Monday, February 20, 2012

Black Truffles in the Périgord, France

The Dordogne (also called the Périgord) is famous for its black truffle, that delicious underground fungus that grows symbiotically with tree roots, such as oak, beech, and hazel. It is the ingredient that enchants savory dishes from omelets to roasted chickens to pea soup. Winter is its time and from November to February truffles begin to appear in the weekly town and village markets throughout the Dordogne.

When I first came to southwestern France, an elderly woman I sat next to in a café in Sarlat told me how in December she would gather black truffles in a forest near her farm and take them to market, hoping for a good month so that her family could afford the festive foods of Christmas. She then leaned in and whispered, “If you are saving your Euros for a truffle, save them for truffles in late January or February. That’s when the truffle season peaks.”

I heeded her advice. I also learned that January and February are the months when it is easiest to find the truffles, even if you don’t have a dog or a pig to help.
A friend from Sarlat who is a truffle expert with his own truffière—truffle trees—taught me. He explained that there are telltale signs. One is of little flies that aggregate about the ripe truffle. If you see a delirious buzz about the ground around one of the trees that are symbiotic with the black truffle, you are in the vicinity of a culinary gold mine.

But another sign, one that is sure even if the flies have not yet arrived, is a slight ground swell that wasn’t there before. This of course requires patience and close study. A true truffler will know every contour of his territory and notice subtle changes to it. It enters the realm of mindfulness meditations, which explains why the truffle hunters I’ve met are some of the most grounded and calm people I know.

When you’ve located a ground swell, you lean in and the next sign should be a pricking in the nostrils of that unmistakable and strangely earthy and otherworldly scent that arouses all manner of romantic images.

Once you have this expensive fungus, how do you handle it? I have only once purchased a truffle and the truffle hunter told me her two favorite applications: grated into scrambled eggs or sliced thinly and placed on top of foie gras toasts.

Fortunately, annually Sarlat holds a truffle festival in the middle of January and regional chefs prepare all manner of recipes with the black truffle, allowing people to sample its diversity without going broke. (It’s like a truffle tapas party where little plates and glasses of partnered wine can be purchased for a few Euros at a time.)

With all this serious research—including some excellent treks into the region’s wild forests—I can now say that my favorite recipe comes from that same lady in the café. This is the recipe her family enjoyed as appetizers in flush years for New Year’s Eve and it is the simplest and most sublime of recipes because nature has done all the work:

Canapés aux truffes:

A fresh baguette, sliced into disks
A black truffle, sliced thinly
Good quality sweet butter
Sea salt
Brut champagne

Butter the bread and layer on the truffle slices. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Enjoy with friends and a glass of dry champagne.

Bon Appetite!