This is a guide to truffle tourism in Provence: festivals, markets, cultural centres and museums, truffle hunts and more.
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The black truffle is known locally as a diamant noir (black diamond) or rabasse, while truffle farmers, the tool they use for digging and sometimes truffle fans too are rabassiers.
Its official name is tuber melanosporum and it's often widely referred to as a a Périgord truffle - despite the fact that 70 per cent of France's black truffles actually come from Provence and neighbouring regions in the South-East. In fact many restaurateurs from the South West travel to Provence to buy their truffles!
In Provence truffle tourism is focussed on the départements of Vaucluse, the Alpes de Haute Provence and the nearby Drôme, which is strictly speaking in the Rhône-Alpes region rather than in Provence proper.
Truffles are harder to come by as you go further south towards the coast, but they are found in the départements of the Var, the Bouches du Rhône and the Alpes Martimes. And of course truffles will be well in evidence there too in restaurants and at street markets.
The black truffle season runs from 15 November to 15 March. Like much else in France, it's regulated by law to prevent the sale of inferior produce, though you'll still find a few truffles until the end of March.
If you're in Provence at other times of year, you may come across one of the other varieties which grow here. The tuber aestivum, or summer truffle is around from June to August and is the one most tourists are likely to encounter.
Although it looks like a black truffle from the outside, the inside is beige-white and, alas, its taste is a lot less intense.
It's not to be confused with the highly prized white truffle (tuber magnatum pico) which you'll be lucky indeed to find in Provence. It comes mainly from Northern Italy, though scattered examples have appeared around Vaison la Romaine.
Other varieties include the tuber brumale, which is found in Northern Provence and available in winter, the tuber mesentericum - a relative newcomer on the scene - and the Burgundy truffle (tuber uncinatum), which grows in Alpine areas, mainly between September and December.
Truffle festivals and ceremonies
Up in the north of Vaucluse, the tiny village of Richerenches (population: 600) is the unofficial and undisputed capital of the French truffle. Otherwise sleepy in winter, it comes vibrantly alive every Saturday morning during the truffle season.
Its ceremonial Ban des Truffes, or Truffle Proclamation, takes place on the first Saturday after 15 November and marks the beginning of the season - and the opening of the biggest truffle market in Europe.
It starts in the morning, when members of the Confrérie du Diamant noir (the Fraternity of the Black Diamond), pictured, parade through the streets of Richerenches.
Provence seems oddly fond of these solemn gastronomic Fraternities with their elaborate costumes. There's one for cherry growers in Venasque, for example, and another for wine-makers in Avignon.
The Richerenches association of mad-keen truffle enthusiasts has around 300 hundred members from all over the world. There should be a good showing of them for the Ban des Truffes, all sporting black robes, broad-brimmed hats, canary-yellow lanyards and pewter medallions.
Some people wear mediaeval garb and children join in too. There are fifes and drums, songs in provençal and the inevitable speeches by village dignitaries.
Then the real business of the day begins: the truffle market. In fact, strictly speaking, it's two markets, on two of the four roads which frame the charming little walled old town.
Both, in their very different ways, are tremendous fun to stroll round and packed with colourful characters. One market, on the cours du Mistral, is aimed at chefs and other catering professionals.
The truffle courtiers (brokers) have previously collected the week's harvest of truffles from growers in the area and now sell these to restaurateurs from the boots of their cars. The market is quite small with room for exactly 26 stalls (and a long waiting list). But it's very busy.
There's an intriguing air of mystery about these transactions. The truffles are kept wrapped up or in cool boxes, not laid out for all to see.
You might easily think these individuals huddled round their van in hoodies were dealing something illegal. Some brokers park their cars with the boot facing the wall for even greater secrecy.
The reason: this is a cash economy and very large sums of money change hands. So brokers are keen to protect their deals from prying eyes - whether of potential robbers or the tax authorities! The atmosphere is quite different from traditional provençal street markets.
This said, the professionals' truffle market is by no means closed or hostile to tourists and outside visitors, who can wander through freely. The mood is congenial and brokers are happy to chat when business is quiet (you'll almost certainly need to speak French, though).
Private individuals can't buy truffles at the brokers' market. But you can do so at the other Saturday market in Richerenches. This takes place on the avenue de la Rabasse, which runs at right angles to the cours du Mistral, and offers truffles, plus regional produce such as cheese, nougat and honey, and crafts.
By a very convenient coincidence, the new season's primeur vintage of Côtes du Rhône wine will be there for the tasting too and locals, pictured, will be making the most of it!
You'll also be able to buy a specially treated truffle oak sapling for around ten €uros. But, before you get too excited at the prospect of home-grown truffles, bear in mind that a very special terroir (soil and climate) is required.
Growing truffles is a long-term business. The sapling requires ar least six or seven years to come to maturity. And even then only around 25 per cent of oaks actually produce truffles.
The Ban des Truffes is followed by demonstrations with truffle hounds, conferences and, most importantly, lunch. This can range from a simple meal of truffle-perfumed omelettes or scrambled eggs (brouillades) in the village hall (advance reservation advised) to full-blown, multi-course feasts at one of the village restaurants.
There are more major celebrations in Richerenches on the first Sunday after 15 January. This is the feast day of Saint Antoine le Grand, the patron saint of truffle growers, and it is marked with a truffle mass in provençal, for which you should arrive early if you want a place in the church.
Truffles are donated in the collection dish instead of cash and then auctioned off in aid of the church and other good causes. Worldly pleasures aren't forgotten either and, needless to say, another gourmet lunch follows (however there's no truffle market on this day).
Other truffle festivals in Provence follow much the same pattern on a smaller scale. You can find them in Carpentras and Le Rouret (early December); Rognes, near Aix en Provence, (on the last Sunday before Christmas) and Ménerbes (between Christmas and New Year); Pernes les Fontaines, Pélissane and Aups (late January); Carpentras (February); and Saint Paul Trois Châteaux (the second weekend of February).
Weekly Truffle Markets in Provence
The two weekly truffle markets in Richerenches continue every Saturday morning throughout the winter from mid-November until mid to late March.
Forget trying to park your car in Richerenches on market days. A few minutes' walk to the south of the village, the Cellier des Templiers wine co-operative has a huge parking area which it makes available to visitors free of charge - and non-drivers can enjoy a wine-tasting there too, accompanied by toast spread with truffle butter. 233 route de Valréas, 84600 Richerenches. Tel: (+33) 4 90 28 01 00.
Elsewhere in Provence, there are weekly truffle markets in Riez and Valréas (Wednesday); Aups (Thursday); Carpentras (Friday); and Saint Paul Trois Châteaux, Montagnac les Truffes and Chorges (Sunday).
Carpentras lays claim to having the oldest truffle market in France, dating back to 1155. As in Richerenches, there is both a wholesale and a retail market on Friday morning, the former on the place Aristide Briand and the latter in front of the Tourist Office.
Other towns have markets on an occasional basis through the winter and Carpentras also has a summer truffle market from May to August.
Finally, Markets of Provence is a comprehensive new guide to exactly that by the American travel writer Marjorie R Williams.
It's a survey of the best markets all across the region with interviews, background featurettes and useful tips and you can buy a copy on Amazon here.
Truffle Centres and Museums
You can learn more about winter and summer truffles, buy them and eat delicious truffly meals in the elegant restaurant of the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin in Ménerbes.
Its stunning panoramic gardens are pictured here - though you'll be almost certainly eating indoors in winter! As the name suggests, it also sells a wide range of local Luberon wines at vineyard prices.
Richerenches has its own Petit Musée de la truffe et du vin, a small museum in the beautiful and atmospheric 13th century Knights Templar Commandery which also houses the Tourist Office.
It's really nicely presented, with interactive terminals, videos, recipes and masses of other information, all in English as well as French. Entrance free.
In November 2015 the Var finally got its own truffle centre, the Maison de la Truffe in Aups, near the Gorges de Verdon. In the Drôme, Saint Paul Trois Châteaux has its Maison de la Truffe et du Tricastin.
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Known locally as cavages, truffle hunts are a popular tourist sortie. The precious black diamonds are sniffed out by dogs, which can be of any breed. It is, we're told, fairly easy to train a truffle hound, though some are more gifted than others. According to one source, trainers smear the nipples of lactating bitches with truffle oil so that their puppies get used to the aroma.
One grower we met, Christian Allègre of the Domaine Saint Alban in Richerenches, uses labradors. Another, Didier Chabert at the Domaine de Cordis in Grignan, favours springer spaniels. Plain old mongrels can do just as well too.
Traditionally female pigs were once used for this task: it's thought that the truffle secretes a substance also produced by boars before mating.
Sows are rarely used these days, due to their unfortunate habit of gobbling up the truffle themselves before it can be safely gathered. Besides, Christian points out, you don't have the same sort of bonding relationship with a pig!
We wondered whether there were special truffle hound competitions, like the sheep dog trials you get in Britain. No way: sadly, a top truffle dog is vulnerable to being stolen, it seems. If you have a champion sniffer, you keep quiet about it. (Truffle poaching is a widespread issue too.)
Really seasoned truffle hunters are able to locate truffles without the aid of either a hog or a hound, by watching out for swarms of a particular kind of fly which lays its eggs in the truffles and for telltale patches of bare earth around the oaks.
The best time to go truffle hunting, according to Didier, is after the morning dew has burned off, the earth has warmed up and the distracting scents of wild animals have faded. So cavages are often scheduled for late morning or after lunch.
However they can be an unpredictable experience. On our visit to Richerenches the planned truffle hunt was cancelled completely, due to the too-humid weather.
On a previous occasion we went on a truffle hunt near Forcalquier in the Alpes de Haute Provence, through open countryside round this hill village. It was part of a big truffle festival, and so presumably had to happen even if conditions weren't ideal.
The result: the two dogs between them failed to turn up a single nugget! But it was, all the same, a very pleasant long hike topped off with a welcome glass of mulled wine.
The moral of the story: do check first that it can go ahead before you plan a cavage. And wear hiking or wellington boots and wrap up warm against the likelihood of a biting winter Mistral wind.
TRUFFLE TOURS, TRIPS AND TASTINGS
As well as cavages, numerous farmers with truffle oaks on their land offer other activities varying from tastings to market visits, meals and overnight stays. Check with your local Tourist Office for details.
Good to know: the Tourist Office for Richerenches, Valréas, Visan and the surrounding area has developed an extensive network of restaurants, truffle-growers, hotels, events listings and other truffle tourism providers under the umbrella label Truffe Emotion. We stayed at the idyllic B&B La Parenthèse in Visan.
Saint Paul Trois Châteaux in the Drôme has devised a signposted eight km / five mile hiking trail through truffle woods in the region. Details from the Tourist Office.
Restaurants offering truffle menus are far too many to list here - in Richerenches in late November, you'd be hard-put to find somewhere not serving them! We sampled an excellent truffle menu at the Café de la Paix in Valréas.
And here's a special mention for the top chefs in Vaucluse who have signed a "truffle charter" guaranteeing a minimum quantity of black diamonds in your meal. That truffle won't just be waved briefly above your plate!
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): © Truffe Emotion, SJ for Marvellous Provence (five images), Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon, Valérie Biset for CDT Vaucluse.