overheard in the truffle market…

January 27, 2012

I get the fuss about truffles… the ‘black diamonds’ of France… I declare to you all, with hand over heart, that I am a serious truffle lover. I can eat them for breakfast… Imagine… a big chunky slab of sourdough with lashings of creamy French butter, generous shavings of truffle and a sprinkle of salt. I can eat them for lunch… Picture… fresh tagliatelle, a pouring of thick cream, a dash of olive oil and copious amounts of finely sliced truffle all finished with a hearty twist of black pepper and a good pinch of sea salt… I can eat them for dinner… Can your taste buds conjure up succulent roast chicken atop a bed of truffle mash? I could go on…

Truffles are both an extravagance and an acquired taste. They are earthy, pungent, almost sensual with an aroma that is one-of-a-kind… Truffles are rare and celebratory… Truffles are a food to savour and to linger over; a food to revere. Truffles are big business.

Every Saturday from late November through March black truffles are sold in the small village of Richerenches in the Vaucluse. We went with intent… We went in search of the ‘black diamond’… and most fortunately for us we went with a friend who could navigate and negotiate the cloak and dagger transaction necessary to acquire les truffes… It appeared all so complicated for a novice like me… There were the official sellers, with licenses, who were happy to sell to the public and then there were the wholesalers who sell only to restaurants and those in the trade. Into this mix add the rogue farmers who were happy to sell to anyone for the right price.. despite their lack of papers… And this all takes place in a tiny village under the watchful eyes of the gendarmes… Who should we buy from?

This is what happened:

Our friend staked out the market in the name of research. He did a casual lap of the main street where the ‘legal’ vendors had established their stalls and then, very discretely, he investigated a side street where the ‘wholesalers’ had set up shop. ‘Shops’ in this case meant parked cars, one after the other, with their trunks open. Professional scales, sacks of truffles and large steel cash boxes made up the car boot inventory. Crowded with purposeful French men, their moustaches and animated expressions in place, he blended in.

He talked the good talk as he meandered… the kind of French eloquence you need to negotiate a transaction of such delicacy. His small talking chat with the locals had purpose… He established the market price for truffles per kilo… In this script local knowledge meant everything… Inflated prices, poor quality and inaccurate weighing are a trap for young players.

He played his hand and chose a car with what appeared to be a high turnover. (There was no such thing as an easy buy from a certified seller in the main street… not when all the action was taking place in the ‘car park’.) He waited patiently for his turn. Each buyer ahead of him was involved in a lengthy debate… A discussion concerning quality and price can never be rushed in France… and then there was the question of weight… The truffles were weighed several times in order for both parties to be d’accord… As he waited a fellow sidled up and tapped him on the arm… The conversation went something like this…

“Are you buying?” the man whispered softly.
“Perhaps,” our friend replied.
“I have some very excellent truffles here in my bag,” he murmured.
“I found them yesterday afternoon in the forest so they are supremely fresh,” the man said with a satisfying smile.
“Do not be mistaken, they are not farmed truffles; these beauties are of exceptional quality. The truffles are exquisite, they are sauvage,” he said with a very authoritative tone.
(The superlatives are not of my creation… a Frenchman when talking of his truffle is very passionate…)

He gently lifted his prize out of the canvas bag for our friend to inspect… It was everything a truffle should be… heady in scent, of good shape and firm to the touch…  They talked some more and then both of them nodded their heads. As I watched this guarded performance I was surprised to see them walk away in separate directions, presuming that the deliberations had fallen down. I was fooled… They had struck a deal, of quantity and price, but in order for the financials to occur this particular vendor wanted to be clear from view of the car park for the ‘completion’.  He had broken the chain of command and sold his ‘black diamonds’ directly to our friend… a mere passerby, a non-restauranteur… someone not in ‘the club’. Lucky for us… The truffles we acquired were excellent, our friend did us proud.

One little piece of trivia for you… The gendarmes patrolling the market are not there to chastise those who don’t have truffle licenses, as I thought… but rather to prevent any crime that may occur in the village. Truffle stealing you think… No… Cash stealing… According to local rumour more than 800,000 euros changes hands every two hours… ‘Black diamonds’ most certainly…. xv


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44 Comments

  • dustjacket says:

    How interesting…quite the short movie!
    xxx

  • Yet another reason to love France. Glad your friend did you proud!
    Bonne Mercredi,
    Mimi

  • Black Gold!
    I have had truffles…they are loovely.
    I particularly like them shaved in my eggs!

