The tips and secrets of top truffle growers, sellers and chefs in Provence: how much to pay for a truffle, what to look for when buying it and how to store and cook it.
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We're talking here about the black winter truffle (the tuber melanosporum). We'll add some thoughts on the summer truffle (the tuber aestivum) shortly. Click here to read our guide to festivals, markets, museums, truffle hunts and other types of truffle tourism in Provence.
When to buy truffles? The black truffle season in Provence runs from 15 November to 15 March (though you'll still find the odd truffle around for a couple of weeks after that date).
Truffles aren't at their best in November, though. They need a sharp snap of cold weather to ripen fully. And too much rain in the autumn can completely ruin the crop.
Of course the peak demand for truffles is for festive treats in the run-up to Christmas and the New Year. So they're at their most expensive during these few weeks. If you can, it's best to wait until February when their quality is better and prices are lower.
How much should you pay? The price of truffles and other food produce is regulated, theoretically, by the French government and you can see the going rates here: type the word truffe into the search box. Local Tourist Offices should also be able to give you some guidelines.
How can you spot a good truffle? On the other hand, incredibly, and unlike pretty much every other foodstuff you can think of in Europe, the quality and origins of truffles aren't controlled by bureaucratic EU guidelines. So you're pretty much on your own when it comes to choosing one!
According to the truffle grower Didier Chabert of the Domaine de Cordis in Grignan, you should look for a truffle with an undamaged surface. It should sound solid when you knock it and feel heavy for its size. This means that it hasn't frozen or lost its moisture.
Inside, it should display a fine lacework of white-on-black veins, as pictured. The less tasty tuber brumale truffle is also white-veined, but the veins are thicker and further apart.
A winter truffle which is matte white inside is unripe. And truffles will not mature further once they've been dug out of the ground, so it's basically useless.
It's common practice to ask a seller to slice off (canifer) a corner of a truffle with a penknife so that you can inspect the inside - but you won't be popular at all if you try to do this yourself!
Don't worry about the waste: the seller won't throw away the precious off-cut slice, but will save it for a bye-product such as truffle-infused pâté or cheese. A grower might also use scraps or inferior truffles for fertiliser or to prime truffle oak saplings.
At the wholesale market in Richerenches after the official opening of the truffle season, we chatted with the broker Denis Valayer, pictured. He told us that in November you're likely to find a high proportion (around 30 per cent) of these unripe white truffles. The percentage will decrease as the season goes on.
Truffles, obviously, vary in size: large ones can weigh well over 300 grams / 10.5 ounces. It's widely considered that most of the flavour is concentrated inside the truffle so, from this point of view, the bigger the better.
On the other hand, truffles are sold whole and never cut in half. Since most private buyers don't want a huge one, the most popular truffles weigh between 30 and 80 grams / one and three ounces.
How should you store truffles? Some people grumble that truffles are sold with an extra coating of mud just to increase their weight. But in fact they should not be cleaned until just before use. Rinse them and brush the mud off gently. Truffles should be eaten within a few days of purchase. Keep them in the fridge. It's possible to freeze truffles but they will lose a lot of their taste.
Like so much about trufficulture in Provence, everyone has his or her passionately held opinion and we heard conflicting, even directly contradictory advice about the best way to store them.
Christian Allègre, a truffle grower in Richerenches, recommends wrapping them in a dishcloth and urges against using a sealed jar. He's also opposed to the common practice of placing the truffles among eggs: "The eggshells soak up all the flavour, and then you throw them away."
Nicolas Pailhès, of the restaurant L'Escapade in Richerenches, disagrees completely. "Eggshells are porous and the eggs absorb the aroma," says Chef Pailhès, as he fishes a big truffle out of his eggbox to prepare poached eggs with truffle cream for our supper.
How do you cook truffles? We were surprised by several aspects of cooking with truffles. Firstly, they are at their best eaten raw: sliced, grated over a salad or pasta dish, or very lightly warmed up in an omelette. Secondly, they are delicious in dessert dishes and with chocolate.
Did you think that black truffles and chocolate truffles had nothing to do with each other, apart from sharing a name? Wrong! One confectioner in Avignon, Mallard, has devised a black truffle-flavoured chocolate truffle called the rabasse (rabasse is a provençal word for the truffle). We haven't had a chance to try it yet but will be sure to report back when we do.
In fact truffles are amazingly versatile. During a three-day visit to the Richerenches area, we ate: truffles grated over green salad, mini-ravioli au gratin with truffles, Jerusalem artichokes with truffles (exquisite!), braised pig's cheek with Puy lentils and truffles, poached and scrambled eggs with truffles, Brie cheese baked in foil with truffles, baked apples with truffled frangipane and truffle-infused panacotta. In short, an awful lot of truffles!
In some of these dishes, the truffle was integrated into the assembly. In others, a slice or two of truffle sat on top of the food a bit like an afterthought. But it was always a welcome guest on the plate and added an extra layer of flavour.
Truffles are also tasty with fish and shellfish, chicken and game. But perhaps they pair best with delicate flavours. Truffles with eggs, pasta or rice are the classic combination.
Pictured: a provençal brouillade (scarmbled eggs), as served at the Lodges en Provence in Richerenches. Note the wine label! Diamant Noir (Black Diamond) is another local nickname for the truffle.
We wouldn't have thought of drinking a red Côtes de Rhône with this but they go together unexpectedly well.
Truffle butter is simplicity itself to make. If using truffles with cheese, go for something like mozzarella or brie rather than pungent goat's cheese.
At the Café de la Paix in Valréas we ate brie laced with truffle slices, then heated en papillote (wrapped in foil), which brought out the aroma brilliantly.
You should allow between eight and twelve grams / 0.3 and 0.4 ounces per person, depending on your taste and the recipe. Christian Allègre insists that truffles must be cut thickly and used liberally. "A truffle omelette should be black, not yellow!" he says.
Others maintain that very thin slices release more of the flavour, and these certainly look very pretty. You can buy mini-mandolins at a truffle market or speciality food store in order to achieve this.
Our local insiders have shared some very easy recipes. All quantities are for four people.
25 grams / 0.9 ounces of black truffles
250 grams / 8.8 ounces of butter (Muriel Pellégrin, of Truffe Émotion, recommends a mix of salted and unsalted butter).
Fresh bread or toast.
Soften the butter and grate most of the truffles into it finely, keeping back some thicker slivers for texture. Wrap in clingfilm and leave overnight for the flavours to develop.
To serve, spread over bread or toast. If you want to spoil your guests, garnish with thin slices of truffle
40 grams / 1.4 ounces of truffles
Fleur de sel (organic sea salt) from the Camargue
The day before: put the truffle with the eggs in a sealed container. Leave to infuse for at least 24 hours.
An hour before serving: break the eggs in a bowl, grate a third of the truffle over them, add seasoning and whisk. Set aside at room temperature.
A few minutes before cooking: cut half of the remainder of the truffle into small cubes and the other half into thin slices using a mandolin.
To cook: melt a knob of butter in a non-stick pan, not allowing it to brown.
Pour the egg mixture into the hot pan, and shape the omelette with a spatula by turning the edges into the centre.
Add the truffle cubes just before folding the omelette. It should still be runny in the middle.
To serve: turn the omelette on to a plate. Pour over a little melted butter. Garnish with the truffle slices and a little fleur de sel.
Recipe courtesy of Chef Christian Pailhès of L'Escapade restaurant in Richerenches
50 grams / 1.75 ounces of truffles
One litre / 4 cups of milk
8 egg yolks
250 grams / 8.8 ounces of brown sugar
Bring the milk to the boil in a pan with the whole truffle(s). Leave to infuse for 15 minutes.
Beat the egg yolks together with the sugar until the mixture is frothy.
Remove the truffles from the milk and add it to the egg-sugar mixture. Blend with an egg whisk.
Chop the truffle(s) finely, keeping back some thin slices for garnish.
Heat the milk-egg-sugar mixture gently without bringing to the boil.
Add the chopped truffle and pour it all into an ice-cream maker, or cool it in the freezer for an hour or two, stirring every 15 minutes.
Serve garnished with the slices of truffle and almonds or chopped pistachos.
Recipe courtesy of La Truffe du Tricastin
Find further reading on Amazon:
Simply Truffles Recipes and stories from Patricia Wells, a leading American food writer based in France
Truffles The magic of truffles by award-winning food writer Elisabeth Luard
Photo credits (from top): © Wikimedia Commons, SJ for Marvellous Provence (three images).