Buying truffles has long been like a drug deal shown in a movie. You walk up to somebody who looks like a potential seller, you ask something innocuous, like the time or the weather, and then you cut a deal, quickly and discreetly. And sometimes you get burned. With truffles going for €1,200 a kilo, sometimes unscrupulous sellers toss in a dirt-covered pebble or two. Who’s to complain? The quantities are in handfuls, the business is in cash, receipts are unheard-of, and buyer beware.
The department of Aude in southern France is a sort of Amsterdam of the truffle world, where the goods are legalized and out in plain view. Villeneuve Minervois is a little village in Aude, but it’s big in truffle terms. It holds three truffle markets each year, and every truffle is inspected and guaranteed for authenticity and freshness. No passing off cheap tuber du mal for the top-quality tuber melanosporum. No stones masquerading off as mushrooms. No selling old truffles that will be spoiled the next day (usually they can keep up to 10 days after picking). A truffle inspector looks at every single truffle that is sold. And he’s picky.
On market day, the sellers line up, with the buyers on the other side of a rope. At 11 a.m. sharp, a shot is fired, the rope drops, and the buyers lunge for the goods. It’s over within an hour. There’s one price, and you know you’re getting a good black truffle.
The sellers range from the mayor, who exports his truffles, in special packaging, to Japan, to the young and earnest Philippe, who buys land where truffles have been found and plants new oak trees—500 in four years. Then there’s Katy, who refused to give her name and only let slip her first name by accident during a wine-lubricated recounting of a dispute between her son and the police. She doesn’t plant trees, but she buys land (“I do not steal truffles!”) and lets nature take its course, walking through the woods with her trained dogs to see what nature has sown. Such wild truffles can fetch twice to three times the price. How to tell the difference? The smell is more intense.
Yet, if truffles, or a truffle dish in a restaurant, for that matter, smell too strongly, chances are they’re fake. Man has synthesized essence of truffle; it’s chemically identical. But chefs would tell you they lack the magic of the real thing.
There’s a truffle-themed gastronomic dinner each year, too. Here’s the menu for one a couple of years ago:
Truffle cookies, “to help with the wait”
Gambas soufflé with truffle-lobster puree
Veal with foie gras and truffle sauce
Brie with truffles
Rice pudding with caramel and truffles
Coffee and wine
Prepared by a Michelin-starred chef, all for €50.
The truffle markets offer other things as well: truffled sausages to eat now or later, olive oil, hand-crafted knives, baskets and other goods, wine of course, honey, even oak saplings that have been dusted with truffle spores so you can plant your own (though if it were that easy to get truffles, they wouldn’t cost €1,200 a kilo). There also are stands selling snacks: omelettes or brouillade (like scrambled eggs) with truffles or sandwiches of grilled duck breast with truffles. And wine!
For about €30 you can get a golf-ball-size truffle that will enhance your meals for a week. Truffles work best with mild foods that don’t compete with its rich flavor and scent: risotto, eggs, pasta with cream or cheese sauce, poultry, cheese, scallops. Grate or slice slivers of it on top before serving and it completely changes your dish. You can ramp up the flavor by storing your rice or eggs with the truffle for a few days before using them. Truffles last for a week to 10 days.