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The Provencal name for the truffle is "rabasse". A more popular synonums is "black diamond". In fact, truffles come in black and white, and in numerous variants of each of the two colors.

The Provencal name for the truffle is "rabasse". A more popular synonums is "black diamond". In fact, truffles come in black and white, and in numerous variants of each of the two colors.

The truffle is a type of subterranean mushroom (tuber melanosporum), growing around the roots of plants, mainly oak trees and sometimes lavender or thyme. A typical truffle farm (truffière) today is a plantation of oak trees, either hidden in the wilderness or well fenced and guarded during the winter. Guards are one method for deterring truffle poachers, a hazard becomming more and more prelevent with the high price of the truffles. On Christmas day, 2003, there was a shot-gun defense of truffle orchards near Aups, in the Var.

Average sized truffles generally weight between 30 and 60 grams. In the Alpes-Maritimes, truffle hunter Patrick [see "Truffle Finders", below] once found a truffle that weighed in at 364 grams.

Where the Truffles Are

Truffles are found mainly in Provence (southeast France), Perigord (southwest France) and Burgundy (Bourgogne). The southeast of France (in the regions PACA and the department of the Gard) produce 70% of French truffles. In a normal year about 50 tonnes of black truffles are obtained. In 2005 there were only 10 tonnes, and 2005 is expected to be about the same, resulting in some record high prices for the black diamonds.

The main Provence market towns for truffles are Apt, Aups, Carpentras, Richerence, and Valréas.

When the Truffles Are

Truffles "season" is the winter, beginning in November and continuing until the following March. You can find the days for the main truffle markets listed on Beyond's Truffle Markets page.

Alpes-Maritimes Truffles

From an article in the Nice Matin, 28 Dec 2005, by Marianne Le Monze (paraphrased by Beyond)

In the early 90s around 30,000 "truffle" trees were planted in the Alpes-Maritimes, between the coast and up to 1200 meters altitude. With the addition of another 2500 oaks (chênes) in 2005, the the cultivated space for truffles (truffières) was expanded to 150 hectares. The goal is to have 300 hectares (600 acres) of "truffières" in the Alpes-Maritimes by the year 2010.

Today, the Alpes-Maritimes produces about 100 kg a year of black truffles from cultivated "truffières" and another 400 kg from "wild" truffle hunting. The Alpes-Maritimes is attempting to reverse this 20%/80% balance to match that it's next-door neighbor, the Var, where 80% of truffles come from "truffières" and 20% from natural growth.

The commune of Le Rouret (10 km east of Grasse) has the Alpes-Maritimes' only "truffières" that's both experimental and occasionally open to the public.

Truffle Finders

The best truffle finder is the pig, with an extremely sensitive smell (that is, the pig smells the truffles very well, not that the pig smells particularly good itself) and a natural fondness for truffles. In the early days, once the truffle was located, there was a race between the pig and the human to obtain the prize. In modern times, the pigs are trained, so they at least give the human a better chance to retrieve the truffle. The pig has another advantage in that, once its truffle-sniffing days are over, it can be served up in a cassoulet, probably without truffles.

For many years now dogs have been trained to sniff out the elusive truffles, and a good truffle dog is worth his or her weight in black diamonds. That value has translated into truffle-dog rustling in some areas in the South of France.

Human Truffle Sniffer
From an article in the Nice Matin, 28 Dec 2005, by Marianne Le Monze (paraphrased by Beyond)

Patrick, who's in his 40s, has been gathering truffles for 30 years. He learned the art from a little old woman, and it took him a couple of years of practice to be able to do it on his own. His method starts with him wandering the wild a lot, especially through oak woods. In the woods, or at the foot a a lone oak he watches out for a place where the ground seems burned and nothing grows, often as a patch in the form of a "patatoïde".

Patrick also finds truffles by following the flies (à la mouche). He looks for an insect with long wings, green or yellow-and-gray. That insect lays its eggs in the truffle, so when Patrick pokes the area with his stick and the fly flies, he imatates the truffle dog or pig by getting down on all fours and sniffs for the very strong (for him) scent of the hidden truffle.

In the Alpes-Maritimes, truffles grow wild just about everywhere, but generally between 700 and 1000 meters altitude. Truffle hunter Patrick mentioned areas around Cipières, Gréolières and Le Broc, but he's also found them at Grasse and at the foot of an oak in the middle of traffic circle in the high-tech industrial park of Sophia-Antipolis.

A truffle hunter ("rabassier" in Provençal) knows that "truffières" are not eternal. They grow and they die like all living things. And when the "truffière" dies, the grass grows again at the foot of the oak. Still, it's worth checking the old places, because the truffles can return again to where they once were.

Another method for finding truffles requires the use of a divining stick and facing into the sun.

Cooking Truffles

In the middle of the 19th century, Jean Brillat-Savarin, France's most famous gastronome and a violin teacher, called the truffle the "diamond of the kitchen", and claimed that it it was an aphrodisiac. The truffle does have a very strong, pungent flavor, and is used in paper-thin slices in a variety of recipes. Older French cookbooks often call for great quantities of truffle, a reflection of a time when 1000 tonnes of truffle were found annually in France. With today's production of around 40 tonnes, and prices fo around 800 euros a kilogram, truffles are used more sparingly.

Fake Truffles

Chinese fungus, or Chinese truffle, has the look of the truffle but not the taste. It doesn't have the smell either, but if placed with collection of real French truffles, the Chinese fungus will absorb enough of the smell to fool most amateurs.

Growing Truffles

It takes about 40 years for a wild oak tree to grow to a point where truffles will be created. You can, however, obtain specially treated young trees that will grow to truffle-maturity in about 10 years. In the larger truffle markets you'll find professional truffle-tree vendors that can provide you with the young trees and with expert advise about planting and maintaining them.

In the village of Saint Saturnin-les-Apt you can see a life-size stone statue of Joseph Talon, the "father of truffle raising".

Language of Truffles

The French and Provençal terms used in the truffle business include:

le brûlé - the "burnt" area beneath an oak where truffles grow

cave - the hole where the truffle grows

caver - (verb) to gather the truffle

melano - nickname for the black truffle (Melanosporum)

rabasse - Provençal for truffle

rabassier - Provençal for the truffle hunter-gatherer

trufficulteur - professional truffle grower

truffière - truffle plantation

Truffle Dining

Truffles tend to be a standard feature of many top-line (eg. expensive) restaurants. One local example would be the Mas de Saint Antoine (aka Bastide Saint-Antoine Jacques Chibois), a luxury hotel and 2-star Michelin restaurant just south of the center of Grasse. The deservedly famous chef Jacques Chibois not only uses truffles, the Mas de Saint Antoine hosts an annual truffle market.

Another Beyond restaurant is Chez Bruno, south of the Var village of Lorgues. The media-friendly chef Bruno is passionate about truffles, and is said to use over 5000 kg of truffles annually in his truffle-centric cuisine. Either the quantity of the truffles, the quality of the cooking, or the personality of Bruno has been enough to earn him a decent level of recognition, including an article by French television station FR3 and a 2007 article by CNN.

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