A whiff of truffles to start the year

January 19th, 2008

Deep in the hills of the Périgord lies a village famed for les truffes. And Monday morning is the time to be there, waiting in line for the doors of the truffle market room to open at ten o’clock. Once inside the St. Alvère Truffle Market, one inhales the earthy scent of truffes noire du Périgord.

Truffles by Paul Charpentier
Photo by Paul Charpentier

We move along with the crowd, admiring truffles of all sizes lined up on long tables. Behind each basket or tray of truffles, the person who found them stands, ready to answer questions or to sell a black lump of pungent fungus. Eighty vendors are packed into the room, some with a basket full, some with just two truffles, each with a digital scale to weigh each sale. All scales are checked by monitors before the doors open to shoppers. Several years ago, I recall a simpler scene in the truffle market with a single large scale set in the middle of the room, an impractical system with today’s crowds.

Choice truffles in the “Extra” quality are perfect and large, going for 1,800 Euros per kilo on this particular day. The next best is #1 category, whole and round but smaller, followed by #2 which can be irregular in shape bringing 1,000 Euros and 800 Euros per kilo respectively. For 33 Euros (about 45US$) I bought a medium-sized #1, while my step son popped for an “Extra” of the same size and paid 10 Euros more. Broken and trimmed truffles cost less (and are easily shaved into an omelette), but one must watch closely to avoid any soft spots or faded aromas.

What to do with truffles? You don’t need a lot to lend the distinctive flavor, and even the peelings can be tucked into a jar of rice or farm-fresh eggs to lend parfum. Other natural truffle companions include chèvre: just layer minced truffles in a log or pyramid of goat cheese and let it mature for a couple of days in a cool place. Delicate meats like veal scallops or chicken breasts pick up the earthy truffle aroma within a few hours before cooking. The same is true of delicate fish such as pike or perch. Of course the Italian custom of shaving truffles – the Umbrian Norcia black are densely aromatic – over steaming pasta elicits sighs around a winter dinner table.

Truffles by Paul Charpentier
Photo by Paul Charpentier

White truffles found in northern Italy are at their peak in October and November, preceding the “black gold” by a month or two. In the Périgord, mid-January is peak season for the best, most mature truffles, although the season begins in early December and can run until late February – depending on the weather conditions. On this crisp, sunny January morning I was bubbling with ideas for the truffle: perhaps it could add a complex tone to a simple, creamy cauliflower soup.

As we got into the car, I gingerly tucked the small brown truffle sack in my basket and mused: destination shopping doesn’t get any better than this – even my jacket picked up les parfums de la truffe!