Features 22 March 2019

Black velvet: French truffle country

The white truffle is the star, they say, but the delicate restraint of its black cousin can be a delight. Natasha Hughes MW finds the beating heart of French truffle country

Words by Natasha Hughes MW

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For the truly greedy among us, the arrival of winter heralds at least one great benefit. Truffles begin arriving in the marketplace in late autumn, bringing with them a fanfare of articles focusing on their incredible aromas, their ability to titivate a plate of pasta into a gourmet triumph and their eye-watering prices. In most instances, attention is focused firmly on Alba’s hedonistically perfumed white truffles, but according to Club Gascon’s chef-patron Pascal Aussignac, we do ourselves a disservice by ignoring the black truffles of his home country.

‘White truffles have very pungent, in-your-face-flavours, so I use them with fatty, mild ingredients – things like risotto or white chocolate – as these allow the truffle to be the star of the show,’ he says. ‘Black truffles are more restrained, more like a seasoning, so they are far more versatile – not to mention several times cheaper. I use them to flavour strong sauces made with wine or put them in a stuffing for a roast meat dish.’

Maison de la Truffe
Truffles for sampling

France’s black truffles are often generically known as Périgord truffles, but despite the strong links with the southwest of the country, most French truffles are actually produced in southern France. Truffles have always had an important part to play in local culture and gastronomy, and the beating heart of the Provençal truffle scene is the delightful hill town of Aups.

From November on, right through to March, Thursday mornings in Aups are truffle mornings. In days gone by, the truffle market was dominated by local farmers, who would turn up with hand­held scales and sacks of aromatic fungi, which they sold from their car boots. These days the market is a slightly more formal affair, with producers manning stalls in the main square.

Towards the end of January, just as the fungi are reaching their perfumed peak, the town hosts a truffle festival. This features not only the truffle market – enhanced by the addition of other local produce – but also truffle-hunting demonstrations, competitions to find the best truffle-hunting hound and plentiful opportunities to taste dishes larded with slivers of truffle.

So, even though Provence’s truffles may not gather all the attention that their spotlight-loving white cousins enjoy, a few days spent in Aups this winter may well spark a long and enduring relationship with the region’s subtle, mysterious black diamonds.

The hill town of Aups

Where to learn about black truffles
Aups’s Maison de la Truffe (maisondelatruffe-verdon.fr), just off the main square, acts as a museum and reference centre for those interested in furthering their acquaintance with black diamonds but who don’t have the time to travel out to the countryside. 

Those seeking deeper insights into the truffle scene might want to visit a local producer. Both the Domaine de Majastre (domaine-de-majastre.fr) and Le Lointain offer group visits that include truffle-hunting demonstrations (complete with furry friend) and tastings. 

For a bespoke introduction to truffles, though, Jessica Collins (letablier83@gmail.com) offers tailor-made tours adapted to your interests and schedule. Collins, an English native who has lived in the area for most of her life, used to farm and forage for wild truffles professionally. She now uses that experience to lead intrepid gourmets on visits to truffle farms and forests while sharing her insights on a wide variety of truffle-related topics.

A truffle pig (most truffle hunting is now done by dogs)
Truffles for sale

Where to try
If your enthusiasm for truffles is limited to a purely gastronomic appreciation, many of the local restaurants offer truffle-focused menus during the winter months. Chez Bruno in Lorgues (restaurantbruno.com) is probably the best known – it’s certainly the grandest and most formal of the local restaurants – but La Table in Tourtour has been turning heads in recent years, thanks to its more contemporary take on the truffle theme.

Where to buy
The obvious places to buy truffles are either at the Thursday market or directly from any producer you visit. Curiously, in a town so devoted to the black diamonds, there’s precious little to buy in terms of pre-prepared truffle-laced goodies. The Maison de la Truffe is the only game in town in this context, so pop in to stock up on truffle salts, oils, vinegars, mustards and other aromatic culinary delights.

Jessica Collins is also happy to advise on purchases, and she organises truffle-themed cooking classes on request.

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