......My wife and I set off over the next few days, ricocheting from the olive mills of Vaison to the chocolatiers of Avignon, the confiseries of Carpentras to the winemakers of Gigondas - and everywhere else in between - following a relay of recommendations, like greedy truffle pigs chasing an irresistible scent.
'Actually, truffle-hunters don't really use pigs. They always try to eat the truffles,' says Florence Plisson, marketing director for Plantin, probably the world's largest truffle wholesaler. Based on the outskirts of the village of Puyméras, north of Vaison, Plantin is a truffle-lover's heaven, handling around 16 tonnes of the elusive fungus every year. This was a tip-off from Wells, as it happens: Plantin, which was founded in 1930, supplies his wife Patricia's annual truffle workshop, as well as the holy trinity of France's greatest chefs: Ducasse, Robuchon and Savoy.
In Plantin's reception area I am assailed by a pungent scent: is that mushrooms, nuts or stable floor? 'I don't smell it any more,' Plisson says. The aromas are even more overwhelming in the processing room, where workers are busy weighing, filling jars with off-cuts and, rather unexpectedly, X-raying. 'It's mainly for the mushrooms,' Florence explains. 'Sellers sometimes try to increase the weight by filling the morels with stones or metal.' Truffle farmers are not averse to similar tricks, of course. 'Sometimes they try to tape two together to make one big one,' Plantin's chief buyer, Eric Hinterlang, tells me. During the season, from November to March, it is Hinterlang who visits the local truffle markets in Richerenches (Saturdays) and Carpentras (Fridays) and receives the steady procession of weather-worn men with string for belts who turn up bearing sacks of the stinky black tubers. The current price for winter truffles is about £1,050 per kilo, says Plisson.
'The Vaucluse is the best place in the world for truffles. Prices are highest before Christmas, but actually they are ripest in January and early February,' says Laurent Deconinck, chef of L'Oustalet, a one-room restaurant in the hillside wine village of Gigondas that is recommended by many as the best in the region. With its bare wood tables and minimalist floral displays, it wouldn't look out of place on the Left Bank, and has fed visitors to this bustling little wine mecca for half a century. Three years ago it was taken over by Francois and Jean-Pierre Perrin. The brothers are major names in the French wine trade as owners of Château de Beaucastel and numerous other domaines, not to mention as managers of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's vineyard, Château Miraval, north of Aix. They had fresh ambitions for the restaurant.......
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