No vegetable is invested with more hype and idiosyncrasy in its cultivation and consumption than the hideously ugly, yet über-expensive European truffle. French blacks (Tuber melanosporum) and Italian whites (Tuber magnatum) regularly fetch more than $1,000 per pound at market and are then doled out, one hyper-thin slice at a time, on everything from soup to eggs to pasta and risotto to roasted turkeys.
The pigs are the main story, of course. Dogs have no particular affinity for the tuber and have to be trained to sniff it out from just below the surface among the roots of oak and beech trees. Female pigs, on the other hand, go crazy for the plant’s odor, an androstenol sex pheromone which can otherwise only be found in the saliva of wild boars. In Italy, the oversexed sows have been banned altogether from the hunt, whereas their French handlers still regularly fight them to the last orgasmic bite.
And 80% of that fight these days takes place not in pristine forests, but in tortured plantations on some of the driest, chalkiest, least promising land in Provence and Piedmont. These mini-jungles pop out of the landscape amid vast swathes of lavender and some of the most beautiful vineyards in Europe. So when we decided to go truffle-hunting in Provence, it was really just an excuse to wander lost about the countryside, trespassing down remote limestone trails and constantly shaking our cell phones to help Google Maps rescue us from another convoluted maze.
The Provençal truffle traffic is centered around villages and towns like Richerenches, Grignan, and Carpentras that are every bit as famous in their business as the surrounding Côtes du Rhône communities are in wine-making. But the inherent vagaries of cultivation, along with the rural depopulation and climate change that have afflicted traditional agriculture all over the world, have led to a general decline in production. In 1937, France produced around 1,000 metric tonnes of truffles—by 2014, the harvest had dropped to just 50. Other countries have experimented with mass production, but it will be a while before you see a King Ranch delivering truckloads of bland imitation to your grocer’s shelf.
Truffle season in Provence runs from November through January, a time when colors change by the day and deliver some of the most beautiful views in France. No wonder all those rich Parisians and Londoners seem so intent on buying up the local farm and housing stock for their weekend retreats. But if they—or you—are cooking with truffle oil, beware—unless you make it yourself, you’re actually cooking with imitation 2,4-Dithiapentane oil—the chemical 2,4-Dithiapentane in nearly all commercial truffle oil being a key compound in halitosis, flatulence, and formaldehyde.
Yum to that…