A noise, nagging away incessantly in my ear forced me to turn towards the sound, and I abruptly left my dreamy island paradise and awoke in a bed, in The Vaucluse, at the base of the Mont Ventoux, at 0530, in the dark, ready to go on a two hour truffling course. In the shadow of the beast of Provence the mornings are chilly, even in the height of summer, and looking up at the top of the mountain the clouds were just visible, moving rapidly across the sky. The truffling is done early as once the sun gets too hot, the smell evaporates in the heat and its too hard for the dogs to work.
I’d hired a gite for a few days, and the owner, Christophe, a truffle grower and seller, had offered to show me how he worked. Having never done it before, in fact having never even tasted truffle, I jumped at the chance. He came in, tall with his drawn southern accent, coffee in hand, and sat down. An hours talk over coffee about the lifecycle of the truffle, the different types, would be followed by a half hour walk through the trees to show everything he’d spoken about and then finally 15 minutes with his best dog to see what we could find.
Christophe explained how he bought the young trees with roots infected with truffle spores, but this was no guarantee of success. Once planted, the two types of oak, deciduous and evergreen (two types, who knew?) would grow, some would produce, some wouldn’t. He told us there are two types of truffle that grow in his area, a summer and a winter variety. If they are going to be productive this can be seen early in the development, by an area called “burning.” It resembles an area treated by some form of weedkilling product, but is in fact caused by the chemical reaction of the truffle spores.
It’s not the best picture but you can clearly see an area that appears to have been treated.
As we reached the trees he did explain the season for summer truffles was now over. He was happy to go out one more time, to show us his job, but it was unlikely that we would find anything.
Once the burnt area appears, the next sign is the soil splitting, like a clay field during a hot dry period.
The tell-tale crack in the soil is on the right hand side of the pic. Knowing his trees as he did, this was the beginning of a winter truffle, so we wouldn’t be digging about in there, as it would rot.
And then, the moment we’d been waiting for, One man:
and his dog: (Diana, the French infatuation with the late Princess still runs deep)
working together. Diana was a small, lithe bundle of energy, easily capable of leaving the famous Mr Bolt well behind her. She didn’t stop moving from the second she came out of her home until she went back in after her work. Christophe explained that his dogs only work for 15 to 20 minutes each, as they become very tired very quickly. He also showed us the different keys he had for locking the kennels. A trained truffle dog like Diana can easily fetch 6000 euros and theft is not uncommon.
After a few minutes of sprinting after her all over the orchard, she stopped and started to dig, and uncovered:
which, once taken out of the ground and cleaned with the special brush, looked like this:
Black gold, with a smell that is totally indescribable. Earthy, strong but impossible to define. In France, the word used for a dogs nose is “un truffe” and you can see why.
Christophe was not only a great host, but a man truly passionate about his work. He has always stayed true to the ancient methods of treating and pruning his trees, all by hand, according to the seasons. I’d never seen a fresh truffle in my life, but after the two hour lesson, I’d learned a huge amount on the subject, being taught by a real expert. We only found one, which was one more than he’d thought, but his teaching was so interesting I would have enjoyed it as much if we’d found nothing.
Should you ever pass near to Le Mont Ventoux and want to do the course, contact me and I’ll give you his details.
Oh, by the way, he gave us the truffle, and we ate it that night, grated into a hot plate of mashed potato.
What a taste. The fuss and clamour over truffles are totally understandable.
For more posts on life in France and French living, head to: http://www.loumessugo.com/en/blog/entry/all-about-france-3