On the truffle hunt in Provence
Southern France entices those with a passion for fine winter food
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.
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
Truffles, selling for $350 a kilo, are part of the black economy