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"Cherche, Quiqui, cherche!" It is a cloudy Tuesday of February at Le Gascou, twenty minutes south of Cahors. Quiqui, an impressive 400+ lb male pig, is the leader of our expedition as we are looking for the elusive "Black Diamond", the one and only black truffle from Périgord. Quiqui seems oblivious to our encouragement; totally focused on the task at hand, his snout half-buried in the dark dirt, the pig only listens to his instinct and his desire: he loves truffles and he is a glutton. Quiqui suddenly pulls on the leash; André, his handler, holds him back and rewards (distracts?) him with a handful of acorns. André starts scratching the ground with his fingers. "Do you see it?" I only see dirt. He pushes a sharp pick in the ground and lifts up some soil. "Now, do you see it?" All right, I see a lump of dirt… He picks it up, rubs it between his fingers to loosen up some of the soil and brings it up to my nose: it still looks like a lump of dirt but the scent is unmistakable. Back at the Pébeyre workshop in Cahors—where truffles are identified, brushed, washed, notched, sorted and graded— I see, and smell, large quantities of the most expensive "dirt" on earth and get a thorough course on the mysterious mushroom. Four generations of Pébeyres have devoted their life to truffles, and only to truffles as the company does not deal with any other mushrooms (or foie gras, either). To this date, Pierre-Jean or his father Jacques still exclusively performs the final truffle grading. Both of them are eager to share their passion for their beloved "melano".

Hunting with man's best friend. Truffle hunting is an activity that cannot be undertaken by man alone. Although truffles are found only 4 or 5 inches underground, our sense of smell is not keen enough to detect them and we must get a little help from a pig, a dog … or a fly. You must choose your "cavage" partner carefully (cavage is the official term for truffle hunting)! Pigs are naturally attracted to truffles, they will sniff them out without any training, but also eat them on the spot if you don't hold them back. Dogs could not care less about truffles but, when properly trained, they will find them to please their master and get some kind of reward. Any breed will do it but most farmers usually favor larger dogs that also double as watch dogs or cattle herders. Dogs are used more often than pigs for practical reasons, too: it is easier (and less messy) to carry a dog than a pig in the backseat of the old Deux Chevaux! If you don't have a pig, and Fifi the poodle does not want to help, you can try your luck with the fly. First, you need to know where truffles are likely to be found: look for a "brûlé", the "burnt" area under the oak tree where no grass grows; then, move a stick around to see if a fly takes off and watch where it lands. A few species of flies like to lay their eggs right above the truffles. Although not very practical on a large scale, this technique actually works quite well.

A world of truffles. There are about thirty different varieties of truffles in Europe but only a few have any gustative qualities. Most truffles mature in winter, some in summer, a few others in the fall. To the untrained eye, all black truffles look very similar on the outside but the color of the flesh varies greatly, along with the taste and the aroma.

•Tuber Melanosporum (truffe du Périgord). This black winter truffle is THE ONE that everybody raves about. It reaches maturity between December 1 and March 31 (in fact it has a fuller taste in February than in December). It can be found in southwestern and southeastern France and also in some parts of Spain and Italy. "Terroir" has no impact on the quality of the product: a melano from Tarragon, Spain will taste the same as one from Carpentras, France. The only difference may be in the shape of the truffle: when it grows in a sandy area, it is rounder and smoother; when it grows among rocks, its shape will be more irregular. Most of all, the melano needs the conjunction of a certain type of tree (oaks for the most part, or hazelnut trees), a certain type of soil (chalky) and a certain type of climate (Mediterranean; hot summers scattered with rain storms; no harsh freezes). Attempts to replicate the symbiosis truffle/tree and cultivate truffles have had limited success: even when the necessary conditions for truffle development are recreated, there is no guarantee that truffles will indeed grow. The melano is born early May and grows during the summer. Early on, it has a reddish scaly skin; it turns black when the truffle is ripe. The flesh is firm, purplish-black and shows some fine white veins.

