David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Three: the Truffle Heartland of Southwest France

By Wednesday, February 29, 2012 Permalink 0

David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Three: the Truffle Heartland of Southwest France

by David Downie

“Even an expert has difficulty distinguishing brumale from melanosporum,” growled Pierre-Jean Pébeyre, France’s leading dealer of fresh and conserved melanosporum. I met Pébeyre on a freezing day in February in Cahors. Like many traditionalists Pébeyre expressed hostility to spore-impregnated trees, the probable source of the brumale infestation.

Pébeyre estimated that 5 percent of the black truffles he buys at premium prices turn out to be brumales. “You buy truffles when dirty, and you can’t tell. The ugly truth comes out after brushing.”

The Pébeyre truffle plant, founded in 1897 by Pierre-Jean’s great-grandfather, is based in central Cahors, capital of the Lot département. The Lot’s pre-Revolutionary name was Quercy, a deformation of the Latin quercus—oak. The scenic, oak-covered Quercy and abutting Périgord are France’s main melanosporum source. Another common name for this truffle is truffe noire du Périgord.

With a sense of humor as noir as the truffles he trades, Pébeyre, in a blue lab coat taut over his stout frame, walked me through the sorting, grading and brushing processes. He held up two black truffles that appeared identical, with rough patterned skin like a dog’s nose. “Brush a brumale and the skin detaches,” he grunted. With a pocket knife he sliced the brumale, pointed out the dark brownish exterior and flesh, and the thick, white veins within, and offered a taste. It was crisp, smelled unpleasantly of alcohol, and was flavorless.

Pébeyre then sliced a melanosporum, noting how the outside was asphalt-black, the flesh gray-brown, the pattern of veins fine. It was crunchy, smelled pleasantly of mushroom, and, I suggested, tasted something like strawberry jam and chocolate. Pébeyre fought back a frown.

Mélanos smell and taste like mélanos,” he said, using the regional abbreviated form for melanosporum. “Why make taste or nose associations?”

The Pébeyre plant once processed tons of local melanosporum. With dwindling supplies, however, sourcing has widened to Italy and Spain. “The Italian and Spanish mélanos are just as good,” Pébeyre insisted. “The problem is brumales and others.”

Such is the demand for truffles in France that brumales and many undesirable truffle varieties are not discarded. They find their way into pâtés and truffled foods where they cannot be identified readily. France also imports around 50 tons per year of Chinese T. indicum; Pébeyre sells indicum worldwide. “Some people actually prefer it because it’s mild,” he shrugged,  “and everyone likes the price.” In Europe, Chinese truffles fetch a fraction of the price of melanosporum. Boosters say Chinese indicum taste of moss and undergrowth, are not “bad” merely “different” from melanosporum.

However some unscrupulous retailers and restaurateurs fraudulently pass off lesser truffles as melanosporum. “It’s bad for business,” sighed Pébeyre, whose products are clearly labeled. “And in this business reputation is everything.”

Over lunch at Pébeyre’s comfortable house we savored delicious tastous, sandwiches of long, thin, lightly buttered country bread and shaved raw brumale seasoned with salt and pepper baked in a very hot oven for about two minutes. We followed with hearty truffled cervelas sausages and truffled mashed potatoes.

As with white truffles, the food melanosporum accompanies should be simple. Unlike whites, however, blacks stand up to cooking. “Cooking melanosporum transforms the flavor,” said Pébeyre, citing a handful of classic French recipes including poulet en démi-deuil (roasted chicken with sliced truffles under the skin). “Cooked truffles, whether they’re fresh or conserved, are different, more complex, less forceful than fresh, raw truffles.”

Conserved melanosporum are sterilized in 115° C boiling water for 2 1/2 hours. The juice is sold separately and is, to my palate, as flavorful as the conserved truffles themselves.

