I didn’t want to put this in last week’s post because, let’s be honest here, black winter truffle deserve their own post. When we were planning our Thanksgiving week trip to Avignon I remembered one of the people/places I follow on Twitter is Les Pastras, a farm in Provence. But not just any farm. One with truffles. And truffle hunts. Once we booked our place to stay I sent a request regarding joining a truffle hunt if they had any scheduled. They did!
Ironically, the owners of Les Pastras, Lisa and Johann, met in Chicago . They moved back to his family’s vineyard in the early 2000’s and have been building up the farm and developing their business ever since. And they have truffles. Did I mention that? Actually, they have a lot more than truffles. They also produce olive oil, honey, some fruit, pretty much what you’d think farms have. And all of it is really good. Anyway, about the truffle hunt.
It was about an hour drive from where we were staying in Avignon but since the truffle hunt was scheduled for mid-morning on a weekday traffic wasn’t bad at all. And it was a very pretty drive through the Provence countryside, until we got to this small town Google maps was directing us through and practically scraped the walls with our car. Navigator Cheryl was very supportive of my efforts to get us to the other side. I even got a ‘good job honey’ when we emerged unscathed. Must have been because of all the ‘wtf google!?!?’ ‘s which were coming out of me. [Side Roam: that’s one thing I really dislike about Google maps. It gives you the ‘quickest route’ even though it is sending you on streets which are about as wide as your car with twists and turns. And then when you arrive, you find out there’s a real road which goes around the town and takes like 30 seconds longer. F’in Google.]
Once we arrived we met Lisa and Johann then joined up with the rest of the hunting party. As we waited for the truffle hunter and his dogs to arrive Johann gave us a very informative lesson on black truffles and how you go about looking for them. First he explained how black truffles really need perfect conditions to grow. Heat, water, just the right soil pH, if one of these is off like too much water or not enough heat, no truffles. We also learned how you go about searching for truffles. You don’t go around looking at every oak or hazelnut tree. Trees have specific signs around them which show they may have truffles growing on their roots which can save you a lot of time in a forest of oak trees.
Part of their conservancy is planting oak trees which may produce truffles in the future. And before you go thinking to yourself hey that’s a great idea I should do it, be aware it takes about 10 years for an oak tree to start producing truffles, if it produces them at all. You may wait 10 years and get nothing but a tree. And a really good yield on those plantings might be somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% producing truffles. So when you read a story about how some US billionaire is planting fungus inoculated trees in order to corner the domestic truffle market, you can be pretty certain they won’t.
Truffles 101 complete, it was time for the hunt. By this time our hunter and his dogs, Mirabel and Éclair, had arrived and he was preparing them for work. Mirabelle is older, wiser, knows how to work. Éclair, well not so much. He’s still a puppy and learning the ropes so he gets distracted easily. Ah you’re thinking wait minute, I thought they used pigs? Well they used to, and pigs are very good at finding truffles. Mostly because when the truffle is ‘ripe’ it releases a chemical similar to pheromones resembling a female pig in heat. So of course the male pigs smell it and go bonkers trying to find where it’s coming from. The only problem with using pigs is once they find the spot it’s rather difficult to shove them to the side and pluck the truffle out of the ground. You’re not moving that pig (trust me, I know from personal experience pigs are not easily shoved aside). According to Johann this is why older truffle hunters are usually missing part of a finger. Got in the way of the pig’s mouth.
Back to the hunt. We started walking around and when we got to an area showing signs of truffles the hunter directed the dogs to search and they went about their business. They’d sniff around and Mirabel would let you know she found something by slightly pawing the ground. Then Éclair would rush in, bowl her over and start digging. We all learned ‘doucement!!!’ since that’s what the hunter kept saying to Éclair as he sent dirt flying (means ‘slowly!!!!’). Didn’t have to dig much as the truffles we found were all pretty much about 3-4 inches down. Just had to get Éclair to stop digging.
The hunt was about an hour and a half long and once finished (the dogs were not in much of a working mood that morning) we all walked back to the main house and were treated to a truffle and champagne lunch. Not bad. Once lunch was over they told us about some of the products they have for sale, one of which was adopting a truffle tree. For an annual tree subscription you get 100 grams of black truffles sent to you. We got in on it, there will be an amazing week of truffle meals sometime in January.
This was such a fun thing to do and if you are food person (of course you are, you’re reading this blog right?) it’s something you should experience. Honestly, you may think you’ve had good truffles in restaurants but until you have them fresh from the ground you don’t know what truffles really taste like. Lisa and Johann were great, very friendly and we had a wonderful time chatting with them and the other ‘hunters’ well into the afternoon. If you go to Provence, look them up. If you can’t, then do the next best thing and order some really fresh olive oil and/or truffles from them.