You have to hand it to the French. They can ferret out any edible delicacy on earth, or under it, no matter how unappetizing it may appear. Whereas other nations might squirm at the sight of snails, or flinch when faced with frogs’ legs, the Gauls just instinctively home in on delicious morsels, regardless of what they look like.
Take the truffle, the “black diamond” of French cuisine. To the untutored eye, it resembles a well-aged horse dropping, yet the French recognized it as buried treasure centuries ago, and not just for its culinary merits. Henri IV, born in 1553, was convinced that his conception was due to the fact that his mother had eaten a hefty portion of truffle salad that day, and two hundred years later, Madame de Pompadour regularly fed truffles to Louis XV to revive his amorous ardour.
Contrary to the common belief that the French Promised Land for truffle lovers is the Périgord, it is Provence which produces 80 per cent of the black, so-called “Périgord” truffle, or tuber melanosporum. Locally known as the rabasse, it has achieved cult status. Every winter, worshippers of the subterranean fungus gather at several truffle markets in the region to sniff, prod, purchase, and to exchange truffle lore.
Unprepossessing as it is in appearance, the smell of a fresh, ripe truffle can send a strong man reeling at ten paces. Its aroma – woodsy, earthy, giddying – will overpower everything around. “One time the postman brought me a package and said:’ You can’t tell me there aren’t truffles in there – my whole van is reeking of them’!” The speaker was one those elegant ladies you encounter at French markets, with a wicker basket on her arm, a silk scarf around her throat, doing her shopping at last year’s truffle fair in the village of Rognes, north of Aix-en-Provence.
The price of truffles that day was 300 € a kilo, a bargain when judged by Paris standards and a downright steal when compared to prices abroad. A prime truffle does not just advertise itself by its intoxicating perfume, but by its looks as well. It should be deep black, with not too much earth on it (which hides flaws and boosts the cost), have a pleasing shape and be firm to the touch. The ultimate test is to canifer it– cut off a sliver – and check that the interior is black, with delicate white marbling, but it is practically impossible to find a seller willing to put his truffles to the knife.
Supplies have fallen dramatically since the beginning of the century, when there were about 1,000 tonnes of truffles grown in France. At that time, there were at least 600 tonnes produced in Provence, whereas now, the annual harvest in all of France is only about 40 tonnes.
If you do not wash freshly dug truffles, they can be stored up to two weeks in the bottom of your refrigerator, where they will defy any hermetically sealed container and permeate everything. It is best to let them have their way and store them with the ingredients with which you plan to cook them: for a truffle omelette or brouillade (scrambled eggs), for example, put them together with the eggs for three to four days.
Always add truffles at the last moment to anything cooked, and if you really want to attain truffle heaven, try them freshly sliced, on toasted bread drizzled with olive oil, with sea salt sprinkled on top! The taste does not, could not, live up to the overwhelming aroma, but underlines it nicely, with a nutty, earthy flavor, hinting of mushrooms and hazelnuts and a slight aftertaste of black chocolate.