The French melanosporum harvest has at times dipped to or below a mere 10 tons in bad years. There have been many bad years in recent decades, and very few good years. Pébeyre ascribed the decline to rural abandonment, meaning demographic shifts of farming populations to cities. He also cited unsuccessful propagation efforts, and changing weather patterns. “There are fewer summer storms and to thrive all truffles need heavy rainfall in July and August,” he explained, adding, “it’s possible one day we’ll simply run out of melanosporum.”

About 10 kilometers by road due south of Cahors at the government-funded Station d’expérimentation sur la truffe, chief botanist and trufficulteur Pierre Sourzat, an excitable, sinewy man in his 50s or early 60s, showed me spore-impregnated seedlings he was growing and took me to visit two truffle plantations. An affable zealot whose mission is to unravel the mystery of mycorrhization and bring back the days of 1,000-ton melanosporum harvests in France, Sourzat radiated optimism about boosting truffle production worldwide through scientific methodology, soil preparation and fertilization, and summertime irrigation. He spoke in a rapid-fire tenor voice, pulling me along as he raced to keep up with Boubou, his trained golden retriever. Within minutes Boubou had unearthed a dozen small brumales, melanosporums and other truffles.

Peak truffle production in France coincided with the phylloxera outbreak that decimated vineyards in the late 1800s, Sourzat explained. “Desperate grapegrowers replaced vineyard tracts with truffle-oak plantations. They bore fruit for decades but after World War Two weren’t well maintained or replanted, and we’re suffering the consequences now.”

Host trees take 5 to 15 years to bear truffles, producing for 40 to 60 years thereafter. “If we hadn’t reforested with spore-impregnated trees decades ago we might have no truffles at all by now,” Sourzat insisted. “Mycorrhization does work. Look at Spain. Soon plantations in Oregon, Texas and New Zealand will be commercially viable.”

In the fourth and final segment of Truffles in Black and White I travel to the legendary truffle town of Lalbenque and meet truffle-hunter Marthe Delon and her truffle-hunting pig.

The photos in this series of articles on truffles were taken by Alison Harris. You can see the entire set as a slide show in Food Art: Behind the Scenes of the Noble Truffle, food photography by Alison Harris.

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David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Two, Truffle Hunting in Piedmont

By Thursday, February 23, 2012 Permalink 0

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by David Downie

Truffles in Black and White: Part Two, Truffle Hunting in Piedmont, Italy

The scent of truffles is what draws trained dogs and pigs to them. Wild or cultivated, truffles grow at random around host trees and must be hunted out and carefully removed using a small pick or trowel.

Eighth-generation truffle hunter and dog trainer Renato Agnello, a wiry dynamo in his late 60s, teaches truffle hunting at Alba’s Centro Nazionale Studi Tartufi (CNST) and leads simulated hunts. In Alba’s main square, Piazza Risorgimento, Agnello opened the back hatch of a muddy FIAT Panda and introduced me to his aging truffle hound, Diana. We drove at breakneck speed into vineyards bordering the Tanaro River south of town. The smell of Diana, dirt and truffles was dizzying.

Photo courtesy of Alison HarrisIn Italy, truffle hunters must be registered, trained and licensed. Piedmont’s 10,000 are reputed to be secretive. Agnello was expansive. “I’ve been at it 61 years,” he laughed. “With people and dogs it’s genetic.”

Italian law states that truffles on public or private land belong to their finder. To keep truffle hunters out, private property must be fenced and posted “no trespassing.” Trespassing is common, however, particularly in central Italy’s commercial black truffle plantations (there are no white truffle plantations).

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The Truffle-hunting Pig of Lalbenque

By Thursday, March 31, 2011 Permalink 0

David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Four of Four: the Truffle-hunting Pig of Lalbenque

by David Downie

At Lalbenque, 10 kilometers southeast of Le Montat in southwest France, legendary truffle-hunter Marthe Delon awaited me with her spotted pig.

“This is Kiki the 59th,” Marthe laughed. “Every year I change pigs, they grow too big, but I always name them Kiki.”

