Why all the kerfuffle about a truffle asks Evelyn Jackson as she explores the truffle markets in the Lot region of France and finds out that these little “black diamonds” cause high excitement among the keen buyers and gastronomes from all over France…
Most people plan their holidays in France for the warm weather months…spring, summer and early fall. Even those of us lucky enough to live here tend to do most of our exploring in this wonderful country when the sun shines and the weather is warm. Which is a shame because with a little sleuthing, you can find some fascinating local events even in the depths of winter.
Take truffle markets, for example.
Here’s what Wikipedia says about truffles: “(it) is the fruiting body of a subterranean Ascomycete fungus, predominantly one of the many species of the genus Tuber.” But to gourmets everywhere, and especially in France, the truffle is a bit of heaven lending its pungent flavor and aroma to dishes as simple as an omelette or as elegant as something concocted by the famous French gourmand, Brillat-Savarin.
Truffle Markets France
If you find yourself in the Lot region of southwest France, it’s worth the effort to visit two of these unique markets. The largest in the area is held every Tuesday in Lalbenque from early December to late March. It starts at 14.30 sharp. The crowd is actually held back from the truffle sellers by a rope and not until the bell sounds is it dropped so buyers can inspect the lumps of ‘black gold’ on offer. Arrive early on market day – part of the fun is not only seeing and maybe purchasing a truffle (or a piece of one if you’re on a budget!), but also people-watching. At the Lalbenque market, you can definitely tell the difference between the locals, who are usually the truffle vendors and the staff from the town restaurants, and the ‘outsiders’ who come from all over France to buy.
The sellers line up shoulder-to-shoulder and basket-to-basket on one side of a long line of low benches. Traditionally the truffles are piled in a basket and wrapped in a cloth. Facing them behind a waist-high rope are the buyers impatiently standing 8-10 deep in places. Paris-chic rubs shoulders with tourists bundled up in jackets and gloves next to professional buyers making purchases for fancy restaurants in France’s bigger cities.
The bell is sounded, the rope drops and the pinching, sniffing, scraping and negotiating begin. It’s all very ritualistic…sellers unwrap their precious fungi, buyers are allowed to smell and touch if they ask to do so, and the haggling over price is done very hush-hush. The buyer offers a price per kilo (even if they only want a tiny piece). The seller then replies either yes or no. Even standing right next to a buyer, I wasn’t able to hear the whispered price and counter-offers. I watched as a family purchased a little bag of three tiny truffles. They handed the seller €70. While the price of truffles fluctuates each year, it can be anything from €300 to €700€ per kilo! That explains the presence of two burly Gendarmes patrolling through the crowd during the market. There is a lot of money changing hands here.
Within just 30 minutes most of the truffles had been sold and crowd had thinned. Many of us took the opportunity to sit in the winter sun and have a drink at an outside table, while others enjoyed a late lunch of – obviously! – truffle specialties in one of the restaurants in the town.
The second truffle market in this area is held in the small town of Limogne about 20 kilometers from Lalbenque. It’s a much smaller market and it too is held from early December to late March. On a Friday morning the market opens with the ringing of a bell just as in Lalbenque. While the crowd at Lalbenque numbered in the hundreds, the day I visited this little market, which is held in the square in front of the church, there were about 20-30 buyers and only 10 sellers.
No fancy Paris license plates here, just local men and women buying truffles for private use and this smaller market was far less intimidating for a novice. I struck up a conversation with one of the buyers who was actually a truffle producer herself. She had already sold all her truffles for the season and was interested in the prices at the Limogne truffle market. We observed the buyers and their customers – all were engaged except one whose truffles were attracting no interest at all even though they looked as good as all the others. I asked my new friend why. “His price is too high,” she told me. “He’s asking 450 € per kilo. If he would drop it to 400 € per kilo, he would be competitive.” In the end, he sold no truffles at all. When everyone left, he wrapped his truffles up in their red and white checkered dish towel and took them home. I wonder if he ever sold them.
More on Truffles:
Truffle hunting holidays in Provence
Hunting for truffles
Review of White Truffles in Winter by N M Kelby, a book about famous French chef Escoffier
Limogne Tourist Office
By Evelyn Jackson