Black diamonds

500 euros per kilo! For mushrooms? You may think that there has been a mistake, that someone’s added an extra zero… but no that’s the right price and with good reason. They are not any old mushrooms, they are black truffles and people come from all over the world to acquire their unique flavour.

We are in the famous truffle market of Richerenches. The people are behaving rather like we are talking of a secret market for arms or drugs. It is especially a market for professionals; the negotiations between buyers and sellers take place before car boots (trunks) hidden from discrete glances and if you try to understand what’s happening, the reply from the dissatisfied cannot be heard:

– That , we can’t explain. It is a family secret that we keep;
– No photos please, no questions – please stay out of the way!

To understand the mystery which surrounds the truffle, you have to understand that it is not grown like other plants. In order to grow, the truffle grows in symbiosis with a tree – most frequently the oak. So we have to start by having land which suits the trees:

– You have to have the land for a start which is quite chalky because you have to have a PH which is between 8 and 8.5. That is very important and then also the land is well drained, pebbly. In fact the more that it is not going to retain water the more interesting because the truffle does not like to be in a bath of water. It must have a small amount of moisture and a lot of warmth so that’s the best drained land as possible. That’s what is best.

Once we have found the land, we are going to plant the tress. Once, finding a tree which produced truffles was a game of luck. Today we increase our chances by using oak trees which are mycorized – already injected with truffle spores:

– Truffle plants, you have two types of them. You have in fact the oaks which have grown locally, fine, they grow naturally here, and so in those places which are naturally mycorized because we have areas which have mycelium and so they yield, we could say, one tree in ten at the end of ten or fifteen years. Then afterwards you have the oak trees mycorized. So that is what I have here! So it is these trees to which we have injected into their roots, we have injected mycelium. So in fact we have mixed on the site, the seeds that we have taken from the truffles and while growing, the roots absorb mycelium and make what we call the mycorized. And with these trees here which have been tested by INRA, well, we are sure when planting a tree, the tree has the potential to produce and is going to be able to produce and so we have after five to ten years the first truffles which appear and later if we maintain, well if we water etc. they can last twenty years, thirty years, that’s about the limit we should say, but twenty years easily.

Science is a valuable helper but that does not mean however that the growing is easy:

– Well, you have to know that we need between eight and twenty years to have truffles on a farm site. So we get the plants when they have been mycorized and we wait. There you are! Meanwhile we know that, well, not all of the trees are going to yield. There is on a hectare, we plant 350 plants and there are 30% which will yield. That is why the truffle is quite a mystery.

– My parents, with a hectare, they are doing as much as me with ten now. That’s a loss. The truffles are lost.

And why is that?

– We don’t know. Pollution? Yes, maybe, maybe!

We have the land, the truffle oak tree… now we need a suitable climate. For the professionals who want to keep their reputation, it is out of the question to water:

– If you like, it becomes like a fruit which has been watered and a fruit which has not been watered. Well the fruit which has been watered will be very beautiful but from the point of view of flavour, it has much less of that. Whilst here, it’s the same. There you are! Perhaps it is less beautiful but it is much better flavoured. They have much more flavour because they have not been watered. They have only absorbed the rain that has fallen.

Finding truffles on a site of several hectares is not easy, that’s why most growers have well trained dogs.

– In my life, the really good dogs, I can count on the fingers of one hand. You have to train them. That is not a minor business. Well it is the old dogs who train the young ones. They show them what to do. They show them how to scratch, they show them… but if you have a dog that is not trained in order to train him, that’s hard. That’s very hard.

And if after all that you finally get to harvest some truffles you still have to know how to protect the black diamonds, as we call them.

– In Bulat Maroudis! There! They were really scavenging this morning. Forty kilos of truffles, so they say now that the gendarmes are going to take over. But which gendarmes? There are gendarmes and gendarmes. There are plenty of gendarmes who shout, other gendarmes who steal, so it is difficult.

Now that we understand the difficulties of the producers, we see the price of 500 euros per kilo. For many of them, the price is not however high enough:

– I have seen lots which went for five centimes, that’s not on! That’s not on!

But the merchants who are buying – often for restaurants – are negotiators without any pity:

– Ah well it is supply and demand! It is our job to sort ourselves out. Well I am a merchant, I buy! They ask how much I will pay and if they are happy, they let me have it, other wise they go and see another merchant.

