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.
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.
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.
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