The truffle hunt season is open in Provence – Meanderings through France n° 100
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
On November the 19th the most important truffle market in all Europe opened in Richerenches. This small village nestled around its Templar fortress is the truffle French capital where every year tonnes of this unique mushroom are sold, ready to get to the connoisseurs’ table all over the world. Local people take this tradition very seriously and the market is formally opened by the “Confrérie du Diamant Noir”, the Black Diamond Society. All dressed in black, its members parade through the village streets to the sound of a typical Provencal fanfare.
The truffle 2016 season is opened and the Richerenches truffle market will take place every Saturday morning until March 2017. During these few months, truffle growers, traders and mere amateurs will feel, smell, sell and buy this black delight that mysteriously attracts gourmets, making them ready to pay indecent sums of money to get it. But, as the French saying goes, “when one loves, one doesn’t count”!
There is a festive atmosphere in the air as local people and strangers from all over France and foreign countries meet to share their common passion for the famous Tuber Melanosporum, the queen of all truffle species, fondly shortened in “melano” by regulars. Here in Provence you will look like a true amateur if you call it “rabasse”, or even better “lou rabasso” in Occitan language, this ancient Southern-speaking.
The market is divided into two totally different sections. The first one is exceptionally quiet for a market place. Here traders park their vans on both sides of a street that lines one of the Templar fortress wall, and open their back trunk door waiting for the truffle growers who discreetly arrive carrying a small basket or a simple plastic bag filled with their weekly production. The vans’ back trunks are now turned into small shops with their essential instrument: a precision balance. Each gram counts! The buyer feels, smells, weighs and even cuts a small piece of the truffle with a sharp pocketknife to check its quality. Bargaining can now begin. Turning their back to possible viewers, talking in a low voice they eventually find an agreement and money discreetly changes hands. This market doesn’t look like anything special, however the truffles sold here will end in fine delicatessen shops and gastronomic restaurants throughout the world.
The second part of Richerenches market is open to all customers and is much more lively. You will of course find here truffle in all its forms. Depending on their quality, the rarity or abundance of the production or the time of the year (Christmas time and New Year celebrations are a pick period), prices can double or even triple and, in any case, change every week. Actually, indulging oneself and buy a truffle for a special occasion can be quiet affordable and will turn simple scrambled eggs or a turkey into a festive dish. A 20 to 30 grams truffle is enough for four and will cost you approximately 20 Euros.
On the market stalls, besides the plain truffles, you can find plenty of produce made with truffle: oils, foie gras and terrines, truffle liquors used to make very special cocktails or set your imagination free to flavour a sauce or even a cake. You can even buy a mycorhized oak! These are 2 or 3 years old oaks whose roots have been “seeded” with truffle mycelium and if you are very lucky you will be able to pick your own truffles in your garden in ten years time…
Going to Richerenches and the other lovely villages of the area such as Valréas or Grignan, is a wonderful way to immerse oneself in the French truffle world. From late November to March you can smell, eat, think and live truffle from dawn till late at night. It all starts with a visit to a truffle grower. In Provence most truffles grow at the foot of a green or white oak. It is well known that these trees grow very slowly. This is the reason why growing truffle is a family business. As it is almost impossible to buy a truffle-field (very few people would think of selling their truffle field) people have to create it and in so doing they know that only the next generation will be able to profit from it. There are no schools where you can learn how to take care of truffle-oaks or to train a dog, the essential ally of the truffle grower. This knowledge is passed down from father to son and is a well kept secret.
Watching the truffle grower and his dog work together is absolutely fascinating. These two are more than a team they live in symbiosis. The way they communicate with one another, exchanging glances, sensitive to the slightest wave of the hand or the paw, makes you realize the amount of training and love needed to reach such a level of perfection. With his nose low to the ground, scampering along from one tree to the other, the dog keeps searching then suddenly stops, scrapes the ground and sits still, waiting for his master to dig the ground with a special wrought iron pick. Once found the truffle is gently put inside a basket. All the while the dog is lovingly yet demandingly watching the kneeling man, impatiently waiting for his reward. A little treat, a stroke and the dog is already on his way for his next find. This truffle hunt is called “cavage”, a local name that means digging.
To go on a “truffle tour” you can get in touch with Isabelle and Sophie, two sisters who take tourists on English spoken chauffeured sightseeing tours. They will share with you their love for Provence and make you meet local wine or honey makers, lavender growers and take you to beautiful villages and historical sites. On the truffle tour you will see a truffle grower work with his dog, participate in a truffle cooking and wine matching lesson and have a gastronomic truffle meal in a local restaurant. They will of course take you too to the Richerenches market. For more information: www.provencereverie.com
There are many B&B in the area organizing special events during the truffle season. Isabell and Eric welcome their guests in their beautiful “mas” called “La Parenthese”. During your stay you will be invited to a truffle-field and see a “cavage” session. In the evening Isabelle will show you how to cook truffle and you will share a delicious meal with them. A true Provencal experience! http://www.laparenthese-provence.fr/
All along the truffle season many restaurants honour this unique mushroom. Nicolas Pailhes is a young chef who knows how to get the best from truffles. Mixing classical recipes with innovating creations he concocts different menus that continually change, depending on the seasonal produce. From appetizer to dessert he makes tempting whole truffle meals and don’t expect him to use homeopathic doses! His restaurant “L’Escapade” is in Richerenches village centre. www.alescapade.com
In Valreas, another typical Provencal village of the area, a truffle market takes place every Wednesday morning. This is a good opportunity to go to “Au Delice de Provence”, a gastronomic restaurant where Evelyne makes an elegant and tasty cuisine while Nicolas, the pastry chef elaborates a wide range of desserts both beautiful and delicious. www.audelicedeprovence.com
Also located in Valreas, the “Café de la Paix” is a friendly brasserie where truffle is a must in wintertime. Don’t be put off by its charmless façade, the dining hall is exceptional with its Art Nouveau mouldings that are classified as historic monument. Without any fuss you will have here a tasty truffle “brouillade”, the local version of scrambled eggs. “Café de la Paix”, 26 rue de l’Hotel de Ville, Valreas.
If you would like to take part in a very special event during the truffle season, go to Richerenches on the third Sunday of January (this year, January 15th), and go to mass! It’s the Truffle Mass where hundreds of people come, locals, truffle growers as well as tourists. When the priest takes the collection, instead of money the faithful offers truffles instead of money. Just after mass, these truffles are sold by auction outside the old church. On this special occasion truffle prices reach peaks.
For more touristic information about Valreas, Richerenches and the area visit the local tourism office website: www.ot-valreas.fr
About Provence and Vaucluse : http://www.provenceguide.co.uk/
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny