I am a truffle expert. Pourquoi pas? I have spent five months in an area of France where truffles are mined. I bought some and made two recipes with truffles (and read several more). I even know that people in the know refer to truffles as “black pearls.”
I confirmed my expertise when I overheard a conversation at one of the local cafés between two old guys (older than I am) as they discussed—that would be argued about--the best ways to find truffles and, once found, the best ways to consume them. You could tell right away that they were real trufflers as they drove “catcat” (4X4) vehicles with dogs in the back. Everyone else here lets their dogs ride in the front seat They drank Pastis and they spoke with heavy local accents (so I might have missed some of the finer points) but I like it better when I am not confused with the facts.
So let me tell you about truffles. First, a glossary of terms:
Truffles – adult truffettes. Black in color, they can be the size of a pea or as large as a fist. They have a distinctive flavor and, even if you don’t like the flavor, you will pretend that you do because truffles are VERY expensive.
Truffler – the person who searches for truffles. (Truffle shoppers don’t count as trufflers.)
There are six ways to get truffles:
1) a truffle-sniffing dog
2) a truffle-sniffing pig
3) a stick (magic wand?)
4) walking in the woods and looking for spots under oak trees where the soil is bare and void of vegetation
5) purchasing them at the local market at a price of between 40 and 80 € per hundred grams or
6) purchasing them in Paris for 1000 € per kilo or more! (There are places in Paris that display truffles as one would display fine jewelry, with the prices tucked under the display stand. Of course, the truffles on display would have lost most of their flavor as they should be consumed within 3-4 days after being found, or cleaned and stored in aluminum foil inside a freezer bag and frozen until used.)
If a person has a dog with a good nose and the dog likes the odor/flavor of truffles (some dogs don’t), the person can spend a year or two training the dog to hunt for truffles. If the dog is good, collecting truffles can be lucrative. We heard about a man who had spent time training his dog to hunt truffles – only to have to abandon using the dog after the dog found truffles, dug them up and ate them before the man could get there to mine them.
Most often truffles are found where there are a lot of oak trees since truffles grow under oak trees, somehow connecting to the root system of oak trees. Our knowledgeable French friend told us that there are many farmers who have stopped farming and have planted oak trees with the hope that, in a few years, there will be truffles growing under their oak trees. (In the meantime, the farmers do not have to pay taxes on their land as it is not being used for cash crops). I (as an expert) know there are different varieties of oak trees but apparently truffles do not discriminate and will grow under any kind of oak tree.
I have been told by other truffle experts that female pigs (sows) are good at finding truffles because the odor of truffles is similar to the odor emitted by male pigs. (It’s a good thing that they don’t make a truffle cologne – or men could have pigs following them everywhere…)
The truffle-hunting stick seems to be the French equivalent of a “Snipe hunting” story created to tease eavesdroppers like me. From my perspective, there are just too many inconsistencies (or maybe my French just failed me…) Anyway, as these guys argued about the advantages, it sounds as though one needs to find a stick (special stick? Magic wand?) preferably straight and then wave it back and forth as one walks along. Apparently, a special type of fly (yellow??) builds a ground nest close to truffles. I got the impression that if one waves the stick close to the ground as s/he walks along, the flies will see the stick and come out of the ground nest. Why? I haven’t a clue. I didn’t hear whether one should coat the stick with honey or with truffle oil – maybe it was a stuffle trick rather than a truffle stick… And then there is the whole season-for-hunting-truffles problem: the best season for hunting truffles is in the winter when insect activity is at its lowest… Why would a fly – yellow or not – decide to leave the warmth of the earth because someone walked by waving a stick? It sounded like a “snipe” story to me…
Walking in the woods and looking for bare spots under oak trees seems to be a good reason for a walk – though it doesn’t seem to be a very effective way of hunting for truffles. And, leaving the randonnée paths and walking in the woods is tough going… and if you find truffles, the land-owner would have you arrested for robbery.
I think that the best method of finding truffles is going to the market early in the morning/late in the season and purchasing what you need for the evening meal… and then, what a meal!!!
* being from Michigan, I must admit my chauvinism and confess that I like morels better…