Digging for the Black Diamond

It must be a misunderstanding. A classic Lost in Translation” moment. 

I thought we had come to hunt for truffles.

The Black Diamond.

That musty-smelling, expensive fungi, adored by toque-wearing chefs in Michelin restaurants. 

I thought there would be dogs, expert sniffers digging excitedly in the earth, tails wagging to and fro.

 Perhaps we would see the traditional method of using a pig, although the problem with them is that on finding the truffle they can be a little too ‘pig-like’ and well, eat the thing. 

But there are no pigs and indeed no dogs here today. 

Instead we are watching a greyhaired man, crouched on his hands and knees in an acorn covered orchard, prodding the dirt with a long, thin stick. And while the rest of the mainly French crowd ooh and ahh as he narrates, I remain confused.

Until the short-haired, impeccably dressed woman next to me, perhaps noticing my wrinkled brow, offers an explanation. 

“He is looking for the flies”, she says, in an ‘isn’t-it-obvious’ tone. 

 

“Ahh I understand”, I reply, nodding my head.  

Her eye roll suggests she knows I am lying. 

digging for truffle
truffle hunting

 It is the first day of La Fête de la Truffe in medieval Salart-la-Canéda, the capital of

the heavily forested Périgord Noir region of France. It is a town of weathered,

honey-stone buildings and winding alleyways, and it is here, on a foggy January

morning that hundreds of truffle fanatics have gathered on the cobbled streets to

smell, buy, taste and celebrate. 

Covered market stalls line the main square, where steamy cauldrons bubble, full of creamy truffle risotto, and shaved truffle velouté. Runny, truffle-infused scrambled egg is ladled into paper bowls, washed down with a glass of sweet Monbazillac or a rich Bordeaux.  

had never been to a truffle festival before, and the only truffle I have ever eaten is out of a chocolate box, which quite clearly is not the same thing at all. In fact, the only reason we are here at all, is that we are dog sitting thirty minutes down the road in Monpazier and it sounded like quite a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. I do love a good food festival. 

But before diving headfirst into a plate of truffled ham and gruyere toasties – best toastie ever – we thought we should first sign up for a spot of local, truffle huntingWhich is how we ended up in this muddy grove of scrubby oak trees, in the shadow of a chateau, watching Francis, the owner of the orchard, demonstrate how to find truffles by fly. 

truffle orchard

Francis looks as if he has been lifted from the pages of a French For Beginners textbook.

He is grey haired and slightly weathered, wearing stonewashed jeans, with muddy knee patches and a chunky ribbed fishermans sweater. A knotted pink scarf, thrown casually over one shoulder, completes his look. 

His French is rapid, my translation slow. Ten years he has owned the orchard. It is a yearround job cultivating, for just a few weeks of harvest. The trees cannot be too tall, nor too short. Watered, but not wet. When the mouche de la truffe or truffle flies appear, drawn to the intoxicating scent of a ripe truffle buried just below the earth, he knows it is time to dig. 

It is a strange sight to see a man on his hands and knees, prod the earth, scattering half a dozen, mosquito sized flies into the air, before starting to dig with his two bare hands.  

Even stranger is the number of people who willingly muddy their clothes to kneel down in the dirt alongside him. But I guess that tells you everything you need to know about the power of truffles. A woman in a tan cashmere coat is chosen to assist, perhaps for her red painted talons, which she uses as tiny shovels. Every few seconds Francis stops her, leans forward and sniffs the ground, holding handfuls of dirt aloft for the crowd to smell. They coo in excitement, surrounding the eager woman as she digs further, iPhones extended in anticipation.  

 

digging for truffles
explaining truffle

Francis pauses her once more, and the crowd hold a collective breath as he digs and

sniffs, digs and sniffs until…there it is.

A truffle.

The size of a muddy golf ball.  

The crowd rushes forward, each wanting to be the first to hold, to smell, to selfie. 

Il est superbe, they exclaim. Cest magnifique”. 

I wait patiently until it is my turn to hold this dirt, encrusted lump. The smell is not the mushroom scent I was expecting. It is earthy like the undergrowth, muskysensual even. I ask how much this may sell for? A shrug, as Francis places it carefully into his satchel. 

Later at the market, as I wander through the perfumed stalls, like the fly I am drawn to the ripest of truffle, the price scribbled on a piece of white card, propped against a wicker basket. 1000 Euro per Kilo, it reads. 

Well, I think, isn’t that worth getting your hands dirty for.

 

smelling truffle
black truffle

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