I just returned from the Périgord region of France where the famous truffle got its name. Though now the area is known as the Dordogne, for the river that side winds through it.
I missed the truffle season by about three weeks. An acquaintance has a house in the beautiful town of Martel, located deep in truffle country. Since he knew about my passion for them and he only went there in the summer, he offered up his French country home. I initially planned to go in January, but the Omicron variant was surging then, so I waited until a safer time – March – hoping the season might still be tapering off.
It was well over, but the area was too charming for regrets. The countryside glowed green with flowering tree buds starting to burst. The 13th-14th century villages were made of ochre limestone with painted wooden shutters and cobblestone streets that curved through them like streams. Castles and gothic churches had been carved into the limestone cliffs that towered over beech and oak tree forests and ancient farmhouses.
This mid-Pyrenees region has chalky, alkaline soil and is considered prime “terroir” for the famous Périgord truffles, Tuber melanosporum, particularly in and near the Causses du Quercy Regional Nature Park. These “Quercy” truffles are touted as the best of the best, with the scent of strawberry jam, along with nutty earthiness and a certain je ne sais quoi. The season peaks in January, when there are open-air truffle markets and festivals throughout the villages.
We visited the ancient town of Rocamadour in the Causses du Quercy Regional Nature Park. It’s famous for pilgrimages to a Romanesque-Gothic church built into a cliff; the faithful pilgrimage to the Black Madonna up steep winding paths, stopping at stations on the cross, and at a statue of St. Anthony – the patron saint of truffle hunters. The story goes that the Order of St. Anthony raised pigs in the forest of France to help feed the poor. The pigs led them to wild truffles.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, the Catholic Church outlawed truffles. They called them “Witches Stones” and “Devil’s Fare” that make women lascivious. They also deforested much of Europe, which some scientists now believe contributed to the black plague. So truffles all but disappeared.
This changed during the Renaissance when warring dinner parties between popes helped bring them back. In the 14th century, the Papacy moved to Avignon, France the popes, cardinals and archbishops brought with them to France a passion for good food and wine, including truffles. A power struggle took place between Rome and Avignon, and for some time, there were competing papacies. According to an article from the pamphlet “All the Year Round” by Charles Dickens, the rivaling Roman papacy and the Avignon papacy went head-to-head in dinner parties, which also elevated the truffle. “Men read about underground tubers in the Greek and Roman writers, from Theophrastus downwards, so they got to digging and they got to cooking. There were rival popes in those days, and they were rivals in gastronomy as well as other things.”
The Catholic Church published a list of permissible pleasures in the 15th century, which included the truffle, reversing the ban. In 1526 French King Francois I was captured by the Spanish and fed black truffles in Spain. (Spanish didn’t like them and fed them to pigs and in fact called them criadillas de tierra, or earth testicles.) The French king adored them and upon his release, brought them back to France. Catherine Medici of Florence arrived in France in 1533 to marry King Henry II with an army of chefs and baskets of artichokes and white truffles. She re-introduced the pleasure of feasting, Tuscan style, and a passion for Piedmont truffles, T. magnatum.
Yet the pride of the French is the Périgord T. melanosporum truffles. These truly came into fashion under the hedonistic reign of the "Sun King," Louis XIV, who ruled from1643 until his death in 1715. He demanded they be served at the royal table in Versailles. They soon became famous in the royal courts; a favorite pastime of the nobles and other members of his court was teaming up and truffle hunting with hounds. His obsession with them led to his early but failed attempts to cultivate them.
But truffles, from finding them in the forest to haggling at the markets, is not just for the rich in France. What struck me while visiting there, was a pervasive belief in the inalienable right to enjoy one’s life, no matter what your income level. Good bread, cheese, and wine were very inexpensive compared to the United States. There were walking paths that headed right out of towns and wove through forests, along beautiful streams and cliffs. Everything is closed on Sundays and people had a rest. While Americans, including myself, pride themselves on individuality and the right to do what we want when we want, in France, there’s more of a shared aesthetic, a cultural common denominator of pleasure.
Some guides-in-training for the Le Gouffre de Paderic caves told me that if I were to take my dog into the woods during the season, I would find Périgord truffles “all over the place.” While reeling from the possibility of this, some local friends of the person who owned to the house took us to La Ferme de Truff (https://www.lafermedelatruffe.fr/), a truffle farm that offers tours and demonstrations throughout the year followed by a very large and delicious truffle lunch.
The Périgord region is the heart of truffle cultivation. In 1790, Pierre II Mauléon began to cultivate the Périgord truffle, T. melanosporum, when he observed the symbiosis between the tree, the soil and the truffle. He tried this by taking acorns from trees that hosted truffles and planting them in similar soil. By some accounts, his experiment was successful (by others it was not) and truffles were found in the soil around the newly grown oak trees years later. In 1808, Joseph Talon from Southern France transplanted seedlings growing at the roots of oak trees that were colonized with truffles, which succeeded, and he’s credited with starting the first truffiere or truffle orchard.
In 1863, phylloxera arrived in France from America in the form of an aphid that ate the roots of grapes. It devastated 40% -70% of the vineyards in France. They would eventually come to graft wine rootstock from America that was aphid resistant to their traditional vines to save the wine industry there. Many of the vineyards were replaced with truffle orchards and by the late 1800s, France began producing hundreds of tons of cultivated truffles, the primary ones being Périgord T. melanosporum and Burgundy T. uncinatum.
By 1892, France hit an all-time high of truffles, with a record 2,200 tons harvested by the late 19th century. A truffle train hauled massive mounds of these fragrant tubers from the Périgord to Paris. Celebrity chefs like Antonin Carême, who cooked for George IV, the Romanovs and Napoleon, lists in his collection a recipe for Salmon à La Rothschild, circa 1825, in which one pound of sliced black truffles are arranged over a whole salmon in replication of scales, yet other cookbooks had recipes for everyday meals prepared with truffles. So much supply met a big demand at virtually every socio-economic level of society.
Alas, bombs and shrapnel of World War I and II devasted the forests and cultivated truffle orchards. Truffle hunters and growers were – and still are - very secretive about their spots and trade and during the wars an estimated 20-30% of the men in rural France died, taking their truffle knowledge with them. The bounty of truffles plummeted post-war, and their prices rose, making them out of reach except for the wealthiest.
Then in the 1960s and ’70s, there was a push to reinstate truffle orchards. France’s truffle-tree nurseries now seed and sell approximately 300,000 trees per year. Trees inoculated with truffle spores are being sent around the world and they are being cultivated on every continent on earth, except Antarctica. This is the power of permissible pleasure. Toasts with a thick smear of truffle butter; A truffle shaved over pasta for 4, the rinds ground up and put into honey. The elusive Périgord truffle was still there in essence. The underground system of mycorrhizal was just preparing to mate when I was there in March– they to mate underground and there is a female and a male. The truffle fruit is female. To grow, to develop their scent in the shadows of the limestone cliffs along the Dordogne River, absorb summertime showers, develop their spores and their scent.
In the wake of the Périgord, there was still truffle-infused wine, truffle butter, truffle honey, and truffle foie gras. In Paris, I spotted risotto with truffle cream and truffle hotdogs. Though truffle season was officially over, the magic of this fungi persists. I came home with a small jar of truffle honey I purchased at the small, dusty gift store at Ferme de la Truffe. I’m going to drizzle it over cheese and serve it with a crusty baguette. A reminder that pleasure can be simple, fleeting, yet should always be permissible.