  • Fascinating.
    And now all I can think of is that sourdough bread treat.
    And I'm just about to turn out the light for bed!!

  • Love this blog – will be following closely as I am off to Paris to live for a couple of years. Lots of fabulous information. C'est fantastique!

  • Oh I loved this Vicki. I certainly would never attempt to go on my own! How lucky you are to have had your friend negotiate such very tricky business. But I can only imagine how it was worth it and I can't help but wonder how you served them. We buy our truffles from "L'Ile des fruits" just outside of L'Isle sur la Sorgue. Not nearly so glamorous but we trust the owner and that says a lot.

  • I just love the cloak and dagger aspect to it all. However beware, I once bought a truffle in Uzes. I had inspected it carefully only to find a large part of it was in fact mud! Imagine my dissapointment. So really check them out before buying

  • david terry says:

    Dear Vicki,

    did you know that your near neighbor, Patrcia Wells (she lives in Vaison la romaine) has just published yet another cookbook, entitled "Simply Truffles". And, yup…it's about nothing BUT truffles.

    I expect it's available on Amazon.

    Level Best as Ever,

    david terry
    http://www.davidterryart.com

  • Lu says:

    Wow who knew truffles were 'that' good?! I'd love to see something like this take place – it would be so fun to watch them all sneak around whispering to each other! I've only had truffles once. At least they were on the menu of the pasta dish I ordered. I couldn't see or taste anything different than usual so I may have been conned! One day I will get to really try a truffle! :)

  • Karena says:

    I really enjoyed your recount of the experience Vicki!! Those truffles are extremely valuable I see!

    xoxo
    Karena
    Art by Karena

  • What an interesting story – never knew about all the intricacies involved in such a small item. Black diamonds, indeed.

  • Love this story, Vicki. Love truffles too.
    Have a nice day.
    Teresa
    xoxo

  • Mmmm my mouth is watering! Not good while on the train, not good while in the quiet car and my tummy begins to rumble
    Mm
    Xx
    Callie

  • parisbreakfast says:

    I once ate a large truffle in Lyon before I had acquired the taste.
    Served up by a chef, it was enrobed in brioche – he wanted his chef jacket painted in exchange.
    I think I'd have preferred a tarte citron or a bag of guimauve. I've yet to acquired the taste though I like the aroma…

  • chrisartist says:

    What a wonderful little "French adventure". I'm sure the thrill of the chase added to the pleasure of eating.
    Will you go back for more?
    We now have truffle farms here in Tasmania. I must seek them out
    Chris

  • Priscilla says:

    With me, France meets America – I love truffle salt on popcorn.
    We have truffles here in Oregon. In the late Autumn, there are, sometimes, truffles in the local Farmers' markets. Just another reason we are so lucky to live here.

  • As a serious mushroom lover living in Paris, I have little experience of truffles and I didn't know that they were winter mushrooms. I see that I shall have to schedule being in the right place at the right time!

  • Amy says:

    Goodness! How exciting. And I thought selling CDs on the sly while playing for events was adventurous!

    I've had things garnished with truffle oil, but have never partaken of the Black Diamonds – shredded, sliced or mashed! When I'm next in France (which I am really hoping will be this year) I'll make it a point to do a proper taste test.

  • hopflower says:

    In addition to this intrigue, a lot of truffles appearing in France are Chinese-farmed. This was a subject of investigative report on 60 Minutes. Of course, real French truffles are to be had too; but unfortunately some of the vendors don't really know where theirs came from. Truffles are, indeed, big business. It has some of the reputable large old truffle dealers quite upset.

  • Mary says:

    I love truffles – brought a pickled one in a jar home from Italy once and it killed me to open it because I knew I could never replace it! Now I just have a bottle of truffle oil to get a little of the flavor. Fresh ones are awesome, I remember my amazing risotto in Tuscany. I did know how expensive they are, and loved your up close and personal story of actually buying them. I must come back to Provence at truffle time again.

    Mary – in North Carolina where fresh truffles are certainly hard to find!

    P.S. I'm not far from your awesome artist friend David! I went to a Patricia Wells cooking class/luncheon in Durham, NC a few years back – and she's your nearby neighbor, small world isn't it Vicki?

  • summersoul says:

    reading this I felt like I was back in France where I lived many years ago. Ohhh how I love anything truffled. I am happy that I found your blog this morning for the first time.

