Our good friends, Margaret and Phil, took us to the opening of the truffle market in Richerenches. The small village is the center of the truffle trade in Provence. I read that it is considered to be the most important truffle market in France.
When we got out of the car, it felt like we had stepped into a Marcel Pagnol movie set. (Marcel Pagnol was a French film maker from Marseille. He directed “the trilogy” of French films: Marius, Fanny and Caesar. Hollywood made Fanny from a compilation of the trilogy with Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron.) Even the street music – from two men who played concertina, violin, piccolo and tin whistle (not all at the same time) - was reminiscent of the music from Pagnol’s films.
The people at the truffle market seemed to be extras from a Pagnol film. Old, unshaven men with berets and work jackets that they have worn for farming, herding, car repairs, and hunting since the jackets were new – generations ago. Several men had the remains of a cigarette stuck to their lips so well attached that they were able to continue their animated conversations without losing the cigarette.
The day started with a procession of men and women wearing long black capes, Camargue-style (large brim) black felt hats and gold medallions hung from gold ribbons around their necks. One man carried his truffle-hunting dog with him during the procession. (The dog had its own gold sash.) They walked from the town square and then preceded around the town ending at a platform stage set up in front of the mayor’s office. The procession reminded me of church processions without the incense – unless cigarette smoke is a modern replacement for incense. All of the black-caped parade marchers with their black hats and gold sashes joined the leaders of the truffle market on stage who offered their best wishes to the truffle hunters (trufflers) and to the truffle merchants. (Ellen got some great pictures of the events and as soon as I can figure out how to get them off of her phone/camera, I will post them.)
After the well-wishing ended, the two young children in the procession cut the ribbon to open the market officially. Meanwhile, on the other side of the main street, men and a few women were already elbow-deep in the truffle trade. The trufflers brought their “black diamonds” in bags/boxes/sacks to the merchants to see what price they would get. The merchants had scales set up in the trunks of their cars or on the beds of their pick-up trucks. Most of the vehicles were well-worn old farm vehicles, but in the middle of the row was a brand new, shiny, sporty, black Mercedes. The man behind the steering wheel wore a suit and tie. His colleague, standing at the trunk, wore a black leather jacket (truffle merchants from Paris ?). The merchants looked over the contents, inspected a few, smelled them and then offered a price. The truffler could accept the price – at which point the contents were weighed – or reject the price and go to another merchant/car trunk/truck bed to see if s/he could do better. If the merchant and the truffler agreed on the price, the truffler would move from the back of the vehicle to the front where a second person, often sitting in the driver’s seat, would pay for the truffles. It was all very orderly but reminded me of descriptions of drug buys in the states.
“…seventy-five-year-old Pébeyre Sr. was on his way home from the Wednesday truffle market in Richerenches, in Provence, when his car was forced into a field by a big BMW. No sooner had he gotten back on the road when another car pulled in front, blocking his passage. Six thieves piled out and, while Pébeyre’s wife watched in horror, forced him out of the car. They made him open the trunk, then fled with 150 pounds of truffles worth thirty-eight thousand dollars.” (Sanders, M. From here you can’t see Paris: seasons of a French village and its restaurant. New York: Perennial, 2003, p. 204)
At around noon, Margaret, Phil, Ellen and I joined hundreds of others at the “salle de fêtes” (community hall) where the village was serving a truffle lunch in a church-basement-style room of long tables with very narrow aisles between the rows of tables. We had truffle omelets, bread, salad with goat cheese, ice cream and coffee. (Red table wine complemented the meal.) We enjoyed the foods but, even more, we enjoyed meeting the people to our left and right. There were three couples from les Baux (50 miles to the south) seated beside Ellen and Phil. The couples seated by Margaret and me were locals from Richerenches.
We got back to Vaison in time to go to the English-language film (London River) showing at the theater and then to enjoy “Bouillabaisse” that Margaret had made. We returned to our little apartment at the end of the evening, tired but happy to be part of this little corner of Provence.