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Truffles are a finicky little fungus–particular about the weather, the humidity, the season, the soil, the trees nearby. Their propensity to be picky is what makes them so rare, and heightens the desirability of what would, under normal standards, look like nothing more than a dirty, funny-smelling rock. However, appearances deceive, and once they are cleaned up and cut open, they reveal their delicate flavor, the beautiful marbling of black white in their interior, and the strong, indescribable scent that brings them their fame. IMG_1358The best black truffles take a year to mature, finally coming to their ideal ripeness in January and February. Found in the rocky terrain under the hazelnut trees of France’s Perigord region, truffles are scouted out by dogs (or, less frequently but more famously, by pigs….although pigs tend to eat the truffles).

a truffle dog and his master.

a truffle dog and his master.

the dog sniffs the ground, pausing and scratching the ground with his paw when he smells the truffle. His owner is on alert, ready to jump in and retrieve the found truffle, which he uncovers with a stick he carries in his right hand.

the dog sniffs the ground, pausing and scratching the ground with his paw when he smells the truffle. His owner is on alert, ready to jump in and retrieve the found truffle, which he uncovers with a stick he carries in his pocket.

8 truffles found--a job well done.

8 truffles found–a job well done.

Most truffles today are found by weathered farmers who pursue them as a retirement hobby, whose rough hands carefully pack the truffles in little baskets lined with red gingham and carry them to market to await the bidding.IMG_1130IMG_1123Bidders are welcome to pick up the baskets for a closer look (or sniff). A kilo of truffles can easily be sold for upwards of 800 Euros. There’s a strange madness to bidding on truffles, and its a little bit indiscernible to onlookers. Communication seems to be through little slips of paper, on which the weight of the truffles and the desired prices are passed back and forth.  It is clear that the truffle farmer has already determined who his favorite bidder is long before the bidding actually begins, and the bidder, in turn, understands that he is the unspoken winner. However, at exactly 2:30, the rope separating onlookers from the tables of truffles is dropped, and the winning bidders rush to their farmers to begin negotiating the price. When the price is reached, bidder and farmer walk together, truffles between them, to the courthouse to finalize the deal and hand over the money.

The entire show is over in about 30 seconds.

At truffle markets, it is rare that any individual buys truffles for himself…its a lot of money to spend, and a lot of truffle to eat before they go bad (they only last about a week in the fridge). Instead, most truffles are sold to scouts for restaurants, as well as some manufacturers who process the truffles into a variety of products. One such manufacturer, P. Pebeyre company,  is a family-run business that has been in operation since 1897. IMG_1392

Truffles are brought from markets across the region to the little Cahors factory, where they are then cleaned up and processed into a product useable to individuals and restaurants alike.

A buyer brings his load of truffles to the table.

A buyer brings his load of truffles to the table.

Truffles are soaked in water to loosen the dirt, then loaded into this antique cleaning device, which is filled with brushes that gently scrub the truffles as they tumble around in the spinning drum.

Truffles are soaked in water to loosen the dirt, then loaded into this antique cleaning device, which is filled with brushes that gently scrub the truffles as they tumble around in the spinning drum.

all clean!

all clean!

Truffles are then sorted by size and quality. some are cut into smaller pieces, which can then be processed into cans, pressed into butter or foie gras, added to oils and vinegars, and made into sauces.

Antique canning equipment also appears to still be in regular use.

Antique canning equipment also appears to still be in regular use.

Most of the time, though, truffles are best fresh, delicately shaved on top of meat, in soups, or even shaped into beautiful, aromatic desserts. IMG_1106Despite all their popularity, truffle production is down from 1,000 tons annually a century ago, to just 50 tons a year. When asked about the future of his industry, the younger Mr. Pebeyre sighed and said that he was just being realistic, but he didn’t suppose the business his great-grandfather built was going to last for future generations. It is hard enough producing a product that is only harvested 2 months of the year, and as they become even more elusive, the price will be higher and higher, and fewer and fewer people will have any hope of accessing the muddy little jewels. If you’re craving a truffle, there’s no time like the present.

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