On the truf­fle hunt in Provence

South­ern France en­tices those with a pas­sion for fine win­ter food

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ROB COWEN THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

SERGE fixes us with his Al Pa­cino stare, his bowl of black truf­fles fill­ing the room with a gassy whiff. ‘‘Two years ago, an old wom­an­was taken,’’ he says. ‘‘They tied her up un­til she told them where her truf­fles were hid­den.’’ Af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the Vau­cluse area of Provence for the past 24 hours, I don’t doubt him for a minute.

Ac­com­pa­nied by my friend and fel­low truf­fle novice, Char­lie, we reach Avi­gnon in the late af­ter­noon. We wan­der through the town’s Christ­mas mar­ket as the clear sky smudges with evening. Twin­kling fes­tive lights circle sym­met­ri­cal lines of wooden huts sell­ing ev­ery­thing from lo­cal glass jew­ellery to don­key salami. We stock up on stock­ing fillers be­fore stretch­ing our legs past the enor­mous Palais des Papes and up to the Jardin du Rocher des Doms for a breath­tak­ing view over the half-bridge im­mor­talised in the song Sur le Pont d’Avi­gnon.

The sun­set dances over the Rhone as the olive trees scent the sur­pris­ingly warm win­ter air.

Twenty min­utes’ drive north­east, we pull into Car­pen­tras, a de­light­ful, but­ter- coloured Proven­cal town and our first real stop on the truf­fle trail. Our des­ti­na­tion is a hand­some 18th­cen­tury French town­house, Mai­son Tre­vier, a B&B with vast, finely fin­ished rooms and a court­yard gar­den re­plete with ev­ery herb. Open­ing the stud­ded, oak front door, Gina wel­comes us like long-lost sons and shows us to our room. ‘‘Re­fresh quickly please, boys. Tonight, we cook to­gether.’’

Gath­ered in her cav­ernous kitchen, we don aprons to try our hand at age-old recipes that serve as a whis­tle-stop tour of the culi­nary riches of this re­gion — pump­kins, can­died fruit, olive oil and, the cen­tre­piece of the sea­son, the oblig­a­tory black truf­fle. I busy my­self mas­ter­ing a pompe a l’huile, a sweet, orange-scented cake or bread that forms part of Provence’s tra­di­tional 13 desserts, served on Christ­mas Eve to rep­re­sent the 12 apos­tles and Christ.

‘‘ Re­garde . . .’’ Gina sud­denly com­mands, re­triev­ing some­thing from the fridge, ‘‘ la truffe.’’ Be­ing early in the sea­son (Jan­uary is the peak month), it looks hum­ble enough, yet she rinses it as care­fully as if she were bathing the in­fant mes­siah. Slices are added to a bowl of eggs be­fore they’re scram­bled and served over wilted chard. It tastes holy.

Feast­ing on the fruits of our labours with bot­tles of lo­cal Cote du Rhone, we could be at a Proven­cal ta­ble two cen­turies ago.

Morn­ing breaks in a bus­tle of noise and we fol­low it to the town’s truf­fle mar­ket. Mus­ta­chioed men gather around tables to barter on the price of these black di­a­monds, sell­ing for up­wards of ($350) a kilo. Serge, a lo­cal restau­ra­teur and Michael Cor­leone looka­like, shakes our hands. ‘‘You come to my place for lunch.’’

It is an of­fer we can­not refuse. Chez Serge doesn’t dis­ap­point. For­ti­fied with his truf­fle-but­tered bread and sto­ries, we drive deeper into the Vau­cluse area sur­round­ing Mont Ven­toux. The em­blem­atic moun­tain, a favourite among walk­ers, dom­i­nates the hori­zon to the east. Vine­yards trimmed af­ter the har­vests roll across the un­du­lat­ing coun­try­side, in­ter- spersed with cor­ri­dors of laven­der and stands of white and green oak trees, the truf­fle’s host.

