Maison Plantin and the secrets of the truffle, a knowledge shared

Truffle history

The history of the truffle goes back deep into antiquity. In that era, the truffle, greatly appreciated by the Greeks and Romans for its aphrodisiac properties, had a place at acombll fine tables. In the Middle Ages, considered as devilish, even satanic, due to its black colour and the fact that it grew underground, it fell out of favour.

It found new life a few decades later in the court of the Avignon Popes in the Vaucluse and had a presence at every banquet. It reached its golden age in the 19th century. The phylloxera crisis (a disease caused by an aphid from North America) in all vines across Europe, with its disastrous effect on vineyards, was a godsend for truffle hunters who were able to comb the fallow land ideal for truffle growing.

Truffle history

History of the Truffle

Understanding how truffles grow, they established the first truffle plantations. The truffle became a luxury product and appeared on the menus of top flight restaurants.

Two world wars, the rural exodus and intensive farming had an extremely negative impact on truffle growing, damaged soils and caused truffle production to fall considerably.

The truffle only made a major comeback in the nineteen sixties. Truffle growing took off again but the quantities harvested were only a tenth of those in the 19th century. In France, since truffle production has fluctuated over the years, it has become one of the world's greatest luxury products, along with caviar and foie gras.

Since the start of the 21st century, it has been the Vaucluse which has occupied the top step on the podium of truffle producers.

History of the Truffle

The mystery of the black diamond

A truffle is the fruit of a mushroom. It is born and develops at a depth of 1 to 20 centimetres below the surface in symbiosis with a tree such as an oak or hazel.

The truffle and the tree linked by small filaments forming a spider's web (mycorrhiza) work together: the truffle provides mineral salts which it releases into the soil and the tree provides sugars which it manufactures through photosynthesis.

Its fruiting remains a mystery, even though, thanks to scientific research and the knowledge acquired by truffle growers, we know a little more today and some secrets are being gradually revealed.

The mystery of the black diamond

The different species

There are different species of truffle but they are not all equally prized. Only some have a gastronomic value and are more or less sought after, depending on the season and their origin:

The Périgord black truffle

known as the black diamond of cuisine.

Its Latin name: Tuber Melanosporum

Its origin : France (Vaucluse and Drôme mainly), Italy, Spain. Australia.

Its portrait : Round, slightly knobbly in shape, it can grow larger than an apple. Its skin changes from bright red to a very dark brown, even black, and its flesh changes from pale yellow to brown and then to black veined with white upon maturity. On the nose, a very powerful fragrance, like nothing else, reminiscent of damp undergrowth, earth, humus and dried mushrooms. In the mouth, it is both soft and crisp and reveals a subtle flavour that is hard to describe. Connoisseurs rate it as number one, since even in small quantities, it can add fragrance to any dish, if added at the last moment.

The Périgord black truffle

The Alba white truffle

also known as the Piedmont white truffle

Its Latin name : Tuber Magnatum Pico

Its origin : Italy and some east European countries such as Croatia

Its portrait : Its colour is a pale yellow, sometimes even ochre. Shot through with numerous white veins, the colour of its flesh varies from a creamy white to a white sometimes stained with pink, depending on the maturity of the tree with which it has the symbiotic relationship. Its fragrance on the nose, like in the mouth is very intense and is reminiscent of fresh garlic, shallots and cheese. Since this wild white truffle is the rarest and most sought after in the world, it is also the most expensive. It is preferably eaten raw.

The Alba white truffle

The Summer truffle

also known as the St Jean truffle

Its Latin name: Tuber Aestivum

Its origin   : France, Spain, Italy and east European countries like Bulgaria and Hungary.

Its portrait: Generally larger and firmer than the melanosporum, with a skin similar to the black truffle but its flesh is light in colour. White at the start of the season and changing to brown at the end, it has a slight hazelnut flavour. On the nose, a fine, light fragrance of mushrooms and undergrowth. Because of its weaker flavour and milder taste, it is less prized than its cousin, the black truffle and so is less expensive.

The Summer truffle

The Burgundy truffle

Also known as the autumn truffle

Its latin name : Tuber Uncinatum

Its origin : north of France (Burgundy) and the whole of Europe (mainly Bulgaria and Hungary)

Its portrait : its skin is blackish and the flesh, which is covered with white veins, turns a dark brown when it reaches maturity. It is distinguished from its cousin, the summer truffle, by its slightly more intense aroma and stronger nature. In the mouth its bitter side disappears to leave a subtle taste of hazelnut and mushrooms.

