While Paris is well known for its gastronomic institutions, Provence is just as important to France’s culinary history. The climate is ideal for producing not only truffles but many fruits, vegetables and herbs which contribute to the region’s signature dishes. If you’ve ever cooked with Herbes de Provence then you’re familiar with the flavor. Our own Becky de Haro ventured South on her holiday vacation in France to spend time truffle hunting on an organic Provencal farm. Read on to dive into her adventure and new found appreciation for truffles.
Why Are Truffles So Expensive?
So many factors must align in order to produce a truffle that I now see why they’ve earned the nickname ‘black gold’ and why Johann of Les Pastras, the family farm we visited, must remain so secretive. In a nutshell, truffles grow from spores that live underground near the roots of certain tree species like oak and hazelnut. A very specific landscape, climate and rainfall are required and even if you can create these elements, it would take several years before you would know if your cultivation was a success.
How to Hunt for Truffles
Even when truffles are successfully grown, finding them is a whole new challenge. The most common technique today is to train a dog as a puppy to detect the smell. During our hunt, the Les Pastras dogs quickly sniffed out a truffle within a minute of being released. They would paw at a spot in the dirt and then our other guide, John Michael, would show us where to gently pry the truffle out with a screwdriver, giving the dogs a treat each time. The treat that day was cubes of cheese, which would motivate me as well. Eventually the dogs get distracted and want to play. That’s when you know the truffle hunt is over for the day.
Beware of Truffle Thieves
Because truffles are so coveted and hard to cultivate, the industry is highly competitive and at times, brutal. Johann recounted many stories of truffle thieves, sneaking onto private property when the owner is away to snatch what they can or even truffle hunters sabotaging each other to drive up the price of their own truffles, doing everything from setting fire to trees on the property to dropping poisoned meatballs to kill truffle dogs. It’s like an HBO drama!
How to Buy Truffles
Especially in light of recent food fraud cases making national news, like the mafia corrupting the Italian Olive Oil industry, it was eye-opening and educational to hear from Johann how truffle fraud can and does occur. When purchasing truffle products, pay close attention to the ingredients list. Authentic truffle products will list the specific type of truffle, not truffle flavor, as an ingredient. For example – Sea Salt + Black Summer Truffle + Truffle Aroma. Most truffle olive oils are made with ‘truffle flavor,’ which means you’re paying top dollar for a taste created in a laboratory.
Should you ever find yourself in Provence, I highly recommend you pay Les Pastras a visit and say hello to Johann for me. But if a visit to France isn’t in the cards, my top takeaway learnings are:
- It’s all about the aroma, baby. The best indicator of a good truffle is its aroma. The more aroma, the more flavor.
- To maintain the best aroma and flavor, don’t cook truffles. Add them at the end to finish a dish.
- The optimum equation for truffle food pairing is truffle + fat + salt = heaven. We enjoyed truffles on bread with butter and salt, on wedges of cheese and even in ice cream.
Thank you for a memorable experience, Les Pastras!