A Truffle in Spring

Deep in the heart of Provence, in the village of Lorgues, a force of nature named Bruno reigns over a kingdom of truffles where you can indulge in the delicacy every day of the year.

Something about the light has lured painters to the South of France, at least since Van Gogh and Gauguin shared quarters in Arles. Tourists are drawn to the lavender fields and olive groves of Provence, the designer boutiques and voyeuristic beaches of St. Tropez and Cannes. But more and more over the past few years, French epicures and celebrity chefs have been wending their way through the heart of Provence to a village called Lorgues. What is the attraction? To find out, follow in their footsteps to the Haut Var, an unspoiled region where little vineyards and farms alternate with scrubby woodlands and dramatic rock formations. You will be tempted to stop at beautiful medieval villages like Cotignac and Tourtour, hewn from ocher stone, but continue on to a place without castles or watchtowers. What Lorgues has, instead, is Bruno. Like a friendly ogre in a fairy tale for adults, Clément Bruno, at six feet four inches tall and close to 350 pounds, looms large over his native village of Lorgues. Yet it's not his size that makes his kingdom seem enchanted. It's his largesse.

"Je suis le roi des truffes!" Bruno frequently exclaims, and his fans, especially the fellow chefs who have made his restaurant a cooks' hangout, concur. For them, the name Bruno (no one calls him Clément) is synonymous with the sacred truffle. Bruno takes this ingredient, which most diners know only as black flecks in a sauce or pâté, and strews it on plates with the liberality usually reserved for pommes frites. Indeed, in one of the most memorable dishes I had chez Bruno, a shower of truffle slices so completely inundated a large baked potato resting in a sauce of olive oil and truffle cream that I wondered for a moment: Is this a potato with truffles, or truffles with a potato? Before visiting Bruno, I thought of truffles as coming in only two varieties, white and black (like the names of Bruno's two large, friendly—and brown—dogs: Alba and Nero). In Lorgues, I learned that there are about a hundred varieties of truffles, of which a dozen or so are tasty, and they have different flavors, aromas, and seasons.

Biologically speaking, the truffle is a fungus that grows beneath the surface of the soil—an underground mushroom. Like mushrooms, truffles need rain to send forth their edible body. They have an affinity for tree roots, deriving sugar from the tree's photosynthesis and providing phosphorus in return. A knowledgeable truffle hunter will search beneath a tree (oaks are prime hosts) for a bald spot, because the truffle emits a gas that prevents anything from growing above it. Tiny flies buzzing around are another giveaway. Dogs can be trained to sniff out truffles, though some gatherers still use the traditional truffle pig, always a sow, which doesn't require training—because a randy male pig emits an odor very much like a truffle.

So much mystique surrounds the truffle that its culinary qualities can seem beside the point. "A lot of chefs add truffles to justify the price," Bruno told me as we enjoyed a leisurely lunch by the pleached olive and mulberry trees on his restaurant's outdoor terrace. "In gastronomic restaurants, the truffles appear on the menu, they have disappeared brutally on the plate, then they reappear tragically on the bill!" Every so often, Bruno would shout in the direction of departing customers, "C'était bon?" to which the typical response was "Comme d'habitude."

"Bruno is very generous—he shares," remarked the genial proprietor, who has a habit of referring to himself in the third person. "There is no other house in France like this." The rich, truffle-laden cuisine at restaurant Bruno is classic, even retro, and theportions are copious. You don't dine à la carte; you order a three-course menu. The menu changes each week according to the season and the market, but when looking to complement his trademark truffles, Bruno characteristically leans toward foie gras. Twice I tried variations on that culinary relic tournedos Rossini. Instead of the usual beef fillet, the recipe was prepared first with a rack of veal, then with venison; on both occasions the slice of foie gras and the scattering of summer truffles were so lavish that I felt I was relishing the dish as a 19th-century diner would have experienced it, not making do with some scaled-down reproduction of the original recipe.

