The seductive aroma hits you as soon as you prise open a pot of Maille’s black truffle mustard. Served fresh from the pump at the Maille boutique in its trademark black stoneware jar, just a small spoonful will take a simple grilled steak to another level. Quite simply, truffles send some of us into a gastronomic frenzy, and that includes truffle mustard.
Hunting for truffles is about as exciting as it gets for your truffle lover. A heady aroma fills the air: earthy, garlicky, mushroomy, heavenly. Not that anybody can do this, you need a specialist for that. A man and his dog – or pig, to be precise.
Drive south-east out of Bordeaux for two hours and you’ll hit Périgord in the Dordogne. Here, ancient villages are built into steep cliffs, imposing châteaux sit alongside simple Romanesque churches and dramatic limestone gorges interrupt endless old-growth forests. It’s in these very forests that you’ll find one of the world’s most luxurious foods, black truffles, costing up to 1000 Euros a kilo.
Their precise whereabouts are a closely guarded secret only the rabassiers (truffle hunters) know where to look. The truffles begin to smell only when they are ready to pick, found between 5cm-40cm below the ground, usually near the base of oak trees. Truffles are available throughout the seasons, but they are at their most intense in January and February, when the truffle hunters are at their busiest.
‘Giselle, arrêt!’ shouts Pierre, running towards his dog, who is frantically tearing up the earth at the base of an oak tree. Throwing down a handful of biscuits to distract her, Pierre gently digs at the earth with his tiny arrow-shaped spade, working the last clods away with his fingers.
Pierre curses under his breath. A bit of the truffle he has just tried to prize out of the earth has broken off, decreasing its value. They typically reach 7cm in diameter and weigh up to 100g. They look like lumpy, dusty potatoes, but once you’ve brushed off the earth, and sliced them paper-thin, they elevate even simple scrambled eggs, their intoxicating scent filling the air.
Yes, pigs are still used to search for truffles, the smell has an uncanny resemblance to the pheromones of male pigs, but it happens less these days. ‘Pigs bite, you wouldn’t want to put your hand between a sow and her truffle,’ he shudders.
He trained Giselle by feeding her little bits of truffle when she was a puppy to get her hooked. It works for humans, too. So think of Giselle and Pierre pacing their precious patch of secret wood the next time you eat black truffles, or spoon Maille’s fresh truffle mustard onto your plate.
TOP CHEFS ON TRUFFLES: CHRIS GALVIN, CHEF-PROPRIETOR OF GALVIN LA CHAPELLE, LONDON, SHARES HIS FAVOURITE BLACK TRUFFLE MOMENT AT MICHEL ROSANG IN PARIS
The smell of black truffles permeates the restaurant, and you sense the kinship in embarking on a guilty pleasure trip. One of the dishes is a truffle sandwich that is simplicity itself, with truffle butter running over your fingers and a bowl to wash them in – pure sensual fun. Good meals create evocative moments that you will remember for the rest of your life.