    MC

  • Tricia Rose says:

    Facinating – I love them too.

    When they are available (not under such romantic circumstances ever here!) I think they make the best hostess present EVER.

  • Splenderosa says:

    Oh, Vicki, I just love this little story. And, I learned so much too. You cannot even imagine how much we would have to pay for these treasures here in the US, IF we could find them. I saw the show on TV about Chinese truffles…UGH is all I have to say about that. I mean, really? I reported a couple posts back about seeing some gem black diamonds recently…but your Black Diamonds have perked me up for the real thing again.
    Truffle oil just doesn't do it, does it? xx's

  • Tricia says:

    Such an interesting tale and so well told!

  • sharon says:

    Love this tale Vicki, I've never had the opportunity to buy live from the producer – wonderful
    Sharon
    x

  • Such a wonderful story to share and recount at the dinner table!

  • Laura says:

    Amazing story with valuable information. Thanks for sharing this gem and slice of French life!

  • Fascinating! These marvelous food tales you've been telling have me anticipating your next book, Vicki! I feel like the happiest of armchair travelers when I read your writing. Oh, and I adore truffles with tagliatelle and cream! What could be better? xo Gigi

  • And happy Australia Day to you Vicky!!

  • Karen says:

    For some reason this cracked me up…it sounded like a spy novel. I remember reading that the French take their truffles very seriously and I guess that wasn't an exaggeration.
    Karen

  • Ingrid Mida says:

    Dear Vicki, Thanks for sharing such a intriguing story. I read each sentence with great anticipation – wondering whether you would capture your prize. I can just see you now, savouring your truffle feast. Enjoy!

  • There was a terrific news show in the States about how the Chinese are infiltrating the French and Italian truffle markets. Very sad.

  • I love reading your posts! Thankyou. x

  • Karen in CT says:

    … what an exciting story … thanks for the inside info

  • Sounds absolutely delicious! Can't help but reach at least for some chocolate immediately.
    Dear Vicki, your blog is such an inspiration, my daily treat. Please stop by my recently launched blog http://jewelyettofind.blogspot.com
    Thank you.

  • What a wonderful story! I LOVE truffles. I could eat them with anything at anytime.
    Just today, I bought a tiny jar of truffled butter. The sad story is that the butter is only infused with truffle- truffles were nowhere to be found!
    One of my favorite cheese is Sottocenere. It has tiny, minuscule truffles in it. It is divine!
    Thank you for a lovely post.

  • The mystery, the intrigue… what an adventure, Vicki!

  • What a totally fascinating read Vicki! i had had truffles a few times but was invited to a very elegant truffles dinner 2 years ago in a beautiful home by a well known "foodie"…and let me tell it converted me from liking them to loving them. My favorite was a risotto dish with truflles, shaved parm and assorted vegetables..it was out of this world. Every course was designed around the truffles and it was a dinner to remember.
    What fun it must have been. I love what you said about in France, the discussion of price and quality can never be rushed….yet one more thing I love about the French, their commitment to top and superior quality first above all else. I would love to go to a market like that one day, once I get around all the logistics of even being able to be there…lol.

  • Andi says:

    This is on my French bucket list to experience. I want to buy a huge chunk and have an entire meal with every course truffle something!

  • Trish Murphy says:

    Love this tale VIckie it must have been so much fun. I have had truffles only once this story has ignited a desire to try again but in France!
    The posts have been fantastic. Have a wonderful day.

  • Trish Murphy says:

    Love this tale VIckie it must have been so much fun. I have had truffles only once this story has ignited a desire to try again but in France!
    The posts have been fantastic. Have a wonderful day.

  • donna baker says:

    I tasted my first black truffle this year at the Eiffel Tower restaurant. It was all I had hoped for. Nothing quite like it. I would like to eat more than a couple of shavings though. The memory of the taste is gone. I don't know where one would buy them in the U.S.

  • Millie says:

    We are now growing truffles here Vicki. I wonder if negotiating a sale from the bloke on the Manjimup truffle farm in W.A. has the same intruige as the Richerenches market. Somehow me thinks not. I almost expected a bumbling Inspector Clouseau to emerge from the carpark alley!
    Millie xx

  • Slim Paley says:

    What a great, fun post Vicki!
    How lucky you are to have the opportunity to go to something like this.
    I absolutely ADORE truffles- the aroma is like nothing else in the world isn't it?!

    xx
    Slim

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