•Tuber Brumale (truffe musquée). This other black truffle grows at the same time and in the same areas as the melano. The black scales of the skin are smaller and the white veins in the black flesh are fewer but thicker. The scales flake off easily when the truffe is brushed. Its taste and aroma are substantially lighter and different from the melano.

•Tuber Indicum (truffe de Chine). A newcomer on the truffle markets, this black winter truffle grows in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Hunan. Like the melano, the skin is reddish before the truffle is mature; the flesh is purplish-black with short white veins and a little softer than the melano; the aromas are very similar but the taste of the indicum is not as intoxicating.

•Tuber Aestivum (truffe d'été). This black summer truffle is found in southern France, Spain and Italy from May 1 through September 30. From the outside, it looks very similar to the melano but it tends to be larger and tougher; the black scales are more prominent, the flesh is yellow-beige with white veins. Its taste and aroma are light.

•Tuber Magnatum (truffe blanche du Piemont). This is the white truffle that Italians love. It is found from October 1 through December 31. The skin is smooth and shows a yellow grey coloration; the flesh has a light whitish-reddish-brownish cast with white veins. Its aroma is reminiscent of garlic, shallot and cheese. Highly prized, it is only consumed raw (usually grated over pasta or rice) as it looses all flavor when cooked. Price varies greatly from one variety to the next, and also from one year to the next. Typically, the melano may cost 5 times more that the brumale, indicum or aestivum. The magnatum is the most expensive of all, about 4 times more than the melano.

Caveat emptor. Yearly truffle production now amounts to about 3% of what it was in the early 1900s: with young people leaving the farms to work in the cities and modern agriculture favoring predictable crops, the truffières were not kept up, new trees not replanted, the interest and savoir-faire of the old folks not transmitted to the younger generations.

Only a handful of professional truffle markets subside. One of them takes place in Lalbenque (Lot) every Tuesday between December 1 and March 31. About 100 vendors line up and set their baskets on tables in the Rue du Marché aux Truffes. Potential buyers are held behind a rope while they preview the goods (no touching!) At 2:30 pm sharp, the whistle blows, the rope falls down and the selling starts.

You cannot pick and choose, nor can you empty a basket to check the state of individual truffles: if you are interested, you must make a written offer for the basket to the vendor, who is under no obligation to accept it. Each vendor usually collects several offers over a 30-45 minute period; then, he decides whose offer he will take. If he chooses your offer, you cannot decline and you must pay in cash only (Visa is not quite "everywhere you want to be"). Truffles sold at the market are "tout venant": they are still covered with dirt. Some might be rotten, if frost damaged, or woody, if there was not enough rain during the summer. There may also be some brumales in the lot.

To get the truffles ready for consumption or processing, they are brushed to remove the dirt that clings to them. They used to be washed by hand but professionals have a device reminiscent of a small washing machine: the truffles are placed in a rotating drum equipped with sets of soft bristles and nozzles that dispense warm water. Then, a small notch is made with a sharp knife to expose the flesh, check the veins and feel the texture. Finally, the truffles are sorted by variety and by quality (whole or pieces, aroma, degree of maturity). By the time the truffles are cleaned and sorted, 20% of the initial weight has been lost. Some will be sold as fresh truffles, others will be canned so that they can be enjoyed year-around.

