Every day, a link to Languedoc Living appears in my Inbox, providing a useful compendium in English of news, event listings, and feature articles concentrating on our region but including a taste of the rest of France, Europe, and the world. I give the site a thorough look as often as time permits. Recently, I learned that the season for truffle fairs had arrived. Is it any surprise that my wife Cathey knew this? The surprise, I suppose, is that I realized that Cathey would be interested and that I proposed without any prodding that we pay a visit the truffle fair in Villeneuve Minervois, a small town in the foothills of the Massif Central about an hour north and west of us here in Quarante.
We arrived at the salle polyvalente (community room) at about 10am. Just about every village has one of these multi-purpose spaces. Villeneuve Minervois’ sports a kitchen and a stage at the edges of a basketball court downstairs and what appeared to be classrooms/meeting rooms upstairs. A market was already in full swing. Tables displaying wine, artisan whisky, saffron and saffron-infused products, truffle-infused butter and brie, artisan chocolate and cheeses and sausages, and knives and other gadgets with points and edges were arranged in an outward-facing square on the floor of the court. After a quick circuit and tastings, we had purchased two bottles of sparkling Limoux wine and a couple of hunks of chocolate, both white and dark, both with bits of raspberries. I thoroughly enjoyed my sip of Black Mountain, very smooth artisan whiskey. No sale, though. I’m a bourbon man myself.
But the reason for the festivities are the truffles. I won’t bother defining what truffles are or describing their culinary importance. If you don’t know, you can look it up. I will simply say two things: that we are talking here about the French black winter truffle, tuber mélanosporum, and that if you enjoy mushrooms, truffles are kind of like mushrooms to the nth degree. Truffles are a gourmet’s delight. At a cooking demonstration under a small tent with perhaps 50 chairs lined up, the audience was standing room only.
The truffle foragers arrive with their musky little treasures in baskets, in glass jars, or in plastic containers. They present their finds to an examiner stationed by the entrance, in this case a youngish man casually dressed in jeans, and his female assistant. They represent the French Department of Agriculture as well as the local Brotherhood of the Truffle. The examiner assesses every single truffle, sharp knife in hand, trimming them as needed, carefully shaving and smelling. If the truffle passes muster, it goes in a bin on the examiner’s scale. If it doesn’t, it’s added to a pile of rejects under the examiner’s table. There may be some discussion concerning a rejection, but the discussion is always civil and the examiner’s judgment is final. The assistant writes down the forager’s name by hand in a simple, lined notebook and, when the examiner is finished, writes down the combined weight of the forager’s approved truffles. The truffles are then placed in a cloth bag, tied securely, sealed, and handed back to the forager.
I knew then why there had been such a crowd around the examiner’s station by the door. Folks who were intent on buying were scoping out the batches that they thought looked the best, watching and listening to the examiner. So when the rope dropped, they hustled to purchase the truffles that they’d targeted. We weren’t so focused. We simply walked up to the lady at one end of the table with just a dozen or so mostly small truffles sitting on the lid of a plastic container, watched the two ladies ahead of us pick up and smell each and every one of her truffles before purchasing two, then repeated the exercise for ourselves, picking out one small truffle of 14 grams that she put in a little cellophane bag for us. 11 Euros. That’s right. 11 Euros for a fresh French winter truffle weighing one-half ounce. We were amazed. We would have paid at least four times as much in the States, probably more. At that price, we could afford another. We were more discriminating. We walked down the table slowly, eying each display. We liked that of a forager displaying deep black truffles in a cute little basket lined with red fabric. We picked out another truffle. 16 grams. 12 Euros. Damn.
One final note. Cathey rhapsodized over the smell of truffles that she said pervaded the salle polyvalente. I frankly didn’t notice it. But when friends popped by our house the day after the fair for a visit to set a luncheon date in order to introduce us to their favorite local restaurant, Cathey brought out the jar and opened it to give them a whiff. And from the other end of the table the fragrance of the truffles wafted over to me. Unmistakable.