French Truffles – The Black Gold Of The Orchard

No longer are they hunted by pigs in oak forests at night. Yet, French truffles remain among the most famous, and most mysterious, foods of France. Despite the legends and stories we've all heard, French truffles do not grow wild, except in rare cases.

They are a cultivated tuber that take an incredibly long time to grow and harvest. Le Diamant Noir, or black truffle, is the most highly sought after truffle in the world. On a trip to Provence we had a chance to visit Joël, a truffle grower (called a trufficulteur) to discover first-hand how truffles are grown. Here's an excerpt from what what we wrote about that adventure in our book, How to Cook Bouillabaisse in 37 Easy Steps: Culinary Adventures in Paris and Provence.

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Digging for Black Gold

Digging for truffles

In the 1970s truffles began to be studied by agricultural scientists with a view towards restoring the harvest. What they discovered is surprising and complicated. The oak trees need to be planted between five and seven metres apart. The soil needs to be aerated and then covered with mulch.

Joël's detailed explanation is interrupted when a couple enters. Joël asks if they have an appointment. "No," they say, looking down at the floor, "They told us at the truffle market to come to see you."

Joël disappears into the back room and emerges a moment later with a tiny sack of three or four jet black truffles. Weighing them on a kitchen scale he says, "200 grams, 180 Euros, s'il vous plait." At 900 Euros per kilogram he's giving them the wholesale price. In a gourmet shop they might fetch two or three times that.

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4 Truffles

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After the anonymous couple leaves, it's time for us to visit the oak grove and hunt for truffles. The mistral arrived last night and now, at eleven in the morning, the cold wind is biting. Scarves and hair are flapping in the wind as Joël drives off to get Lisette, one of the three truffle dogs he has working for them.

When we arrive at the grove Lisette barrels out from the back of the small truck and begins circling and yelping in excitement. Joël yells instructions for Lisette, "Allez, allez, cherches-la." The strong wind makes picking up the scent difficult for Lisette, but she perseveres and, in seconds, beings digging up the soil near one of the trees. Two and three times more Lisette picks up a scent and finds the prize, which the dog handler digs up.

Joël puts the little nuggets in our hands. Four truffles, a handful. "It's only second-grade," he shrugs. "You can keep them."

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