France’s winter truffle hunting season begins in November. Here’s what you need to know about this special time of year and how you can get involved.
France’s truffles are world-renowned and of the 50 metric tonnes the country produces annually, truffles harvested in winter are considered the most fragrant and delicious. What exactly are truffles and why are they so prized? Truffles are a subterranean fungus that grow inside tree roots and while this definition might not make them sound very glamorous, they infuse dishes with such a unique, rich flavour that they are otherwise known as ‘Black Diamonds’ and are synonymous with French haute-cuisine. They make a delicious addition to pasta, risotto or foie gras. In particular Périgod black truffles. Truffles are particularly prized (and expensive) because it is very hard to farm them and they only like very specific kinds of soil and tree. How are truffles harvested? These days most truffles are harvested from orchards but many can still be found in the wild. They grow a few inches underground on tree roots and are hunted by dogs or pigs, who use their keen sense of smell unearth them. The animal is accompanied by a truffle farmer or harvester who collects the fungi, making sure that none get eaten along the way.
Photo: AFP Where can you find truffles in France? There are pockets of truffle growth all over France, with the most significant being in the south and east of the country. Truffles harvested in winter include: Périgord or black truffles are one of the most expensive edible mushrooms in the world, highly prized for their flavour and smell. They grow on oak and hazelnut trees in the regions of Valculse, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Drôme, Gard, Lot and, of course, Périgord.
Map: Fédération Française de Trufficulteurs The slightly less prized brumale truffle or winter truffle grows in the same regions as the black truffle and is known for it’s sweet peppery taste. The Burgundy or Champagne truffle has a strong smell and flavour and grows well in areas that have calcium soil, like the Loire, Burgandy and Champagne. The Lorraine truffle has a unique love-it-or-hate-it smell, a slightly bitter taste and grows in Provence, Lorraine, the Loire and Burgandy.
A truffle farmer and his truffle dog, Laura, look for black Perigord's truffles in Neuvic. Photo: AFP How can I get involved in truffle season? The best way to get involved in the truffle season has to be spending a crisp winter morning truffle hunting in the French countryside. Many truffle farmers offer guided hunts where you can join them and their animal companion on a walk through the woods to see exactly how they track down the elusive fungi. You can book your self onto a six-hour truffle hunting tour in Cahors here and one in Provence here. While you’re in town, fêtes de la truffeare held in truffle-producing regions (particularly in the south east) throughout the winter season, and play host to plenty of truffle-related events - most notably weekly truffle markets. Some of the most well-known marchés aux truffeinclude Lelbenquein the Lot, Carpentras and Richerenchesin the Valcluse department of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Saint Alvèrein the Dordogne.
Even if you don’t splurge on a fungi to take home with you these markets are a great way to get up close, have a sniff and maybe taste a few of these edible beauties. These markets also play host to plenty of truffle-related events such as truffle masses, giant truffle omelette making competitions and truffle hunting demonstrations. Finally, the simplest way to make the most of winter truffle season in France is to keep an eye out for French truffles on restaurant menus. You won’t find them listed as a solo item, but look for dishes that are truffé (‘with truffle’) to sample their distinctive and delicious flavour. Five French words to know caver – to dig (specifically for truffles) la truffière – truffle patch la récolte – harvest le rabassier – a truffle collector trufficulture – the production of truffles