The Burgundy truffle

The Musk Truffle

Also known as The Brumale

Its latin name : Tuber brumale

Its origin : France

Its portrait : even though it greatly resembles the black truffle, its skin is not as dark, it is smaller in size and its flesh, on maturity, turns grey with fewer white veins. If you brush it or scratch it, its scales come away quite easily. On the nose, it has a very intense perfume of musk and ether. In the mouth, it is rather pleasant despite a herbaceous, peppery taste. It and the black truffle, tuber melanosporum, are the only ones for which the use of the term "truffé" is permitted, when referring to culinary preparations.

The Musk Truffle

Chinese truffle

Its latin name: Tuber himalayense, Tuber indicum and Tuber sinense

Its origin : China in the foothills of the Himalayas, the south of Sichuan and the north of Yunnan.

Its portrait : Although smaller, it is easily confused with the black truffle, which it resembles visually. It has a black skin and almost identical veins. Its texture is sometimes firmer and rubbery and it does not have the flavour qualities of the black truffle. Actually, its aroma is so subtle that you could say that it has no taste. Its resemblance to the black truffle is sometimes exploited dishonestly, especially since it can be bought for a fraction of the price of the European black truffle.

Chinese truffle

The 'Cavage'

Today, there are practically no wild truffles Most truffles come from plantations.

Cavage is the way truffles are harvested: it is the process of searching for and extracting truffles. Since the truffle is an underground mushroom and therefore invisible to the human eye, cavage is practised in several ways with the help of certain animals:

  • Flies: a particular fly, naturally attracted by the odour of the truffle has the unique feature of laying its eggs on truffles as a food source for its larvae. They are often found hovering vertically above the spot where a truffle is hidden. So just position yourself at ground level and watch for these tiny insects... an ancient technique more than uncertain for the serious truffle hunter but fun for the casual walker.
  • Pigs: thanks to its highly developed sense of smell, its taste for truffles and its habit of grubbing through the soil to feed itself, the pig is an excellent, indefatigable searcher. But its master must be extremely vigilant since the pig is an enthusiastic eater and difficult to handle and the harvest can easily be lost. For a long time it was the truffle hunter's preferred companion.
  • Dogs: the breed is not important, it's all about training from a very early age. A dog, man's best friend, can quickly and easily find truffles for its master to enjoy. A good truffle dog can cost a lot of money and, even today, there are truffle hunting competitions for dogs.

Truffle markets

There are many truffle markets but two of them in Provence, in the Vaucluse, compete for the favour of truffle lovers:

  • in Richerenches: the Richerenches market takes place every Saturday morning in winter. It is the largest one in Europe. And, for more than 50 years, for Saint Antoine's day on the third Sunday in January, the brotherhood of the knights of the black diamond march through the town in procession to attend mass and have truffles blessed. The particular feature of this mass is that, the collection taken up is not of coins but of truffles which are then sold to fund the church. Included in this tradition is a fragrance tithe, once paid to the church in exchange for its blessing.
  • in Carpentras: the Carpentras market, every Friday morning from November to March. The Carpentras market remains low key and is reminiscent of markets in days gone by when transactions between truffle hunters and dealers took place in the back rooms of cafés.

Truffle markets

The markets operate as a reference for prices; they determine the going rate for truffles.

Quasi-secret, these key markets are to a large extent restricted to the initiated and professionals.

In a square or in the street, old vans with their doors open, parked in their reserved spot, set the scene. The scent of truffles is all pervasive. Behind the vans, the drivers, rabasseurs and caveurs wait patiently for buyers who come to observe, smell and feel the precious truffles and go from one vehicle to another. You can barely hear what they are saying and yet, in just a few hours, deals are done for this precious black gold and it disappears into cloth bags. A few gendarmes keep a discreet eye on things from a distance. That is the atmosphere which exists at both of these markets and in those which operate throughout Provence.

In Gard, for example, the best known market is the one in Uzès which, like all truffle markets, takes place from mid-November to March. Gard is a great truffle producing region but in Uzès the market is also very discreet with sale very often restricted to dealers. It is worth knowing that, every year, a celebration brings truffle lovers together to taste truffle products and purchase directly from truffle growers.
Other less well-known markets take place in other towns such as Valreas and Taulignan.