Delon, a larger-than-life character now in her eighties, was famous for her truffle omelettes when she was the cook at Lalbenque’s Lion d’Or café, a job she held for 30 years. In her kitchen, she showed me how to store eggs and truffles side by side in a sealed container. “After a day or so the truffle penetrates the eggshell, and that’s the secret of great truffle omelette. The other secret is to put in lots of truffle—a good 10 grams per omelette.”

Before widespread spore-impregnation started in the 1980s, Delon said, she rarely found brumales. Truffle growers used “natural” propagation methods: host trees grew from acorns taken from known truffle-bearing oaks and were replanted in spore-rich areas, a continual process.

For Marthe, lack of summer rainstorms is the key to falling harvests. Dogs, too, may be part of the problem. “Everyone had pigs, you ate them afterwards, like my Kikis. No need to train them, they love truffles, but only ripe truffles, so they don’t dig up immature ones the way dogs do,” she said, pawing at the air. “How are immature truffles supposed to reproduce?”

A freezing wind blew down Lalbenque’s slanting main street as sellers set out wooden benches and wicker baskets for the town’s century-old Tuesday truffle market, held from early November to mid-March. Deals were being done quietly even before the whistle blew at precisely 2:30pm, officially opening the market. Wholesale buyers, chefs and individuals inspected the truffles, which are always sold by the panier (basketful), dickering with sellers for each panier then scribbling offers on paper strips. When a seller pocketed a paper strip it signaled a sale. After a ten-minute flurry of hands, baskets and paper strips the market was over. From parked cars wholesale buyers took out old-fashioned scales, checked the weight of their purchases and paid sellers.

Scrupulously noting the day’s 92 basketfuls, totaling 45 kilos, veteran French government agricultural statistics recorder Odet Bazalgues tipped back his cap as he spoke to me. “Down from a year ago,” he sighed, tapping his notebook. “Again.” Tons of truffles used to be traded weekly in Lalbenque, he remarked. “It’s still among France’s main markets. Wholesale prices for the rest of the country are set here.” The day’s top-quality truffles sold for 850 euros per kilo. “Good news?” Bazalgues ironized. “Fewer brumales this season.”

Two days later, at the Thursday truffle market in nearby Limogne-en-Quercy, I witnessed similar rites and an even lower melanosporum yield, and returned to Cahors with grave concerns about the future of truffles.

Housed within Cahors’ Hôtel Terminus, Le Balandre is a handsome, century-old restaurant; both are owned and operated by chef Gilles Marre, his brother Laurent, a sommelier, and their families. Cheerful and plump, Marre is celebrated for his truffle recipes. To start, he served me exquisite Belle Epoque-style poached eggs and foie gras in puff pastry with shaved truffles, the house specialty since before World War One. Next came a heady shepherd’s pie of leeks, potatoes, bacon and truffles. As I finished my meal with an extraordinary glace aux truffes that looked and even tasted like earthy chocolate chip ice cream, I gazed at the restaurant’s stained glass and polished brass and felt I was on the deck of a truffle Titanic.

Marre agreed with others I had spoken to that the French and Italian passion for truffles showed no signs of abating. “Scarcity is the prime worry,” he said.

Scarcity is likely to increase unless truffle plantations worldwide succeed. The truffle axis, it appears, may gradually shift from Italy and France to Spain, America, China and New Zealand, and more competitive, less flavorful truffle species may well prevail. What does the future hold for the black and white truffles of France and Italy? Current trends suggest that global consumers may actually come to prefer “milder” truffles such as Chinese indicum and their relatively low prices. European truffles appear destined to become ever more a rare delicacy reserved to the lucky few.

Related articles: David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Two, Truffle Hunting in PiedmontDavid Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Three: the Truffle Heartland of Southwest France.

The photos in this series of articles of truffles were taken by Alison Harris. You can see the entire set as a slide show in Food Art: Behind the Scenes of the Noble Truffle, food photography by Alison Harris.

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