At the fine farm­house B&B Les Ur­su­lines, close to Val­reas, our fal­ter­ing French greet­ing to owner Jean-Pierre is met with an en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse that some­how leads to us be­ing bun­dled into his car and tear­ing up a dusty road to meet Jac­ques and Diane, a weary-look­ing truf­fle hound on a length of rope. Both eye us sus­pi­ciously. Jean-Pierre re­as­sures us, ‘‘Peo­ple get ner­vous on truf­fle hunts. Dogs get stolen.’’

Hand­shakes are ex­changed and we are off again to a fenced-off field of oaks. Af­ter 10 min­utes, Diane is prov­ing her worth. We dig up the truf­fles she has de­tected and are re­warded when our hosts in­sist we pocket a spec­i­men as pay­ment.

We cel­e­brate in style, sam­pling wine at Coteaux de Visan near Val­reas, be­fore a sup­per of scal­lops and wild boar at Le Co­queli­cot res­tau­rant. The per­vad­ing truf­fle smell lingers, and fel­low din­ers slap us on the back, rais­ing their glasses know­ingly. We feel ac­cli­ma­tised.

The beauty of Richerenches is ar­rest­ing in the morn­ing sun. This an­cient Knights Tem­plar en­clave, 10 min­utes’ drive from Les Ur­su­lines, is a re­minder of the his­toric af­flu­ence of the area.

Me­dieval de­fen­sive

walls en­cir­cle a vil­lage of pic­turesque streets that plays host to a fer­vour­filled truf­fle mass in Jan­uary. The 3000-strong con­gre­ga­tion even swaps the usual wafer for a slice of the stuff.

At the Satur­day mar­ket, lo­cals show­case home­made ril­lettes of boar and rab­bit along­side wines and apri­cot nougat. From the back of hatch­backs, truf­fle pick­ers sell their wares in clan­des­tine fash­ion, hid­ing their fi­nan­cial transactions from view. ‘‘The truf­fle is part of the black econ­omy,’’ Jean-Pierre ex­plains. ‘‘No tax’’.

Ap­petite stim­u­lated, we head south into the Gard, drop­ping in for lunch among the faded grand fa­cades of the canal-side town of Beau­caire. The front-room feel of res­tau­rant L’Ipicerie de Ce­cile is worth the de­tour. Ce­cile doesn’t be­lieve in menus and serves what­ever she wants fol­low­ing her trip to the morn­ing mar­ket. It’s a phi­los­o­phy that works; lo­cal spe­cial­i­ties of roasted ap­ple with goat’s cheese and bran­dade de morue — an emul­sion of salt cod and olive oil — are fan­tas­tic, washed down with the lo­cal rose, Chateaux Mour­gues du Gres.

Our fi­nal stop is Nimes, a city with more lay­ers than a mille­feuille. All thoughts of stretch­ing out at our ho­tel, Le Che­val Blanc, are aban­doned when we open the shut­ters to the sight of France’s old­est Ro­man am­phithe­atre di­rectly op­po­site. Lunch is climbed off around its an­cient tiers, as we learn about the glad­i­a­to­rial com­bat that hap­pened be­neath, be­fore a stroll through Nimes’s smooth-stoned cen­tre to find the Ro­man tem­ple of Diane and the vast turquoise spring that gave the city its name.

As night falls, the streets come alive with Christ­mas lights, fes­tive mu­sic and shop­pers. We rest on the steps of the Mai­son Car­ree, the il­lu­mi­nated col­umns of this Ro­man tem­ple re­flected in the glass of the Nor­man Fos­ter­de­signed Carre d’Art gallery across the square. We re­flect too, on the joy of find­ing trea­sure, both freshly buried in the Provence soil and an­cient, in the heart of a city. maison­tre­vier.com cham­bred­hote84.com lecheval­blanc-nimes.com visit-south­ern-france.com

Gina, owner of Mai­son Tre­vier, a B&B in a hand­some 18th-cen­tury town­house in Car­pen­tras, smells the wares at the truf­fle mar­ket

AP

Truf­fles, sell­ing for $350 a kilo, are part of the black econ­omy

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