It is common for women in South-West France to be missing a couple of fingers, according to an age-old legend. For pigs are just as unwilling to hand over a priceless Perigord truffle as the next person and will not think twice about biting the hand that feeds them. Thus today’s truffle hunters use dogs rather than pigs, preferably small ones so their paws do not damage the truffles.
‘A single basket of truffles can be a whole month’s income,’ Perigord ‘trufficulteur’ Hugues Martin explains seriously. We are standing in a field completely filled with neat rows of oak trees. ‘Truffles are hidden by nature so farmers like myself must hide their truffle hounds so thieves cannot use them to find them.’ There is no specific breed of truffle hound. Martin uses a black Labrador, Louisiane, and a mongrel, Mickey. The dogs are trained to mark the truffle by putting a paw over it until the owner arrives and using a scraper, extricates it from the ground.
Martin has been plagued by thieves since he started farming truffles ten years ago. ‘The thieves would wait for my car to leave the drive,’ He says, ‘Or for my wife to take the children to school. They would come at night with their car headlights switched off. I did not sleep for three years, I would just lie in bed and listen’.
On one of these nights, Martin was sure he heard someone arrive and crept downstairs, fearing for his precious truffles. But outside there was no sign of movement so he returned to the house. But just as he had finished undressing and got into bed, he heard the sound of a car engine. ‘It was the end,’ he explains, ‘I picked up my gun and headed outside. When I could see the thief I fired the trigger and heard him yell. He ran and ran and ran?’
Three gun shots did the trick. ‘When I became known as the local cowboy the poachers stopped visiting,’ Martin proudly explains. On the final occasion Martin foiled the poachers by driving off in his car whilst leaving his wife to patrol with the gun. ‘She is a professional pistol shot ? she does not miss,’ Martin tells me. ‘Last December, there were three days of heavy fog ? like cotton,’ Martin’s eyes widen, ‘And afterwards all the truffles in the area had been visited?but not mine’.
Martin is fascinated by truffles to the point of obsession. ‘There are many things we don’t understand about them,’ he says, ‘For example this year summer was very dry but where I irrigated I found less truffles. There is much left unanswered in the truffle system’.
In his greenhouse Martin attempts to increase truffle production by growing young oak plants and carefully inoculating the roots with truffle spores ? a process known a ‘mychorisation’. But truffle farming demands unwavering patience: these young trees will not be planted outside for another two years and it will be ten to fifteen years before they start producing truffles.
Through vigorous research and experimentation, Martin has discovered that truffles grow best in well draining, warm soils. Truffle presence is marked by a ‘brulée’ or fairy ring, a circle of earth, often around a tree trunk, where no vegetation will grow. ‘A tree can produce three or five truffles one year then a kilo the next,’ Martin explains, ‘As the years go by the truffles are found further from the tree towards the perimeter of the brulée’. When they reach the edge, truffle production is over and it is worth digging up the field and planting with something else to give the soil a rest.
Michael Bamberger is an Englishman living in Perigord who has also developed a penchant for truffle hunting. ‘You know when there are truffles because the truffle fly is in residence,’ he explains, ‘When the sun is behind you it is possible to stir up the truffle flies using a stick and watch them land on the spots where there are truffles’.
The black Perigord truffle is a winter truffle, maturing through December, January and February. Martin harvests his 12 hectare plot himself, selling fresh truffles immediately at the nearby Sainte-Foy de Longas truffle market or at St. Alvère, one of the biggest truffle markets in the area. According to Bamberger, the market opens at 8am and by 8:30am all the truffles have been sold. ‘Truffle markets are on Monday so you get robbed on a Sunday,’ he explains, adding it was on a Sunday last year when a poacher hacked all his truffles out of the ground. Martin also sells truffles to private individuals, mailing them all over the world. The rest he cooks and stores in tins or uses them in preserves and oils to sell at the truffle farm.
‘I tell people truffles are a bit like oysters. Once you decide to buy them you have to eat them quickly’ he says, ‘It is possible to keep them in the fridge for a week but everyday they lose weight and flavour’. And big is certainly not best with truffles, ‘The smaller truffles have the strongest flavour,’ he explains, ‘The large ones are often over ripe and either have no flavour or have gone bad’. Bamberger tells me that if you put a truffle into a box of eggs for a couple of days the aroma will infuse into the eggs, leaving them tasting of truffles. I ask him how the black Perigord variety differs from the white Italian truffles so sought after by the kitchens of many London’s restaurants. ‘The white truffles are supposed to be superior,’ he admits tentatively, ‘But you can’t convince a Perigordin that they are better.’
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Hugues Martin is the only truffle oil producer to use only oil and truffles, no chemicals. He recommends that both truffles and truffle oil are not used in cooking but as an infusion beforehand or added to the finished dish. See below for a selection of his recipes.
MORTEAU SALAD WITH TRUFFLE OIL
Ingredients (4 serves):
1 Morteau sausage
1 kg potatoes (Ratte, Belle de Fontenay, Roseval)
8 tablespoons Truffle oil
2 tablespoons fruity dry white wine
salt and pepper, small clove garlic, crushed
Cook the Morteau sausage for 35 minutes in simmering water.
Steam jacket potatoes, peel them and cut them in rather thin slices.
Add to the potatoes the beaten mixture of Truffle oil, white wine and spices;
Carefully stir and toss.
Set in the bottom of a long dish and dispose the Morteau slices on the top with harmony.
SCRAMBLED EGGS FLAVOURED WITH TRUFFLE
Ingredients (4 serves):
8 farm eggs
50 g butter
5 tablespoons Truffle oil
Utensils: 1 small saucepan with a thick bottom
1 wooden spoon
In the pan, melt the butter, add the slightly beaten eggs.
Cook over a mild heat and continuously stir with the wooden spoon.
When eggs are cooked, add 5 tablespoons of Truffle oil, still stirring.
Serve in warmed up porcelain cups.
Put the entire eggs and the truffles in a hermetic container in the fridge for 12 to 24 hours.
One or two hours before the cooking, crack the eggs (2 per person) in a salad bowl, add salt and pepper, beat without making foam.
Add the truffles cut in pieces, thin slices or fragments and cover up until the cooking.
Put a bit of goose fat in a frying pan, and cook the omelette normally.
CODDLED EGGS WITH TRUFFLES
In a buttered and slightly salted ramekin, put 2 or 3 truffle slices, crack an egg, add a teaspoon of cream, add salt and pepper.
Cover hermetically and cook in the oven in a bain-marie with some water for about 5 minutes. The egg white must be cooked.
Take 4 nice potatoes, split them in the length. In the centre of each half, make a hole and place a small truffle of 10 g (or a piece of truffle), a knob of butter, add salt and pepper.
Close the potatoes again, wrap them up in an oiled aluminium paper.
Put in the embers of the fireplace or in the oven (thermostat 9) for one and a half hour.
Cook fresh pasta.
Boil in a saucepan: 15cl Rivesaltes, 15cl Madère, and 15cl veal basis for sauce. Add the truffles cut in thin slices and 25cl of cream.
Bring to the boil and reduce until obtaining a creamy sauce, add salt and pepper if needed.
Coat the pasta with this sauce and serve.
You can also simply melt a big piece of butter and add the truffles grated in chips, pour the truffled butter on the pasta, stir well.
Let it perfume for 1 or 2 minutes and serve immediately.