A Truffle Hunt In Provence
A Cautionary Tale of Thieves, Horny Pigs, and Expensive Tubers
SECRECY IS EVERYTHING
We met Johann Pepin at ‘Les Pastras‘, his sprawling organic farm located on a desolate mountain top near the Provencal village of Cadenet under the cloak of secrecy. He cautioned us that “thieves were everywhere”, before instructing us to lock our car doors and gather down below. I must admit I felt a bit uneasy as he slipped a black hood loosely over my head, gently guiding me into the back of an unmarked black van.
Moments later we arrived at the edge of an unnamed field in an unnamed town in an unnamed country for what was surely going to be an epic truffle hunt. Such is the way with truffle hunters where secrecy is everything.
Secrecy is also common. The exact locations of the parcels of dirt where truffles are uncovered is often guarded from even close friends because a select patch of forest can often translate into a consistent source of wealth over a lifetime. — excerpt from Ryan Jacobs, ‘The Dark Side of the Truffle Trade’, The Atlantic January 15th, 2014
THE TRUFFLE SPEECH
We sat huddled together on wobbly benches still shaken by our experiences. In front of us were several neat rows of immature oak trees standing resolutely above the brûléed ground. A line of drip irrigation tubing acted as a buffer between Johann, the trees, and us. Lending the feeling that we were more at a museum exhibit than out in a working field. I began to wonder if Johann and his wife Lisa had installed vibration sensors to protect their trees as museums do for their priceless works.
Johann broke the tension with a humorous introduction punctuated with several very interesting anecdotes about all things truffle. It started with a five-decade history of his family’s wonderful 27-acre farm; home to several different varieties of fruit trees (apricots, cherries, plums, apples, pears, pomegranates, figs, almonds, and hazelnuts), grapevines, olive trees, and even beehives. And ended with an in-depth understanding of truffles.
HOW TO INOCULATE A TREE
Johann delved deep into the quasi-science behind inoculated truffle trees. Inoculating consists of dipping the roots of young oak trees into a truffle puree of your choice. In Provence, this translates to either summer truffles (tuber aestivum) or winter truffles (tuber melanosporum).
One gram of mature truffles can contain over one million spores. If the tree farm owner didn’t mistakenly dip their foie gras soaked piece of baguette into the truffle puree then your precious trees should have several thousand truffle spores attached to each set of roots. If I did the math right, given the sheer number of truffles that I’ve personally consumed, then technically I should be a truffle by now.
Even if the trees survive the brutally hot Provencal summers and droughts, they still have an incredibly low success rate of actually producing truffles, only about 25%. The real kicker is that it takes 7 to 10 years to find out that the tree is a dud. Truffle farming is not for the weak of heart.
THE HOLY TRINITY OF TRUFFLE HUNTERS
For the uninitiated, truffle hunts are very curious things. In the days of old — and by old I mean when I was young — pigs were almost exclusively used to find truffles. Researchers in Germany concluded that the signature musk-like scent of truffles is identical to that of a pig. ”Emanating from the saliva foam, is smelled by the sow and prompts her standing reflex.” For us laymen, this translates to ‘truffles smell like a female pig in heat’. What’s worse is the smell is twice as strong in truffles as it is in a pig in her prime on a hot steamy Friday night so you will end up having to fight a sexually frustrated male pig for each and every truffle found. Pigs can be mean, especially desperate horny pigs.
Before you let your truffle dog loose, you imprint him by giving him a whiff of what he’s going after — Sanford uses plastic bottles filled with cotton balls infused with truffle oil. “It’s just basic conditioning: You give them something to smell, and indicate to them that there’s a reward for them to find that smell,” he says. — Michael Y. Park, “The True Story of How a Dog Became a Truffle Hunter Thanks to Magic Mushrooms”, Bon Appetit magazine.
The good news is your lovable dog can easily be trained to find the elusive tubers. For dogs, it becomes a fun game of hide and seek rewarded by tiny treats. Johann’s dogs, Eclair and Mirabelle, were trained using tennis balls filled with truffles. Every time they found the ball, they received little bits of jambon cru and local cheese. Throw in the occasional bottle of wine and I too may become one of Johann’s truffle dogs.
The strangest news is that there are a particular species of brown fly that infallibly is the best truffle hunter of them all. Let me explain further before your head starts to conjure images of truffle hunters leading small flies on microscopic leashes through the forests of Provence in search of truffles. The fly is known in France with the deceptively clever name, ‘les mouches à truffes’ or truffle flies, who lay eggs over truffle patches and then wait for them to hatch.