What is the basic criterion?

– Quality! The quality of the truffle! We can have several lots but not the same price because it is the quality of the truffle. They may not be bruised, not little ones, all that kind of thing!

Whilst as for the growers, they sort themselves out as best they can:

– There are two ways of doing things. One where you have all the sellers, or two, three sellers and you sell to those who give the best price, or then you have your preferred seller who you have confidence in and who know your quality and you stay with that one. In general many do things like that. I’m the same! That’s to say that when you know, there are, there can be ? In the truffle, it is an expensive product; it is worth the trouble to be sure of the quality. So the merchant who knows his supplier will pay a reasonable price for quality which will not be disappointing.
– This year, it’s difficult, it’s not usual you see. It is recognised that production is very weak; the price is too low so there is very little production. They would like an even lower price but more product. You see! But in the end, next year will be better perhaps if there is some train.
– Personally I do not sell any more to merchants. I will sell to a merchant at the last moment, if I want to sell to sell them to individuals but I know that the day when I will go to see a merchant, when I will go to see a merchant, he will pay me half of the value.

We, the individuals, must pay a high price. Still you have to be an attentive buyer.

– So it’s that they have to be careful because right now in the market there are Chinese truffles; from Tuberindicome! The truffle from China has no flavour. So the newcomer falls into the trap, not the merchant of course – but the newcomer falls into the trap because it has the same appearance as the Melanosporum and when you can recognise it, it will jump out. So it is a truffle which is worth twenty euros per kilo or thirty euros per kilo and at the market you can see them selling them for six or seven hundred euros.

There is quality and there is also a question of maturity.

– It is from Melanos. So that one, it is not too black, right, however.
– Oh, it is, it is, it is!
– It is a bit white.
– No, no, no! There, it is ripening at the bottom. No, no it will be fine if a little more black, it ought to be a bit blacker.
– Are you the grower?
– Yes, of course!
– There are some of them; well personally I have found some white ones. Do you thing that I am going to find even more of them?
– Some white one, but what are you doing? Are you going into business?
– No, no, but I have several truffles growers at home.
– Yes, but white one, they are from Melano which is not riper or good.
– It is from Melano which is not ripe.
– Oh well then, but we have to wait a while. You ought to wait till the weather is cold.
– And should I leave it!
– You should leave them normally. But how did you find it? With a dog?
– With a dog, with a dog, with a dog.
– And the dog sniffed it out for you?
– Yes, the dog sniffed it out.
– Right!
– Then as he scratched it, we said: it is not worth the trouble.
– What’s more he damaged it, he must have damaged it.
– He damaged it, so what?
– So after a week, it will go bad.
– Well no, we have tasted it..
– You have eater it!
– We ate it?
– As I said, it is too damaged.
– Maybe but it is not the best. It is not ripe enough.
– It is not ripe enough, yeah!

So, if in the end we get to negotiate the sale of good truffles, how must we make it! Everyone agrees to tell it like it is: you must keep it simple:

– Personally I like them in Bavarian omelette. It that the only thing?
– In stew.
– In stew, is it?
– An omelette. Fine, you say stew, you must not cook the truffle.
– No, no, no, it…
– A good stew. To make a good stew you must have three quarters of an hour.
– It must be raw.
– It must have three quarters of an hour.
– There you are, it must be raw.
– It must be raw because I tried some, you know sliding it under the skin of the turkey, putting some of it in the turkey, that does not kill the flavour of the truffle.
– No, keep them; there you are!
– So I said just then the best way of getting to me, personally I am like a dog, I eat them raw getting them from the ground.
– Absolutely!
– To be sure that it has a really good flavour, they must be raw.
– Ripe, of course!

– That has a distinctive taste and raw, it is extra good! So to appreciate the truffle at its best, it is on a slice of bread grilled in butter, sliced thinly with flakes of salt, a little mushroom and that’s the best. Later on, all that is put under the skin of a chicken, mmm! Raw, that’s best: the truffle! As for the Melanosporum raw, that’s supreme!

$Id: 2005_01_soc.htm 35 2021-02-12 12:17:35Z alistair $

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