21 January, 2010

The black diamond.

I've successfully weaned myself from the annual state of holiday gluttony, with the exception of a persistent hankering for one dirt-encrusted little jewel. And so it was I found myself making the pilgrimage this past weekend to Uzès for the truffle market, held as always the third Sunday in January. While the truffle season begins in October, the truffles are at their most fragrant in January--as long as Mother Nature cooperates and there hasn't been too much frost. (This year, as you can see from earlier posts, hasn't been great for truffles.)

Just as last year, I took the winding roads past the austerely dormant fields of Uzège grapevines, and drove under a Roman aqueduct, Uzès having served as the spring for Nîmes in Roman times. I stared rather hard at the surrounding trees, particularly the oaks and hazelnut, for under these trees a mysterious and symbiotic relationship may perhaps be blooming. About 15 centimeters underground, that is.

Some choice tuber melanosporum.
The truffle is a fungus appreciated since antiquity, but finding it has never been simple. Certainly at least since the 1600s, the truffle hunter depends upon the better sense of smell of a certain type of fly (yes, there are fly-trufflers!), a dog--or a porker. Specifically a sow, for she is apparently more manageable and adept at locating the truffle than a male pig. Among the odors a truffle exudes is a musky substance similar to the male pig hormone, and a piglet can be trained within three weeks to hunt for one. Working with a sow requires quickness, endurance and strength, however, as she can weigh a stubborn 220 pounds, and unlike a dog, she very much wants that truffle for herself. As you might imagine, dogs are becoming far more common.
Some truffles receive official benediction.

Today, about 80% of French black truffles are cultivated (as opposed to the white truffles of Italy, which grow only in the wild). Most black truffles thus come from truffle grounds, where oak or other trees have been infected with the fungus and planted. As at least a decade goes by before any chance of harvest, many farmers plant lavender or grapevines alongside to ensure some source of interim income. Cultivation of the truffle remains a demanding and uncertain endeavor.

Some argue against formal truffle production, as there has been a steady decline in truffles since the late 1800s, which is when truffle cultivation began. To give you an idea: in the early twentieth century, about a thousand metric tons of truffles were harvested annually in France, while today a good annual yield may reach thirty tons. It is argued that the modern agricultural and forestry methods being used have resulted in the destruction of natural flora and fauna. This loss negatively affects truffles, whose development is delicate and depends on an exceedingly complex interaction and precise balance of the soil, climate and biosphere.

Once harvested, the most sublime culinary marriage, as argued historically and by those in the know, is perhaps truffle and foie gras. The heady melding of flavors is inoubliable-- unforgettable--but this is also a pretty decadent double-whammy of a luxury if done right. I tried something new this time over lunch, an aperitif made of white wine, chestnut brandy and truffle essence. My verdict? Put the pungent truffle in dishes rather than drink. And keep to raw shavings, or add as late as possible in the actual cooking. Truffle plays to perfection with scallops, potatoes, pasta and risotto, and chicken. Or with pâté, as in the tasty little pastry-covered traditions from Nîmes in the photo below. Don't forget how easy it is to make your own truffle oil using extra virgin, mild olive oil, as the possibilities then extend even further.
And of course there's the simple egg. Grab some very fresh eggs, organic if possible, put them in a mason jar, tuck in a truffle, close and refrigerate for a day or two, then take a moment to make scrambled eggs. The Romans were convinced truffles, cloaked as they are even today in certain mysteries, have distinct aphrodisiac properties. Perhaps they had this dish in mind.

OEufs Brouillés aux Truffes/Scrambled Eggs with Black Truffles

Serves two. Of course, this can be doubled if you're feeling especially starved--or social.

30 g fresh black truffle
1 small garlic clove, split and the bitter green sprout in center removed
15 g butter or olive oil
6 room temperature eggs (that have preferably been stored with the truffle)
fresh ground pepper and salt to taste
walnut bread or hearty country bread

Cut two generous slices of truffle, set aside, and finely chop the remainder. Lightly rub the bottom of a frying pan with the split garlic. Add a spoonful of butter and the minced truffle. Just warm the minced truffle over low heat, do not overheat. Transfer the truffle to a mixing bowl, add the room temperature eggs and briefly beat with a fork.

Cover and set aside to "infuse", for twenty minutes. Toast slices of bread, cutting into quarters lengthwise (so they look somewhat like long ladyfingers). Warm two plates in the oven at low heat.

Melt a spoonful of butter in the frying pan, add the infused eggs and salt and pepper. Cook over low heat until the eggs are just set, and the consistency of a quite moist omelet. Serve the scrambled eggs on the warmed plates, and garnish each serving with a trufle slice.


  1. Very interesting post. I have lived in the US for so long, I am rediscovering french food through blogs. I didn't know that french truffles are cultivated. I knew this gentleman from "le Gard" who had a farm. He would pick up truffles (maybe they were wild); he said it was nice pocket money.

  2. Thank you Nadege!

    My impression is that it is generally "pocket money" and not that much more, unless you go for it full-bore, and even then, as with all agriculturalists you are at the mercy of so many environmental and climatological factors.

    People who do this are usually in it because they are passionate about it. It isn't something for a rational, excessively logical person...

    Have a good weekend!

  3. we have a blogger friend who is coming over for france as we speak to attend this truffle event in provence...fascinating stuff..we've never had it ourselves...one day!

  4. Ah, but you have a friend, RC, and real friends always share! In the meantime, getting a small store-bought bottle of scented oil is always a more affordable option. Talk to someone knowledgeable to be sure you get the real thing, and not something chemically adulterated. I wonder whether the Vietnamese have ever used Chinese truffles in cooking...


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