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As the black truffle becomes more scarce, the French get desperate.
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.”