Food & Drink: Trough Trade

Even with Kiki the pig in tow, Raymond can't find many truffles in the field he's nurtured for 40 years. Catherine Guilyardi joins the hunt for the world's most rarefied fungus

Frozen Oak Leaves rustle under our feet as we walk out on this sunny and beautiful morning. We are going truffle hunting near the small village of Lalbenque, in the region of Quercy in south-west France: Kiki the pig, his master Raymond Boisset and me. Using his snout as his weapon, Kiki is literally ploughing the little field that Raymond planted with oak trees 40 years ago in the hope that truffles would one day appear on their roots. Kiki comes to a sudden halt and starts to grunt with pleasure, digging madly into the ground. Fifteen centimetres from the surface, the little black diamond appears. Raymond hastily grabs it before Kiki gets a chance to devour it. Greedy pigs are the best truffle hunters; even so, there are fewer and fewer being put to work, the job having largely been taken over by dogs because they are easier to handle.

The number of truffles being found is also falling. We only discover two in Raymond's field that morning. There are not many, either, when we visit the local truffle market, held in Lalbenque every Tuesday between December to March, the harvesting season. A dozen farmers stand behind the traditional truffle bench on which their tiny baskets lie. The baskets hold just three or four truffles each.

A pompous ceremony opens this, the first market of the year. Members of l'Ordre du Diamant Noir (the Guild of the Black Diamond), wearing black robes and large hats and bearing silver medals on their chests, proclaim the mysteries of their prized mushroom. It is not until the whistle is blown and the market declared open that people start to talk. "Thirty years ago, we sold them by the tonne," says farmer Henri Bourgnou, "but who wants to grow truffles today? They need too much care and too much time for too unpredictable a result."

Tuber melanosporum, this subterranean fungus, will only appear 10 years after an oak or hazel tree has been planted, when the roots are sufficiently developed. Good climatic conditions are essential to its growth: it needs regular watering and a mild winter. In 1998, the summer was too dry and the winter came too early. On top of this, wild boars destroyed entire crops by digging up the fields. As a result, the region's first crop of the year is disast-rous. Fewer than 15kg are sold on the market this Tuesday. The farmers' only consolation is the price these precious few fetch: FFr2,200 (pounds 240) per kilogram, or pounds 25 for a single truffle the size of a plum.

"It's madness," says Pierre-Jean Pebeyre, whose family has been selling truffles for more than 100 years. They arrive at the Maison Pebeyre factory from all over France, Spain and Italy, and are very carefully chosen. "We select them on their colour - the blacker they are, the riper - and on their consistency. They have to be hard but not too hard, like a firm rubber ball. Then we scratch the skin a bit to see the inside. A good truffle is black with white veining, and with good contrast between the black and the white." Maison Pebeyre sells the truffles on fresh for around FFr4,000 (pounds 440) a kilogram, or makes them into preserves for luxury shops including Lafayette Gourmet in Paris, where 50g (two cherry-sized truffles) cost FFr428 (pounds 47) - which works out at an astonishing pounds 915 per kilogram. It is the price that confines this little mud-loving mushroom to the ghetto of super-luxurious foods.

At the start of this century, France produced around 1,000 tonnes of truffles a year, a figure which has now dropped to just 50 tonnes. The Maison Pebeyre dominates the market (it sells 20 tonnes annually), but Pierre-Jean knows that its future depends on the revival of truffle growing. To encourage farmers, the government has promised FFr5m (pounds 0.55m) over the next five years - a sum that will be matched by the regional governments. "But if a tree gives no truffles, there are no subsidies from the state or from Europe, as there are for a poor wheat crop," says Pierre-Jean.

The modern misconception that truffles are difficult to cook with is based on their cost and rarity. Nineteenth-century cookbooks show that truffles were as common then as garlic or potatoes, and meals would often include several whole truffles. As an astounded Ken Hom once remarked: "They couldn't get rid of the bloody things!"

Antony Worrall Thompson chose Italian white truffles as his luxury to take to his desert island. And Ken Hom finds French black truffles "so wonderful and so unique" that he has moved to Quercy "for love" of them. "I use them in my spring rolls," he says, "because with truffles, you really just want to steam or warm them. You don't need a lot to experience their flavour. Cook them with eggs and you will understand the glories of truffles ... "

Simplicity is the key word with this subterranean mushroom. The truffle has a delicate but surprisingly intense flavour that will penetrate a whole dish. Its earthy, slightly pungent taste fills the mouth. It isn't like a mushroom, nor anything else I've ever tasted before. To savour it, just put a thin slice of truffle, topped with coarse salt, in buttered bread and heat it in a hot oven for two minutes - it makes a wonderful snack. At Le Rendez-Vous in Cahors, chef David Blanco prepares a potato pancake (galette) with duck comfit and truffle for us. It is simple and delicious, the delicately cooked slices of truffle giving a crunchy touch to the meal and flooding it with their strong aroma.

The future of the truffle may soon depend on the scientific research that began 20 years ago to improve yields. But how, where and even why truffles grow at all remains mysterious. Unlike strawberries, baby truffles (mycelium) cannot simply be sown under a tree and mature truffles picked six months later. So far, the only successful scientific intervention has been treating tree roots before they are planted to accelerate the growth of the fungus. But the older, traditional farmers look down on those innovations. They are convinced that truffles and their development should remain a mystery, as an intrinsic part of their appeal.

The National Institute for Agronomic Research has even developed a synthetic truffle aroma now, that can fool the truffling dogs; the awful fear, these traditional farmers say, is that one day it will replace the aromatic fungus of which they are so proud.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor