Nothing but the Truffe


PATRICIA G. LAUBER is an editor of Scholastic Magazines. A Wellesley graduate, she devotes her summers to travel and gathering material for light sketches.

MY FRIEND was complaining that he couldn’t got grass to grow under the oak tree in his yard. ” Perhaps you have truffles,”I said helpfully.

A look of indignation passed over his face. “I most certainly do not,” he replied. “ The whole place was sprayed only a week ago.

My friend’s ignorance of truffles is probably no greater or smaller than that of many people in this country. In France, however, you’d be hard put to find somebody who doesn’t know what a truffle is, while the news that he might have truffles in his back yard would be enough to make the average Frenchman leap from his chair with a cry of delight. A truffle or — truffe, as the French call it — is the gourmet’s delight in a land of gourmets and was described as the “diamond of cooking” by the famous eighteenth-century chef, BrillatSavarin.

A good place to get acquainted with it is the restaurant Périgordine, in Paris. There the spécialité de la. maison is a truffle resting in a bed of pastry. At first glance, you might take this delicacy for a lump of coal served up by the chef in a moment of carelessness. The waiter’s face, however, would save you from the faux pas of trying to send the truffle back to the kitchen with a stinging rebuke. Having deposited the plate before you with a flourish, he would be standing respectfully by in anticipation of your delighted reaction to the truffle’s delicate perfumed flavor. Some of us, with untutored palates, have to make an effort to live up to expectations. Biting into a truffle is an experience which can best be compared to biting into a water chestnut.

Only the finest truffles can be eaten straight, in this fashion. Partly for this reason and partly because they are expensive, most truffles are used in small pieces for flavoring other dishes, such as roast chicken or pâté de foie gras. Somewhat more subtly than onions, they impart their flavor to all foods they are cooked with.

Truffles are found in several parts of France, but the best ones come from the department of Périgord, which lies east of Bordeaux and for which the Périgordine was named. In fact, it can be flatly said that Périgord truffles are the best in tho world. Many truffles (including those found in the United States) are large, white, woody in consistency, and garlicky in flavor.

The Périgord’s delicately flavored truffles are the most treasured in French cooking. This gourmet’s delight is actually a subterranean fungus and far from prepossessing in appearance. A Périgord truffle is blackbrown in color, roundish, and pockmarked. The flesh when mature is violet-black, with white veins having a brown margin.

Laying hand on a truffle is easier to talk about than to do, for it puts forth neither root nor stem, seed nor leaf. In fact, you can’t rightly say that a truffle “grows”; it simply occurs about a foot underground. Occasionally a truffle occurs nearer the surface; as it reaches full size, it breaks through the earth and cracks open. This truffle is easily found through a species of yellow flies which like truffles and may be seen hovering above them in columns.

Such a column of flies is an encouraging sight for the truffle-hunter, because where there is one truffle there is likely to be more. To find underground truffles, since they in no way manifest themselves to the eye, the sense of smell must be brought into play . There are a few human beings who are sufficiently truffle-sensitive to be able to sniff out a truffe. But, since few of us are blessed with this abilit y, dogs or pigs are generally used.

Many are the disputes that have broken out over which makes the superior truffle-hunter. The pro-pig people point outl that a pig is easier to come by—almost any sow will do (the sow’s sense of smell being keener than her mate’s); the best canine truffle-hunters should be half shepherd dog in ancestry, and even then you can’t be sure that you’ve got a top-notch truffle-hunter. The pig partisans go on to assert that the sow is the more natural hunter. Like gourmets and yellow flies, sows adore eating truffles. This can’t always be construed ns an advantage, say the pro-dog people. If the pig beats you to the truffle, it’s gone. A dog is less likely to gobble down the find. A dog is faster than a pig and can also sniff out truffles even when there is snow and ice on the ground; this is a big point in the dog’s favor, since the truffle-gathering season is December and January.

With either a dog or a sow, training starts at an early age. The animal is given bits of truffle to eat, gains a taste for them, and is then trained to hunt for truffles which the owner has buried. Come the truffle season, the animal is all set to go.

