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July 24, 2018, France

Not to be sniffed at

Digging up the Périgord truffle requires the keen noses of dogs, Bryant Chan discovers

Bryant Chan

“YOU are holding easily €90 in your hand,” said truffle expert Johann Pepin.

I looked down at the misshapen brown lump cradled in my palm.

The dirt-caked subterranean fungus was about 5cm in diameter and worth S$144 apparently.

It could afford me a front-row ticket to see my favourite band, or give my family of fi ve a meal at our favourite yakitori restaurant, or pay my phone bill for four months.

Precious black diamond

No wonder the black truffle is also known as the black diamond. Depending on the season, prices can range from €500 to €1,000 per kg.

Johann and his wife Lisa cultivate the precious crop at their Les Pastras farm and vineyards in Cadenet, which I visited during my trip to the French Riviera.

Though just 11ha in size, Les Pastras and a few farms in the Provence region account for 88 per cent of the global Périgord truffle production.

That makes the Pepins two of the world’s foremost experts on Périgord truffles.

So far, my only experience with truffles had been with the flavoured oil drizzled onto plates of cheese-topped fries at hipster cafés in Singapore.

The fact that this little pellet could command such a high price did nothing to change my perceptions of fine dining.

Johann had foreseen this would be a problem for many in our travel group. He explained that truffles are expensive because they are very complicated to cultivate.

First and foremost, Périgord truffles’ microscopic spores can germinate only around the roots of a mature oak tree.

It is a symbiotic relationship, Johann explained.

Contrary to the typical perception that truffles grow in dark, gloomy environments, Périgord truffles can grow only in dry, sunny regions, with the temperatures ranging from minus 5 deg C in winter to 40 deg C in summer.

They also require the perfect mixture of clay, loam and limestone to grow.

If the proportion of clay is too high, moisture will kill the spores. The soil pH must also remain at a constant eight.

Farming Périgord truffles takes great patience as they take seven to 10 years to reach the right age for harvesting. But that is not even the hardest part of it.

A dog-eat-true world

As it turned out, the ultimate task was trying to control Johann’s two truffle-hunting dogs.

Mirabelle, a small Maltese-looking mutt with large and watery eyes, trotted at his heels with an air of detached disinterest, while Éclair (“flash of lightning” in French), a young black Labrador-Border Collie mix, bounded from guest to guest like a furry pinball, tongue flapping from between its teeth.

After hired farmhand Jean-Marc had placated the dogs with some bits of sausage, we were ready to go hunting.

Then Éclair bolted and disappeared into the dry grass. Some of us started to go after it but were stopped by Johann.

He explained that Éclair wouldn’t find anything there as mature truffles produce a chemical that kills the grass around them, leaving tell-tale circles of bare earth.

It was at one of these spots that Mirabelle dug a hole, from which one of us extricated what looked like a miniature potato — our first truffle of the day.

Mirabelle was promptly rewarded with some sausage and an affectionate pat.

“When you find a truffle, it’s good for only two weeks,” Johann said. “After two weeks, it gets soft and starts to disintegrate.” The first thing a truffle hunter does — after wresting it from the dog — is to squeeze it.

If it is hard, it is good; if it is soft like a ripe avocado, then it cannot be eaten.

Johann squeezed our latest find between his thumb and forefinger like one would a rubber ball.

Then he tore it in half with ease, revealing the speckled black flesh beneath.

Immediately, the scent of fresh truffle rose into the air and the crowd let out a sigh.

“When we find a truffle that’s just right, the smell will be even better,” Johann promised.

“This won’t be the only one we find today.” Before long, Mirabelle had found another, and I held it in my hands.

Even when it was fully intact and coated with a fine layer of dirt, the fragrance of truffle was unmistakable. I was half-tempted to pop it straight into my mouth just for a taste, but Johann cautioned that it would not taste good on its own.

“And besides, it really wouldn’t be worth the price,” he added with a grin.

Fruits of our labour

Before long, we returned to the Pepins’ residence to sample our spoils of the day.

We had harvested six good-sized truffles, excluding two that were too soft to be eaten and one that Éclair had accidentally bitten in half in its excitement.

Lisa prepared a variety of truffle dishes for us, such as sliced truffle on local Provençal bread with Bethmale des Pyrénées cheese, and truffle ice cream with raw organic Provence honey.

On its own, the truffle’s fragrance might have been a little cloying, but the subtle sweetness of the honey maintained a balance.

I ended up swiping another of my companion’s when she was not looking.

I was disappointed that the ice cream could not be shipped to Singapore.

But luckily, Johann had other options such as bottles of truffle salt and oil and other produce fresh from Les Pastras for us to remember this lovely trip by.

The writer’s trip to Les Pastras was organised by Insight Vacations and Air France as part of Insight Vacations’ French Vogue tour.

GUIDELINES

I flew Air France from Singapore to Paris, then took the TGV train to Avignon, followed by an hour’s bus ride to Cadenet.

■ Winter truffles (tuber melanosporum) are in season from mid-November to mid-March. Summer truffle (tuber estiva) season is between May and September.

■ A truffle hunt is €70 (S$112) for adults and €50 for children aged 10 and above. It is free for those below 10 years old.

■ Les Pastras also offers a host of non-truffle-related activities, including grape stomps in September, olive harvests in early November, and mushroom hunting in autumn. Fishing, foraging and pétanque lessons are offered all year round.

Bring home a little bit of Provence with Les Pastras’ famous Périgord truffles, as well as truffle oil, truffle salt, truffle honey and even truffle beer. The less truffle-inclined can opt for the wildflower honey and olive oil.

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