It’s a chilly early morning in the countryside of the Lot. The stony earth harbours a hidden treasure – le diamant noir black truffle, gastronomic speciality of the region.
An emblematic product, the black truffle is naturally a focal point for tourism in the area, with exhibitions, cooking workshops, tours and holidays – but production is falling.
Cheap imports and different varieties pressurise the traditional model of production, while farmland is often put to more intensive use by a younger generation of agriculteurs, and wild truffles are virtually non-existent due to the loss of natural forest maintenance.
These simple and good quality French produits de terroir – local specialities – sometimes adorn the most glamorous, prestigious and expensive restaurant tables around the world.
But disassociate the product from the price and you’ll find the real value lies in the know-how, rituals and passion of the rural paysans – the farmers and producers, authentically rooted in tradition – and in the case of the trufficulteurs of the Lot, in more ways than one.
The highly prized Tuber melanosporum is the fruit of the labour of les trufficulteurs but like any cultivated product, it is subject to variations depending on the weather.
It is also difficult to produce, sometimes taking five to 10 years before the first harvest.
Dogs are often used for le cavage, finding the aromatic fungus, but they are less diligent than pigs and certainly less easily motivated by the reward of potato skins or acorns for finding one.
Once a basket has been filled with four or five other truffles of differing sizes, the next stop is the famous weekly truffle market of Lalbenque, on Tuesday afternoons from the first week of December until the end of March.
The main street of the tiny village, la rue du Marché aux Truffes, is closed off as a crowd waits expectantly behind a cordon and barriers along one side. The public truffle market, selling small transparent sachets of la truffe noire, will soon be joined by that of the professional sellers and buyers, offering a unique spectacle to the assembled tourists and locals.
In front of the light stone buildings with wrought iron balconies, stout wooden trestles around a foot high are arranged in a long snaking line.
Sellers, in coats and caps, stand with their produce – cleaned and sorted by size and colour, arranged neatly in small baskets lined with red-check tea towels. At 14:30 exactly, a bell and the waving of a red flag indicates the opening of the marché.
With close inspection and a lot of smelling, the negotiations begin in earnest, depending on the quality and quantity, – but also on the time of year.
Christmas and New Year can see prices edging up to over €1,000 a kilo.
Professional buyers – wholesale or restaurants – mark the agreed price on the back of business cards and then the transaction is finalised around the back of a van.
A set of antiquated handheld scales offers scope for last minute price adjustments, depending on interpretation of the measured weight, and then the cash changes hands.
On a good day, it’s all over in a matter of minutes.
One Frenchman, a self confessed gastronome, has come especially for the event.
“It’s a convivial atmosphere. The people here are proud of their tradition and their produce,” he explained.
“We’ve bought some truffles, and tonight we’ll have a big party with our friends, and we’re going back now to cook and open a good bottle or two.”
Truffles can be used in a variety of ways – in starters, main courses and also desserts, generally freshly sliced or grated on top, adding a unique odour and earthy flavour.
Risotto, pasta and eggs are the traditional culinary bases associated with truffles in the region, but chefs are constantly creating new ways of using the delicacy, often complementing other regional specialities such as lamb, saffron and cheese.
Then choose a local wine from Cahors, or further afield a Pomerol or St Emilion from the Bordeaux region, to complement your omelette aux truffes. It’s global gastronomy, local style...