ROBERT BONNELL, OUR CORRESPONDENT IN FRANCE, SAYS YES
Editor’s Note: Truffles, those little knobs of fungus, have long been a prized ingredient in French and Italian cooking, and in recent years have begun to appear on more and more high-end American restaurant menus. Are they really worth their high price and do they live up to all the hype? Robert Bonnell takes us on a visit to a winter truffle market in France, and explains what the fuss is all about. And yes, you read the above photo correctly, those lovely little buggers will cost you 700 € (about $1,000) a kilogram. Robert reports:
The black truffle, tuber melanosporum, is a devilishly expensive fungus which lives underground, associated with the root systems of oaks and several other trees. In France, truffles are harvested from late November until early March and are considered a great delicacy, their unique taste and aroma making them an exalted addition to a variety of dishes.
Commonly associated with the more southerly French regions of Périgord and Provence, black truffles are also found in the southern Loire Valley. Some are still found wild in the woods, but many come from plantations of truffle oaks, grown from seedlings whose roots were infused with truffle spores. But even in the plantations, a truffle hunter needs help to find them. Once performed by pigs, locating truffles is now the work of dogs. (As one purveyor of truffles says, it’s not easy to talk a pig into getting into the car.) At any rate, an effective truffle-hunting dog at work is a wonder to behold.
Every winter a number of truffle vendors from throughout the region take their bounty to the Marché aux Truffes (Truffle Market) in Marigny-Marmande, about sixty kilometers (thirty-five miles) south of the town of Tours. Those with an image in mind of a colorful village filled with old geezers in berets walking their prize truffle pigs may be disappointed. You already know about the lack of pigs. And there’s nothing extraordinarily picturesque about Marigny-Marmande, especially in the dead of winter when the market takes place. The vendors’ tables are set up in the town’s nondescript 1960’s-style salle polyvalente (a multi-purpose room, but it sounds better in French). Those who will not be disappointed with the market are people who want to learn more about truffles and the hunters who go out looking for them on chilly winter days.
The market takes place from 8 AM until 1:30 PM every December 21 and 28, plus the second and fourth Saturdays in January and the second Saturday in February. The December markets are the largest affairs, with up to a dozen truffle vendors inside the building plus numerous stands inside and outside selling baked goods, wine, cheese, sausages, jams and jellies, truffle oak seedlings and more. There’s also a truffle-based lunch available on the December dates with such dishes as truffled lentil soup, boudin blanc sausages sliced lengthwise and filled with a layer of truffles, and even a truffled dessert. The truffle sellers are at the market in January and February, too, but the number of other products on sale is reduced, and there’s no truffle lunch, although there are still truffle snacks. Check out the tartine (open-faced sandwich) stand. Here they sell half a small baguette smeared with butter and chopped truffle. It’s a good way to get into the spirit of things.
If the tartine has whetted your appetite, walk around the room. Each truffle vendor will have one or more baskets of truffles, priced according to category. This year’s prices ranged from 70€ to 90€ per 100 grams (about $26 to $33 per ounce, which is just right for two people). The more spherical the shape of the truffle and the less blemished, the more expensive it is. The top category is called “extra”. Less perfect-looking truffles are relegated to categories I and II. However, this is nothing but a beauty contest since truffles from all three categories taste the same.
The best mode of shopping is to pick up a suitable-looking truffle and smell it (though it’s best to ask the vendor’s permission first). Some of the truffles don’t have much of an aroma; this could be because they were picked too long ago (both the flavor and the aroma start to fade after a few days), or maybe they weren’t all that good to begin with. I go for the truffle with the best and strongest aroma. But, as one vendor puts it, “You must follow your heart.”
The question that will naturally arise is why anyone would spend that kind of money in return for a small hunk of fungus. After all, even though truffles from the Marigny-Marmande market come direct from the people who dug them up and are generally priced below what they would be elsewhere, a one-ounce category II truffle still costs over $25. The answer is that their flavor and aroma are absolutely unique, and if you like them, there’s really no substitute – even truffle oil can’t replace the experience of an real truffle. But even if you’re making one of my favorite truffle recipes, oeufs brouillés à la truffe (truffled scrambled eggs), where the rest of the ingredients – eggs, butter and a little cream – don’t add much to the total cost, this is still going to be a splurge meal.
Here’s the recipe for oeufs brouillés à la truffe for two people: In a double boiler melt 2½ tablespoons of butter. Add six beaten eggs plus a one-ounce truffle, sliced very, very thinly, plus some salt and pepper. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon for about ten minutes, until the eggs are set, but not dry. Remove from the heat. Stir in 1½ tablespoons more butter and two tablespoons cream. Serve as soon as the butter is melted. For best results, store the truffle and the unbroken eggs together in a small, tightly sealed container for three to four days before cooking. This allows the truffle aroma to infuse the eggs.
Admission to the market is free. For more information, contact the Richelieu tourist office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patricia Wells has recently released a cookbook called Simply Truffles with recipes for all occasions. For more information plus a couple of recipes, check her website at http://www.patriciawells.com/books/simply-truffles-by-patricia-wells.
Robert Bonnell will soon be publishing an ebook reviewing the off-the-beaten-path cave restaurants, hotels, artisans, museums, etc. of France’s Loire Valley.
Text and photos by Robert Bonnell.