Fresh truffles have a very heady, earthy aroma, especially when they are at peak maturity; if you eat a raw truffle, the aroma lingers in your esophagus for hours. When truffles are first sterilized for canning (1ère cuisson or first boil), they render 20% of their weight in truffle juice; their aroma is not weakened, just transformed (in fact, some people prefer the taste of 1st boil truffles to that of fresh truffles); the juice is a true nectar that will give incredible dimension to any sauce. A 1st boil truffle is the product that top restaurants use when fresh truffles are not available. Consumers are not so fortunate: the overwhelming majority of canned truffles on the market are 2nd boil, where the truffle juice and the truffle are canned separately a second time, in smaller containers: during this second sterilization, the truffle does loose a lot of aroma, but the price tag does not go down. In addition, a canned melano, brumale and indicum will look exactly the same after being sterilized: they all loose their white veins and the flesh becomes uniformly black. The bottom line is: buyers beware! Read the labels carefully: the mere mention "truffes" does not give you any clue as to which variety of truffle is in the can. And if "1ère cuisson" or "1ère ébullition" is not specified, you may still pay some good money for your truffle and wonder what the fuss is all about…

Truffle FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Not many of us are lucky enough to enjoy truffles on a regular basis. Fresh melano can be purchased in the US, mostly around Christmas time (although truffles are even more flavorful in January or February). Canned truffles are available year around. Either way, having invested a small fortune in a few ounces of fungi, we want to make sure to get the most out of it!

•Is a big truffle better than a small one? Maybe. Size is not a factor of quality in itself but the skin of the truffle is less flavorful than the flesh, and the ratio skin/flesh is higher in a small truffle. However, a small truffle at peak maturity will be more desirable that a large "early" one.

•How do I store a fresh truffle? A freshly picked truffle will keep up to 12-14 days (if you purchased it in the US, it is a few days old already). Its worst enemy is moisture: keep it in the fridge, on a bed of rice, in a closed container. The rice will also acquire a wonderful flavor.

•Can I eat it raw? Sure, especially if you add a little bit of Guérande sea salt.

•Can I store it in oil or alcohol? Only for a short time. Alcohol will strip the flavors of the truffle very fast. You can store a truffle in a neutral oil as long as you use the truffle and the oil within a couple of weeks. Beyond that, bacteria will develop.

•Can I freeze it? Yes. If you have several truffles, wrap them individually in foil, then place them in a freezer bag. You can also place each truffle in a small container, covered it with oil or duck fat to create an air barrier, and then freeze the containers. They will keep for 10 months, their aroma intact. Home canning is another option.

•Do I use canned truffles the same way as fresh truffles? Pretty much so, with one caveat. A canned (or frozen) truffle is "dead" and will release its aroma for a couple of hours: it is important to immediately put it in contact with the base of the dish (egg, cream, oil, sauce). For instance, to make a truffle omelet with fresh truffles, refrigerate truffles and eggs in the same container overnight. If using canned truffles, break the eggs, add the truffles right away and store the mixture in the fridge for a couple of hours.

•How do I use truffle oil? Truffle oil is not a substitute for truffles but an "aroma booster", especially when using "2nd boil" canned truffles. Truffle aroma (or truffle essence) is 4 times more concentrated than oil and is best used for hot preparations. Make a vinaigrette with truffle oil and a good red wine or Sherry vinegar; use it on a salad of mâche (lamb lettuce) or butter lettuce dressed with slices of truffles. Truffle oil is also a great finishing oil for risotto and pasta dishes.

•Do I need a truffle shaver? If you want thin slices a truffle shaver, a mandoline or a sharp knife will give good results. But you will release even more flavor out of a fresh truffle if you break it up and mash it with a fork.

•Which foods best compliment truffles? Eggs, potatoes, pasta, and cream capture the aroma of truffles very well. Garlic, onion, chives, leek, celery, celery root, and parmesan enhance its flavor. Chefs often pair them with scallops, crayfish, foie gras, asparagus or cabbage. The addition of truffles will turn a basic dish into a gastronomic feast: truffled mashed potatoes are divine, onion soup with truffles acquires a new dimension.

JDV Recipes Featuring Truffles
    SoupsCream of Celery Soup with Truffles
    SoupsTruffled Onion Soup
    PastaDuck Risotto with Peas and Black Truffles
    PastaFresh Pasta with Truffles
    VegetablesTruffled Mashed Potatoes
    SaucesPérigueux Sauce

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