In France, killing for truffles

AUPS, France — The bell rings at 9:30 a.m., and crowds elbow through the door to mob the tables inside. It’s as if those muddy black lumps in baskets were giveaway diamonds.

A whiff of the heady air explains the fuss. In a nation that treasures its edible delicacies, nothing approaches a ripe black truffle.

The truffle, a tuber-like fungus, grows underground on the roots of particular oaks. The first mature in November, and they get steadily better until the season ends in March.

Hardly appetizing, they look like something between animal spoor and shrunken human brains. And, these days, people kill for them.

Sellers at the Richerenches market in the Drome rallied behind Laurent Rambaud, a farmer charged with murder just before Christmas. Police said he fired two shotgun blasts at a man he suspected of truffle rustling.

This is a fairly good year for truffles; summer rains fell at the right time. Yet with a price approaching 800 euros a kilo — $30 an ounce — truffles cost twice what they did a decade ago.

One reason is the black truffle’s pungent yet delicate taste, rich as the earth itself.

Alain Ducasse rhapsodized for pages in his book, "Rencontres Savoureuses" ("Appetizing Encounters"). When tasting truffles, he wrote, the divine flirts with animal instincts “and a blinding flash surges in us for a brief instant to light the darker parts of our human affections.”

He then built to a climax:

“The subtle force of its scent rests on a question: Are we breathing an offering of nature or the deep heart of a woman? Voila, that’s it. All the charm of the truffle links spirituality with the eroticism of the senses.”

Another reason for the high price is that the Tuber Melanosporum may be going the way of Beluga caviar.

“Enjoy 'em while you can,” Guy Corriol told me at the Aups market. “In 10 years, I wonder if you’ll be able to find black truffles anywhere.”

Corriol, of Greoux-les-Bains near the Durance River, is a third-generation truffler. Pepette, his porcine Geiger counter, might be the last truffle-hunting pig in Provence.

Climate chaos takes a toll. Construction paves over rare hunting grounds. And, Corriol said, few young people take the time to learn the skills of unearthing truffles.

At 58, he has neither children nor acolytes in training. He is breaking in a new pig but also uses dogs like everyone else. They fit far more easily in a little truck.

“No question,” he concluded, “it is getting harder to find good truffles.”

Some are confident about the future. More people plant truffle oaks. Science is solving old mysteries of the elusive fungus.

But old-timers worry about changing weather patterns.

Truffles, as parasites, need light summer rains to help them take shape on oak roots. During drought years, production drops sharply.

They mature through the fall and acquire their taste and aroma over the first weeks of December. Drenching winter rains can cause them to rot underground.

Nurseries sell hybrid oaks that grow the sort of roots truffles favor. Commercial producers invest heavily, applying new techniques. Still, it is largely a crapshoot.

In any case, production is all but impossible to monitor.

At France’s biggest market, Richerenches, a good season might see 10 tons traded under strict supervision. Brokers buy in bulk from selected samples.

But at Aups, the most popular retail market, not even WikiLeaks could pin down reliable statistics. As some producers trade inside, others deal from their car trunks.

Jean-Pierre Ducret, who heads the local association, waffles artfully. “Oh, we do pretty good some years,” he said, “and not so well in others.” Finally, he explained the obvious: “Look, the government wants its tax."

Hardcore truffle lovers take them straight: thinly shaved on toast with a touch of Provence olive oil, which, conveniently, is pressed fresh nearby in the same season.

The most popular dish is brouillade aux truffes, no more than grated truffles in runny scrambled eggs with salt, pepper and a bit of cream.

Some chefs get fancy, putting sliced truffles under chicken skin and adding all manner of ingredients. But cooking can dim the flavor.

In the end, less is more. Simply grating a truffle directly onto thin egg noodles, buttered and salted, approaches the height of culinary glory.

The best recipes include a plane ticket to Nice or Marseille. Truffles should be eaten fast. Plastic softens and spoils them. Freezing or potting in oil blunts flavor.

Chinese black truffles look the part and cost little. But they also have no taste. That puts steadily more pressure on the truffle grounds in France.

In 2005, a broker left Aups with 40 kilos of truffles, and armed bandits sideswiped him to steal them all. Ducret began sleeping in his fields with a gun across his knees.

At tension mounts, producers find ways to protect their lodes. Some time ago, a gendarme commander suggested embedding GPS microchips in truffles. Response was tepid.

Jean-Marie Rocchia, who writes books about the treasured fungus, selects truffles still in the ground and drills holes to insert tiny scrolls. They urge buyers to report black-market sellers to the police.

After the Drome murder, Major Patrice Caserio of the Richerenches gendarmerie called producers to a meeting.

“I asked them to put away their rifles,” he told Agence France-Presse. “Is the price of a truffle worth 10 or 20 years in prison?”

And just in case some people thought that it was, he said he reinforced night patrols “to shift fear to the other camp.”