I get the fuss about truffles… the ‘black diamonds’ of France… I declare to you all, with hand over heart, that I am a serious truffle lover. I can eat them for breakfast… Imagine… a big chunky slab of sourdough with lashings of creamy French butter, generous shavings of truffle and a sprinkle of salt. I can eat them for lunch… Picture… fresh tagliatelle, a pouring of thick cream, a dash of olive oil and copious amounts of finely sliced truffle all finished with a hearty twist of black pepper and a good pinch of sea salt… I can eat them for dinner… Can your taste buds conjure up succulent roast chicken atop a bed of truffle mash? I could go on…
Truffles are both an extravagance and an acquired taste. They are earthy, pungent, almost sensual with an aroma that is one-of-a-kind… Truffles are rare and celebratory… Truffles are a food to savour and to linger over; a food to revere. Truffles are big business.
Every Saturday from late November through March black truffles are sold in the small village of Richerenches in the Vaucluse. We went with intent… We went in search of the ‘black diamond’… and most fortunately for us we went with a friend who could navigate and negotiate the cloak and dagger transaction necessary to acquire les truffes… It appeared all so complicated for a novice like me… There were the official sellers, with licenses, who were happy to sell to the public and then there were the wholesalers who sell only to restaurants and those in the trade. Into this mix add the rogue farmers who were happy to sell to anyone for the right price.. despite their lack of papers… And this all takes place in a tiny village under the watchful eyes of the gendarmes… Who should we buy from?
This is what happened:
Our friend staked out the market in the name of research. He did a casual lap of the main street where the ‘legal’ vendors had established their stalls and then, very discretely, he investigated a side street where the ‘wholesalers’ had set up shop. ‘Shops’ in this case meant parked cars, one after the other, with their trunks open. Professional scales, sacks of truffles and large steel cash boxes made up the car boot inventory. Crowded with purposeful French men, their moustaches and animated expressions in place, he blended in.
He talked the good talk as he meandered… the kind of French eloquence you need to negotiate a transaction of such delicacy. His small talking chat with the locals had purpose… He established the market price for truffles per kilo… In this script local knowledge meant everything… Inflated prices, poor quality and inaccurate weighing are a trap for young players.
He played his hand and chose a car with what appeared to be a high turnover. (There was no such thing as an easy buy from a certified seller in the main street… not when all the action was taking place in the ‘car park’.) He waited patiently for his turn. Each buyer ahead of him was involved in a lengthy debate… A discussion concerning quality and price can never be rushed in France… and then there was the question of weight… The truffles were weighed several times in order for both parties to be d’accord… As he waited a fellow sidled up and tapped him on the arm… The conversation went something like this…
“Are you buying?” the man whispered softly.
“Perhaps,” our friend replied.
“I have some very excellent truffles here in my bag,” he murmured.
“I found them yesterday afternoon in the forest so they are supremely fresh,” the man said with a satisfying smile.
“Do not be mistaken, they are not farmed truffles; these beauties are of exceptional quality. The truffles are exquisite, they are sauvage,” he said with a very authoritative tone.
(The superlatives are not of my creation… a Frenchman when talking of his truffle is very passionate…)
He gently lifted his prize out of the canvas bag for our friend to inspect… It was everything a truffle should be… heady in scent, of good shape and firm to the touch… They talked some more and then both of them nodded their heads. As I watched this guarded performance I was surprised to see them walk away in separate directions, presuming that the deliberations had fallen down. I was fooled… They had struck a deal, of quantity and price, but in order for the financials to occur this particular vendor wanted to be clear from view of the car park for the ‘completion’. He had broken the chain of command and sold his ‘black diamonds’ directly to our friend… a mere passerby, a non-restauranteur… someone not in ‘the club’. Lucky for us… The truffles we acquired were excellent, our friend did us proud.
One little piece of trivia for you… The gendarmes patrolling the market are not there to chastise those who don’t have truffle licenses, as I thought… but rather to prevent any crime that may occur in the village. Truffle stealing you think… No… Cash stealing… According to local rumour more than 800,000 euros changes hands every two hours… ‘Black diamonds’ most certainly…. xv