In the Périgord much of the land belongs to large estates, where the owner has other things to do than go out hunting truffles with a pig. So the fungi are usually gat hered by peasants who get permission to dig on the property and in return give the owner a cut of the take.

As the peasants know, truffles are found only in a certain kind of reddish soil. The search narrows down even more, for there is an affinity between truffles and a certain kind of dwarf oak tree. Truffles do not grow on the roots of the oak, as a true parasite would; but whatever the relationship, they are always found near this tree. Also, truffles are never found outside the circumference of the shadow cast by the tree. And if grass is flourishing under the tree, you’ll be wasting your time to look for truffles there. Having thus eliminated a large part of the terrain, the truffle-hunter, or caveur, starts his sow on the search. She runs her nose along the ground in a straight line, then stops short and starts to dig furiously when she gets the scent. Usually the caveur manages to turn the sow aside before she gets to the truffle and finishes the digging himself, using a piochon, a woodenhandled tool with a metal claw on the end. To play safe, however, the caveur carries a small iron bar which he can thrust into the sow’s mouth should she try to bolt the truffle before he can grab it.

When the sow is turned aside from the truffle, the caveur must give her bread, or kernels of corn, or even part of a damaged truffle. If not rewarded, the sow will become surly and refuse to go on with the hunt.

Truffles are few and far between, and there’s a lot of competition in the field. In the course of a week’s hunting, a peasant is lucky if he finds two pounds of truffes — about fifteen good-sized ones. He puts his find in a kerchief and carries it to the truffle market in Sarlat or Cahors. There he sells it to buyers from truffleconserving factories for about five dollars a pound. Since the truffles are still covered with dirt and are sold by weight, the peasant makes up a little for the scarcity of his find. A buyer from a big factory in Sarlat told me that 40 per cent of what he pays for is just plain dirt.

Fresh truffles will keep for only a few days. So most of them are rushed off to the factory and preserved in cans. In the slack season, the factories usually make pâté de foie gras — an industry which goes hand in hand with truffling.

The annual production of truffles in France is 300 to 500 tons; to have a, good harvest, there must be plenty of rain in August. So rare are truffles that these few tons sell for several million dollars. Before the war, truffles were an even bigger business.

Most people who can afford to indulge a taste for subterranean fungi use small pieces of truffles for flavoring; the pieces can be used several times before they lose all taste. Some restaurants, even in the truffle heart of France, have the unscrupulous habit of using the pieces until they are completely tasteless and rubbery and then tossing these remnants into, say, an omelet which sells for a fancy price. The inexperienced truffle-eater will choke this down, never daring to complain for fear of being told that his palate is too coarse to appreciate the delicate flavor. What with the opportunities for sneaking out at night with a pig and pillaging a trufière, selling almost as much dirt as truffles, and serving pieces of oxerused peel, the industry is fraught with possibilities of dishonesty.

There seems little chance that the industry will ever increase to a point where dishonesty will drop by the way. The reproductive ways of a truffle are so mysterious that it’s a little hard to put your finger on them.

The French say: “If you want truffles, plant acorns.” Starting a truffière is a long-term project under any circumstances, but it moves along a little faster if you plant scrub oak seedlings instead of acorns. Unless truffles have been found in the area, you also have to bring in soil from a place where they are found.

The truffle is a globulous mass of firm flesh, a compact tissue of entangled filaments, some of which terminate in spores. When in conjunction with scrub oaks, the spores turn into truffles.

Once the soil containing truffle spores has been spread about and harrowed lightly, the would-be owner of a truffière has only to sit back and wait — for five years. Then one day, if he is lucky, the grass will disappear under the trees. This is a sign that truffles have come to stay. The yield at first is slight, and hits its peak five to twenty-five years later.

White truffles have been found in most of our forty-eight states, but not to any great degree. Possibly they do not exist extensively here. Possibly the find has been small because the number of people (botanists mostly) looking for them has been small. But if you have reddish soil and scrub oaks under which grass won’t grow, go out and have a sniff around. You may have truffles in your back yard.