Some people will celebrate their wedding anniversary with chocolates or flowers, jewellery even but this British expat in France had a different idea for how she wanted to spend her special day – truffle hunting in France! Margo Lestz who lives in Nice persuaded her husband that this would be the ideal way to spend their anniversary in December…
“Truffles are fungi, like mushrooms, but they grow underground and they’re a very expensive delicacy” I explained (having read it on the internet). “I’ve found a farm in Provence that hosts truffle-hunting excursions and we can go out in the woods with dogs and watch them sniff out the truffles. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
He looked unconvinced.
As we drove up to the truffle farm, an atmospheric morning fog filled the air with the mystery of the hunt. It had been raining a few days before and we were lucky that it had stopped so we could go on our adventure, although it did mean that we would end up with really muddy boots. We joined six other “hunters” and waited for the hunt to begin.
When we saw the truffle hunting dogs, we were surprised. They were cute little balls of fur and didn’t look anything like hunting dogs. But we soon realised that they were serious about their work. That’s because every time they find a truffle they get a treat – one that tastes better than a truffle to keep them from eating the harvest. Dogs are not naturally attracted to truffles but can be trained to sniff them out and small dogs are easier to handle and to retrieve the truffle from than big ones.
In times gone by the best truffle finders were pigs, female pigs to be exact. It seems that the scent of this little fungus resembles male pig hormones so the females are eager to find it. The problem with truffle-hunting pigs is that they are big, hard to control and they really want to eat the findings.
We followed our furry guides and their owner to the hunt. Since truffles grow underground on the roots of other plants, mostly oak trees, we trudged through the mud toward the oaks. The dogs, anxious to get their treats, didn’t waste any time getting started. We (the hunters) were excited at the first find and the chance to hold and smell a freshly dug truffle. I have to say, it was very unimpressive, ugly even. It resembled a lump of dirt and had a strong smell, not bad but not especially appetising. It wasn’t something that one would look at and say, “Yum, that looks good, I think I’ll taste it”.
History of Truffle Hunting in France
Which makes you wonder, who first decided to eat these things? One legend says that a farmer saw his sow (female pig) dig up and eat a truffle. He watched her for a few days and since she didn’t die, he decided to try one too. He discovered that this lumpy ball of fungus tasted really good and added flavour to all of his farmhouse recipes. The truffle-eating farmer and his wife, who up until this point had been unable to conceive, went on to have thirteen children. This seems to support the truffle’s reputation as an aphrodisiac for people as well as for pigs.
The ancient Greeks and Romans dined on truffles. But they fell out of favour during the superstitious middle ages when these fungi were associated with witchcraft and devils. These ideas might have come from the truffle’s lumpy dark appearance and the fact that it comes from underground. Also, there is also often a place on the ground above the truffles where no grass will grow – very spooky! The fact that they were considered aphrodisiacs also made them taboo. Interestingly, after the Pope moved to Avignon, right in the heart of truffle territory, they became acceptable.
During the Renaissance the truffle’s tarnished reputation was fully restored and by the 16th century this delicacy was on the table of all the nobles in Europe, indeed Catherine de Medici was said to be addicted to them. Napoleon Bonaparte ate truffles to give him strength in battle (and in bed). When Napoleon was in need of a successor, one of his officers confided that his own large family was the result of eating truffles, which were plentiful in his region of France. After going home on leave, the officer returned with a bag full of truffles for the Emperor and nine months later little Napoleon II came into the world.
Eating the fruits of our labour – truffles are delicious!
You can really work up an appetite watching those little dogs work, so afterwards we had a royal truffle tasting. Champagne accompanied various truffle treats, each one more delicious than the one before. And we finished off with an amazing brownie in truffle cream. Who would have thought that little fungus would be so tasty?
We bought some truffle infused olive oil and have used it in several dishes. It definitely adds tremendous flavour and we’ve joined the list of fans of the “black diamond”. The best and most fragrant of truffles cost thousands of Euros each but the ones we bought were much more affordable!
It turns out that truffle hunting in France was in fact the perfect way to celebrate and I leave the last word to Alexander Dumas, author of ‘The three Musketeers’: “Food lovers in every century have never been able to say the name of the truffle without tipping their hat”.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she likes to bask in the sunshine, study the French language and blog as thecuriousrambler. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.