On the Scent of Black Gold

If you’re looking for black gold, it’s not oil you want, it’s truffles. And the new season has just started.

Tuber Melanosporum - that's a black truffle to you.

Tuber Melanosporum – that’s a black truffle to you.

The southern Rhône is blessed with the limestone-rich soils and hot, dry summers that the black truffle prefers. So although Tuber melanosporum (to give it its botanical name) is often called the Périgord truffle in honour of the other major French growing region, production, if that’s what such a random process can be called, is greater in the Drôme and Vaucluse. So much so that the truffle market in the tiny village of Richerenches handles around 30% of all the truffles grown in France during the short mid-November to early-March season. Richerenches, I was told proudly by one trufficulteur, sets the world price for black truffles. And as the price last winter reached 950€ per kilo, even before middlemen and retailers got involved, that makes them one of the world’s most expensive food items. So it’s surprising that the trade is dominated by small-scale truffle growers and hunters, “paysans” or peasants in the French, non-pejorative sense of the word.

Truffles in the market at Richerenches

Truffles (the cheaper Tuber Uncinatum this time) in the market at Richerenches

The problem with black truffles, and the reason they’re so expensive, is that they can’t be grown or farmed in the normal sense of the word – they’re far too fussy, far too complicated for that. I’ve mentioned the limestone soils and hot summers (with short, sharp showers too, please), but that’s only half of it. They will only grow around certain trees – hazel, beech, but especially oak – and in fact they form a parasitic relationship with their host. But sadly the reverse isn’t true – where there are oaks there’s no guarantee that there will be truffles. Even where oak copses are deliberately planted and the ground inoculated with truffle spores, perhaps only 20% of the trees will go on to host truffles, one grower told me. And did I mention that it will take 15 years before the freshly-planted oak will show the first signs of truffles and that you can forget ever finding a crop once the tree hits 40?

Truffle oaks

Truffle oaks

Plus you’ve got to find them. Unlike mushrooms, truffles never appear above ground. So they have to be dug out, which means knowing where they are, and we’ve just seen the problems that can cause. Growers therefore take advantage of the highly developed noses of dogs or pigs to sniff and root out the highly scented tubers. Dogs have to be trained to search while pigs will go at it enthusiastically. But, given half a chance, a pig will eat whatever it finds, so on the whole growers in the Rhône stick with man’s best friend. Dogs will also start rooting excitedly around a truffle, but at least the grower has a chance to jump in to rescue his prize, while at the same time feeding the dog a small treat for its hard work.

Hunting for truffles under the oaks

Hunting for truffles under the oaks

Every Saturday morning during the four month season the growers take their spoils to Richerenches in the Enclave des Papes, the heart of truffle country, where they set up their trestle tables to display their wares (although it’s rumoured that more deals are done away from prying eyes, from the backs of vans or down quiet side streets). The public are welcome, but restauranteurs and brokers from as far away as Paris bring the big money (cash only, bien sûr).

This is where the real business is done - out the back of a parked car.

This is where the real business is done – out the back of a parked car.

As well as fresh truffles, both melanosporum and cheaper, less fine varieties, at Richerenches you can find them preserved, flavouring oil and even as an aperitif; you can pick up a mandolin for finely shaving your truffle; you can even buy a young oak if you fancy your chances at growing your own.

Truffle oil, truffle-flavoured aperitif

Truffle oil, truffle-flavoured aperitif

Fancy growing your own?

Fancy growing your own?

Then, of course, there are the stalls typical of any market in the region, those selling fruit and vegetables, jams and preserves, cheeses and charcuterie, nougat and pastries. The local bars, which unlike their neighbours in Nyons or Vaison-la-Romaine are relatively quiet in summer, are standing room only and thick with the smells of strong coffee, hot chocolate and rough wine.

Some of Provence's favourite winter vegetables. Those are cardoons at the front and they make an excellent gratin.

Some of Provence’s favourite winter vegetables. Those are cardoons at the front and they make an excellent gratin.

By 1pm the market is finished, the stalls are packed away until the following week and the crowds pile into one of the places serving truffle omelette for lunch. Given the main ingredient’s associations with luxury, you might think that fine dining would be the order of the day. Not a bit of it – the omelettes come on disposable plastic plates and are washed down with more rough wine. And given the truffle’s peasant roots, maybe that’s how it should be.

Recipe – Truffle Pasta

If you’re a dab hand with an omelette pan, by all means use your truffles that way. But this recipe for truffle pasta is, if anything, even simpler (or at least requires less technique) and well worth the effort. It brings out the truffle’s haunting, undergrowthy smell and a flavour that is at once both delicate and intense. (By the way, melanosporum are not absolutely necessary here. Last winter at one truffle “farm” near Grignan I bought the similar Tuber brumale, which cost me 25€ for 100g, or roughly ¼ the price. Unless you’re Donald Trump, the brumale will do fine and 100g goes a long way.)

You don't need much (thankfully).

You don’t need much (thankfully).

Ingredients – serves 2

Enough pasta for two people. Home-made egg tagliatelle would be perfect, but good dried tagliatelle (or pappardelle for that matter) works well. 

50g of unsalted butter

30-50g of cleaned truffles. This partly depends on the size of your truffles (and your wallet). My 100g from Grignan gave me 6 little nuggets. I used 2, but you can up the quantity for a stronger flavour.

Freshly grated Parmesan to taste.

A very little truffle oil (optional)


1. While you’re bringing a large pan of well-salted water to the boil, gently melt the butter in a small pan. It should get warm rather than hot.

2. Grate your truffle into the butter and turn off the heat. At this stage you can add a little dribble of truffle oil if you want to heighten the flavour. But be careful, it’s powerful stuff. (All the recipes I looked at involve finely slicing the truffles but mine were used straight from frozen – they keep their flavour well – and were too small to use a mandoline without risking my fingertips. A relatively fine grater worked well and in the end I liked the way the truffles shavings were dispersed through the “sauce”.)

That's the sauce done

That’s the sauce done

3. Once cooked, drain your pasta reserving a little of the cooking water.

4. Add the pasta to the butter/truffle mixture, mix well and slacken with a splash of cooking water if it seems too stodgy.

5. Serve with the parmesan sprinkled generously on top. You may want a touch of seasoning, but the parmesan provides plenty of salt.

6. Eat with great pleasure.

It might not look much, especially in this photo, but boy does it taste good.

It might not look much, especially in this photo, but boy does it taste good.

There are plenty of people who will tell you to choose a white wine to go with the pasta. Me, I’d go for a red. But whichever you choose, I think this is a case where older is better. A young wine packed with fruit will clash, as will a very oaky wine, but time will soften both of those elements and may even bring out flavours that pick up on the truffles’ woodsy side. Mature Burgundy (red or white) would be pretty special, or maybe an older Barolo or Barbaresco. But given that I live in the Rhône and the truffles were grown here, I’m picking Alain Verset’s Cornas 2006. And while I’m down in the cellar I’ll grab a bottle of Domaine Lombard’s Brézème blanc for those who want a glass of white.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where I write about anything food/wine/Rhône related (and not necessarily in that order). Richerenches market is just one of the many reasons for coming to the region. If you’d like to see a few more, you can follow this link to our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – where there’s also information about our wine tours and tastings and potted biogtraphies of some of our favourite winemakers (like Alain Verset and Domaine Lombard mentioned above). There’s also a Facebook page with plenty more wine stuff, photos especially – click on the link, have a look round and feel free to like us.




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