one New Year’s Day.

You might also like:

Truffle Market at Limogne

Saffron: Quercy’s Red Gold

Getting the Blues: the Pastel Trade in Southwest France

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2020. All rights reserved.

About nessafrance

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.
This entry was posted in Food/drink/recipes, Places and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to In Search of Black Diamonds in Lalbenque

  1. I read somewhere that they lose their flavour very quickly if kept at room temperature, but that they freeze really well and that way they keep their flavour. I have had frozen truffles grated over pasta and romanesco and the flavour was divine, so perhaps there’s something in it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. I suppose it’s like fast-freezing freshly-picked vegetables. I don’t suppose I will ever be in a position to buy one and try it, though!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an interesting article.There are a few locals around here who also truffle-hunt.Incredibly secretive and coy about where they go. The nearest I’ve got to tasting one is in a truffle sauce that our local bar sells. It’s very tasty but I don’t know how it compares to the fresh ones. My neighbour swears by it and, believe it or not, mixes the sauce liberally with her patates en puree! They are delicious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m pleased you enjoyed it. Do you have any truffle markets near you, or do people hunt them for their own consumption? The sauce sounds good, especially with the patates. Potatoes seem to have a special affinity with truffles, perhaps because they are both earthy produce.

      Like

  3. Rhondda says:

    Now I know the significance of the statue. We stopped in Lalbenque in October 2018 on one of our wanders around, and have the same photograph of the truffle hunter. We also bought some very good boudin noir and boudin blanc from the boucherie there. What an interesting experience. We have never tried truffles, but maybe one day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Someone once sent me a lovely card they had made with a photo of that statue. It was so lifelike that at first I thought it was a real person! Lalbenque is a pleasant place, very quiet outside the market days. It’s only taken us 23 years to get to the truffle market, having driven through previously! Truffles can be overrated, especially if not fresh. I’m rather partial to them, but at the price, they are a very occasional treat.

      Like

  4. Fascinating article. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m jealous! I so miss truffles … we had the white ones on our land in Tuscany, but since 2003 and the great heatwave, the local ones are getting rarer. I would have loved to have come to your lunch!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      The white truffles are said to be the best. The lunch was good. We chose the truffle menu, but you could choose other thing. Other restaurants serve only a truffle menu.

      Like

  6. We spent a fortnight one late summer very near here, a long time ago before moving to France. We split a truffle omelette four ways and I seem to remember not being very impressed! Maybe now that I’m properly Frenchified I’d appreciate truffles more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      By the time the truffles get to the omelette, they have often lost their flavour. They have to be really fresh. But some people don’t like the very distinctive taste.

      Like

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