Truffle Trouble: Black Diamonds in a winter of discontent

Truffle Trouble: Black Diamonds in a winter of discontent
Truffières de Rabasse, the truffle also known as the black diamond. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

It was a very good year for truffles. I thought I’d start on an upbeat note, since we’re probably all pretty anxious to hear that the past year of pandemic chaos was good for something.

If you were a Provence truffle, you would’ve been thriving this winter, thanks to perfect weather conditions last summer and autumn. What you need when you’re a Tuber melanosporum is a little rain in June, a little more in July, a good storm in August, and a relatively dry autumn. In 2020 the truffle growers of our region could tick all these boxes.

This should have been good news for everyone. Ordinary families like mine who love to eat the local truffles (but can usually only afford a few grams at a time) were overjoyed when we heard that the harvest would be abundant and the price therefore up to 40% lower than in the previous four years. And the truffle growers would hopefully be able to sell bigger quantities to restaurants all over Europe to make up for the drop in price.

But then the second wave of Covid-19 hit us just before the truffle season started in late November. All the restaurants in France were closed, once again, and in most neighbouring countries they were either closed or struggling to survive with restricted business hours and curfews. The annual stream of restaurant owners and chefs coming from all over the continent to buy towers of truffles at village markets in the Drôme Provençale turned into a trickle. We are now reaching the end of the truffle season and the restaurants are still closed.

For many truffle growers it was a frustrating season of oversupply and not enough demand. 

Ordinary families like mine could maybe buy slightly more truffles than usual (doing our best to help the local economy was our excuse), but the fact is that truffles remain a rare luxury product. “Black diamonds”, they are called around here, and last winter they could fetch more than a thousand euros a kilo at some of the village markets. Even at this winter’s “cheap” price of around 700 euros a kilo, truffles are just not the kind of ingredient you’d pick up for a quick weekday family supper on your way home from work.

Although you only need 10 grams per person for a lovely truffle omelette or pasta or risotto, it can quickly turn into an expensive meal for a family of four to six. (Especially if you convert the price to South African rand. For my own peace of mind, I usually don’t.) Remember, the truffle is like a condiment, so you still need to buy the actual food to eat with the truffle. 

The obvious next question would be why on earth are people willing to pay the price of a wedding ring for a few mouthfuls of such an ugly, knobbly, smelly little thing. And all I can answer is once you’ve tasted real fresh rabasse, as the black truffle is affectionately known in the ancient language of Provence, you won’t ask this question again. It has to be fresh, though, not in a jar or a tin, and definitely not in the form of truffle oil, which is usually just a chemical concoction. Unless you can make your own truffle oil by soaking a chunk of truffle in your best olive oil. Otherwise rather stay away from any form of conserved truffle for your first taste.

Because first impressions tend to be lasting, and the reason some people will insist on telling you that truffles are overrated and taste like rubber, is usually because they haven’t tasted the real thing.

Like a whiff of dagga, once you have smelt a black truffle you will never forget its aroma. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

The odour of a fresh rabasse is absolutely indescribable and totally unforgettable. In a previous piece of culinary writing I compared it to a potent whiff of dagga – once you’ve smelled it, you’ll always recognise it – but it is much more pervasive and persistent than the fumes of Durban Poison. The oldest son in our house refused to taste truffles until he was in his 20s, because as a boy he’d apparently been traumatised by the offensive odour during an eight-hour road trip.

Please note that these truffles, a gift from a generous neighbour, were stored in three separate Tupperware containers like traditional Russian babushka dolls. The smallest one with the Tubers tightly closed and ensconced in a slightly larger one, which in its turn was closed and fitted in a bigger one – but still the smell escaped and hung in the car like The Fog in John Carpenter’s classic horror movie. Many years later our son was finally converted when he tasted a chunk of delicious creamy cheese at a morning market – and discovered that the cheese was stuffed with slivers of black truffle. 

His siblings also didn’t like truffle when they were small. It is undoubtedly an acquired taste. But once they acquired it, they really took to it – and now my partner and I fondly recall the days when we could still buy only 10 grams of Tuber melanosporum for a small omelette to share between the two of us.

The next question we often get is about the difference between the white Italian truffle and the black French one. The Italian Tuber magnatum, from the region of Piedmont, is even more expensive than its French cousin, believe it or not. But that doesn’t mean it is “better”. (Of course I would take the French side, so you don’t have to trust me.) It all depends on how you want to eat your truffle. The white one’s flavour is more delicate, delicious when eaten raw, grated on risotto or a slice of fresh bread. The black one is more robust, definitely the right choice for cooking, cut into slivers and stuffed under the skin of a chicken before it is roasted.

Our own truffle oil and honey. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Or in the easiest possible way – oeufs aux truffes – basically slowly scrambled eggs with a smelly kick.

Some of the villages around us host truffle-omelette dinners every winter, convivial events where a hundred or more people sit at long tables with a glass of Côtes du Rhône wine and a paper plate with a portion of omelette and slices of fresh baguette. My favourite winter market is held every Sunday morning from December to March around a stone fountain on a square in St Paul Trois Châteaux, where you queue for a lovely bowl of truffle ravioli with a glass of wine, to be enjoyed on the spot, before you select and weigh and buy a small fresh truffle to take home.

But in this winter of our discontent all these social gatherings had to be cancelled. The Sunday morning market continues, but because of social distancing no ravioli or wine can be served, and since the bars and coffee shops are closed we can’t end the morning with a small cup of strong black coffee while watching the people around us. And as the Covid casualty figures kept rising, most of us stayed away from markets anyway.

I might go this Sunday, though, because it is the last market of the season and our last chance to buy a fresh truffle until next winter. And I will use all the many tricks I’ve learned to make this truffle go as far as possible.

If you store the truffle in an airtight container for a day of more, with double the quantity of eggs you need for your scrambled eggs, you can use the truffle and half the eggs for “real” oeufs aux truffes. And two days later you bake a fake truffle omelette with the rest of the eggs. The odour would have penetrated the porous egg shells – and the smell of truffle is powerful enough to conjure up the taste.

Your taste buds can be fooled in the same way when you store a chunk of Tuber melanosporum in a glass jar with rice or polenta or pulses. The rice gets infused with the truffle flavour, which turns an ordinary rice dish into an extraordinarily tasty meal. If you want the truffle experience to last even longer, you can grate some truffle into your favourite type of salt (we love the hand-collected fleur de sel or “salt flowers” from the Camargue) and spice up your food with truffle salt for weeks to come. 

The Van der Vyver truffle honey. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Or you can make your own truffle oil, as already suggested, and sprinkle a few drops over a modest cauliflower soup or a home-made pizza for a taste of instant luxury. Truffle honey is less known than truffle oil, but just as easy to make (simply dump a few bits of truffle in a jar of honey) and has the same magical ability to transform an inexpensive meal into something special. Drip a little truffle honey over slices of goat’s milk cheese, for instance, and you have a filling that takes any pancake to the next level.

These are some of the tricks I’ll be using to spread the joy of our last truffle a little further. As the British satirical author Thackeray famously said, “people can manage, for a time at least, to make a great show with very little means”. I find this a useful motto for everyday cooking – and even more so when it comes to the rare delight of truffles. DM/TGIFood


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