The well-bred baby flies like to begin their lives with a silver spoon firmly in the mouth and a steady diet of mature truffles. The champagne is optional. If you don’t believe me watch this video from Mirabeau Wines. The problem with flies is that it is a very slow process; good for someone looking for a handful of truffles to add to their omelet, bad for the truffle entrepreneur looking to make a steady living.
THE TRUFFLE HUNT
We walked to a patch of older oaks; Johann pointed out that the ground looked sufficiently burnt with no grass or weeds growing nearby. Experienced truffle hunters know that truffles secrete a chemical which kills plant life vying for the same nutrients. Eclair and Mirabelle ran around for a few seconds, sniffing everywhere until Eclair fixated on a spot and started to dig feverishly. Within seconds he dug a beautiful dirt-caked summer truffle and was rewarded with a precious chunk of ham. A few minutes passed and history repeated itself. So many times in fact that I even crouched down on all fours and started to dig hoping Jean-Marc would toss me a ham piece as well. No such luck — I would have to wait like everyone else for the promised hors d’oeuvres and bottomless Champagne.
TRUFFLES AND CHAMPAGNE
The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber, and after two thousand years of argument and discussion their answer is the same as it was on the first day: we do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord. — Alexandre Dumas
After several glorious hours learning about truffles and following Eclair and Mirabelle on a wonderful truffle hunt we headed back to Johann’s beautiful home. He quickly prepared a feast of earthy truffles accompanied by an endless stream of Champagne. I had four maybe five glasses before calling it quits. I still had an hour to drive back home to Fontvieille and face a wife I had to answer to.
We feasted on truffles sliced over buttered tartines, truffles sliced over cheese, even scoops of perfectly refreshing truffle ice cream made by a friend of the Pepins. At one point Johann put a mountain of thickly cut truffle slices on three plates, poured two pools of golden olive oil and let us have at it. We dipped bits of freshly baked bread into his farm’s olive oil until the oil dripped profusely from my shiny chin. There may not have been any pigs around the table but you would have never guessed by the snorting sounds we all made.
If you are starting to get famished and wish you could partake, I strongly suggest visiting Johann’s online store and getting some truffles and olive oil shipped directly to your door. Johann and Lisa offer an amazing array of gift boxes, oils, truffle beers, wines, and other items to bring back the joyous communal spirit of Provence in your own home.
ADOPT A TRUFFLE TREE — SERIOUSLY
One of the most amazing things they do is allow you to adopt your very own truffle tree. Johann explains: ‘Anyone can have roots in Provence! Just adopt an olive tree or truffle oak at Les Pastras. You’ll receive an annual shipment of olive oil and/or truffles, the perfect way to begin the New Year, and timed to make a great gift for the holidays. And for every tree purchased, we send a tree to the One Family orphanage in Haiti.’
Don’t worry, if your tree ends up a dud, Johann will still send a fragrant box of truffles to enjoy.
p.s. a bit of a disclaimer and a heartfelt endorsement: While all people who grow and hunt truffles are very secretive about their operations I poked a bit of fun at Johann and Lisa. Both are very gracious and wonderful people and I guarantee they will make you feel completely at home at their farm.
A visit to Les Pastras is a must-do for any true holiday in Provence.
A RECIPE FOR SUMMER TRUFFLES AND PASTA FROM NICE
Truffles are a wonderful addition to just about everything. Their earthy flavors marry perfectly with rich, creamy dishes. The pasta recipe comes from disgraced former Nice mayor Jacques Medecin. I may have forgotten the scandals that embroiled his career, but I do remember his wonderful cookbook celebrating Nicoise cuisine. Although this pasta recipe was made with white truffles from Alba, Italy it will work perfectly for both summer truffles and winter truffles.
Spaghetti with Eggs (Lu Spaghetti a L’Ou)
A Nicoise preparation for spaghetti heavily influenced by her Italian neighbor that I modified slightly from Jacques Medecin’s original.
- 1 pound spaghetti
- 4 ounces butter room temperature
- 3 eggs
- 3 egg yolks
- 7 ounces Parmesan grated, not shredded
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 5 ounces pancetta diced
- 1 pinch piment d’ville (or Espelette)
- 1 cup cream
- to taste flake sea salt
- to taste black pepper
- 4 ounces white truffles sliced thin
- Cook pasta al dente.
- While pasta is cooking, beat the eggs, egg yolks, and half of the Parmesan together.
- Heat the olive oil and brown the diced pancetta. When brown, add the piment d’ville and all the cream.
- Toss the pasta with the room temperature butter, egg mixture, and pancetta mixture. Shave the truffles over, sprinkle with remaining Parmesan, and serve immediately.