Our wedding anniversary was approaching and when Jeff asked what I wanted, I didn’t hesitate, “I want to go truffle hunting!”
Looking a bit puzzled, but always the good sport, he said, “Ok…that could be interesting…but what exactly is a truffle and how do you hunt one?”
“Well,” I explained (because I had read the website), “truffles are fungi, like mushrooms, but they grow underground and they’re a very expensive delicacy. I found a farm in Provence that hosts truffle-hunting excursions and we can go out in the woods with dogs and watch them sniff out the truffles. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
He looked unconvinced.
As we drove up to Les Pastras, Lisa and Johann’s truffle farm, an atmospheric morning fog filled the air with the mystery of the hunt. It had been raining a few days before and we were lucky that it had stopped so we could go on our adventure, although it did mean that we would end up with really muddy boots. We joined six other “hunters” and waited for the dogs to arrive.
Dogs versus pigs
When we saw the dogs, we were surprised. They were cute little balls of fur and didn’t look anything like hunting dogs. But we soon realised that they were serious about their work. That’s because every time they find a truffle they get a treat – one that tastes better than a truffle, to keep them from eating the harvest. Dogs are not naturally attracted to truffles but can be trained to sniff them out and small dogs are easier to handle and easier to get the truffle away from than big ones.
But the original and best truffle finders were pigs, female pigs to be exact. It seems that the scent of this little fungus resembles male pig hormones so the females are eager to find it. The problem with truffle-hunting pigs is that they are big, hard to control and they really want to eat the findings. So we were glad to be going out with little dogs.
Off to the woods
We followed our furry guides and Jean Marc, their owner and childhood friend of Johann, to the hunt. Since truffles grow underground on the roots of other plants, mostly oak trees, we trudged through the mud toward the oaks. The dogs, anxious to get their treats, didn’t waste any time getting started. We (the hunters) were excited at the first find and the chance to hold and smell a freshly dug truffle. I have to say, it was very unimpressive, ugly even. It resembled a lump of dirt and had a strong smell, not bad but not especially appetising. It wasn’t something that one would look at and say, “Yum, that looks good, I think I’ll taste it”.
Who ate it first?
Which makes us wonder, who first decided to eat these things? Well, one legend says that a farmer saw his sow (female pig) dig up and eat a truffle. He watched her for a few days and since she didn’t die, he decided to try one too. He discovered that this lumpy ball of fungus tasted really good and added flavour to all of his farmhouse recipes. The truffle-eating farmer and his wife, who up until this point had been unable to conceive, went on to have thirteen children. This seems to support the truffle’s reputation as an aphrodisiac for people as well as for pigs.
Like the above mentioned farmer, the ancient Greeks and Romans dined on truffles. But they fell out of favour during the superstitious middle ages when they were associated with witchcraft and devils. These ideas might have come from the truffle’s lumpy dark appearance and the fact that it comes from underground. Also, there is often a place on the ground above the truffles where no grass will grow – very spooky! The fact that they were considered aphrodisiacs also made them taboo. Interestingly, after the Pope moved to Avignon, right in the heart of truffle territory, they became acceptable.
To the royal tables
During the Renaissance the truffle’s tarnished reputation was fully restored and by the 16th century this delicacy was on the table of all the nobles in Europe. In the royal court of Turin, Italy in the 1700s truffle hunting was a form of entertainment. Aristocratic foreign guests were invited to observe the dogs hunting for truffles. So Lisa and Johann are really just carrying on an age old tradition by inviting visitors to their farm for truffle-hunting tours.
Tasting the treasure
You can really work up an appetite watching those little dogs work, so while Johann was out in the mud with us, Lisa was in the kitchen preparing a royal truffle tasting. Champagne accompanied various truffle treats, each one more delicious than the one before. And we finished off with an amazing brownie in truffle cream. Who would have thought that little fungus would be so tasty?
I have now officially joined the ranks of truffle lovers. We bought some truffle oil (truffle infused olive oil) from Les Pastras and have already tried it in several dishes. I love the flavour it adds and I discovered that being a new truffle devotee puts me in pretty good company. Many distinguished people also loved this little fungus.
- British poet, Lord Byron, kept a truffle on his desk when writing. He thought the scent stimulated his creativity. (I must try this)
- Catherine de Medici, queen of France in the 16th century, who brought refinement to the French table (as well as the fork), is said to have been addicted to them.
- Napoleon Bonaparte ate truffles to give him strength in battle (and in bed). When Napoleon was in need of a successor, one of his officers confided that his own large family was the result of eating truffles, which were plentiful in his region of France. When the officer went home on leave, he came back with a bag full of truffles for the Emperor and nine months later little Napoleon II came into the world.
- Rasputin prescribed truffles to be eaten by the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, to strengthen his blood and bloodline.
- Alexander Dumas, author of “The three Musketeers” among other works, said of the truffle: “Food lovers in every century have never been able to say the name of the truffle without tipping their hat”.
Lisa and Johann’s farm, Les Pastras, is about a two to three hour drive from Nice, not far from Aix en Provence. We can’t give the exact location because unfortunately, truffle poaching does sometimes occur. They are a charming couple working to make a go of the farm that has been in Johann’s family for generations – and they are doing it organically. In addition to truffles, they have olives, grapes, bees, and lots of wild herbs. They produce and sell their own olive oil and truffle oil. Half of the proceeds from these sales go to an orphanage in Haiti with which they have a personal connection.
It was a great day out and we learned a lot about truffles. We’re thinking about going back next year for the olive harvest. See their website for more information. Les Pastras: www.lespastras.com
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