Bruno would not be able to serve his truffled food year-round without adopting an ecumenical view of the tuber. Most people know only the very expensive black truffle, or Tuber melanosporum, in season from mid-November through March; and the exorbitantly expensive white Alba truffle, harvested from mid-October into December. Bruno, however, embraces ten varieties, which enables him to serve truffles without interruption, at very agreeable tariffs. "Why speak of only two truffles and say that the rest are merde?" he asks rhetorically. "I am a cook who loves truffles, who lives and sleeps with truffles. There is no chef in France who knows truffles as I do." He doesn't deny that the Alba is unmatched for its aroma and complex taste, or that the melanosporum is superior in flavor to the cheaper summer truffle. His argument is simple: Aren't very good truffles better than no truffles at all? All year long, in his cozy yellow-and-brown-tiled kitchen, you can hear—thwack-thwack-thwack—the glorious sound of truffles being sliced.

In November 2000, capitalizing on his reputation and expertise, Bruno opened a shop in Nice, Terres de Truffes, that offers his own line of truffled products. He drove me there about a year after the store had opened. An hour's drive from Lorgues (at least with Bruno's heavy foot on the pedal of his Audi), the shop is intended as a prototype for more truffle boutiques that he envisions in Europe and America. "If you close the doors, you will not know if you are in Chicago, Brussels, or New York," he says. Each of the stores will have oak paneling, a small kitchen, and a café serving pâté with truffles, foie gras with truffles, cheese with truffles, potatoes with truffles, even ice cream with truffles. After the shops have established the reputation of the brand, he hopes to expand by selling his products in upscale department stores and gourmet food stores. On a warm autumn evening, I sat with Bruno, who goes everywhere dressed in his chef's whites, at one of the Nice boutique's outdoor tables. As we talked, he tore into a delicious Brie that was filled with a thin layer of preserved Tuber brumale, a musky truffle that is available fresh at the same time as the black, and tried to get me to eat more.

When I asked him how his concept differed from the few existing truffle boutiques, such as the Casa del Fungo e del Tartufo in Milan and the Maison de la Truffe in Paris, he snorted. "The Maison de la Truffe is fifty years behind the times," he said. "The truffle d'Alba and the black truffle are all they have. The other truffles—they are not chewing gum." As the coup de grâce, he added, "It is in the place de la Madeleine." That epicenter of haut bourgeois Paris is the antithesis of the relaxed, companionable munching of truffles that Bruno champions.

Perplexed by the shop's boiserie, which might have come out of a London gentleman's club, I asked, "Why so formal? Why not make it more relaxed and whimsical, as at Lorgues?"

"The people who come to Lorgues are in the countryside and know my story," he said. "But the people who come to the stores need to be reassured. In a store there is no Bruno. It is necessary to give people confidence before they buy a gift. They will be able to have a sandwich. You spend eighty francs and you have a taste of truffles. Even for me, the Alba and the black truffles are too expensive to eat very often. The object of Terres de Truffes is to discover. To eat the meal and look and taste. You don't like it, ce n'est pas grave. If you do like it, you will take it home for your wife, your family, your friends."

You will then have begun a new relationship with truffles. You will approach them the way Bruno was brought up to regard them—not as a luxury, but as a staple.

When Bruno was two months old, his father disappeared. His mother went to work cleaning houses, leaving Bruno primarily in the care of his widowed grandmother, Mariette. Money was very tight. After bicycling home from school in the late afternoon, he would be hungry. "I wished I could have bread with chocolate," Bruno, who is now 55, recalls. Instead, what would be waiting for him was a brouillade de truffes, a dish of baked eggs with truffles. "My grandmother would go to the hillside and get two truffles," he explains. "It cost nothing. The truffles she found under a tree, and the chickens were just walking around. Chocolate she had to buy. For a long time I thought I was an unfortunate child because I ate only truffles."

The house where he grew up is now embedded in his restaurant, built of the same golden stone of Provence, and it has swelled as much as Bruno has. Paneled in oak and decorated with antique armoires, glass lamps in the shape of mushrooms, romantic paintings of landscapes and children, and elegant stone fireplaces, the four dining rooms elevate the comfort level without cutting Bruno's cherished link to the past. His cooking, too, connects to his personal history, particularly to the dishes prepared by his mother, a talented cook. "It is the cuisine de proximité, what I grew up with," he says. "Roast rabbit, game, many garden vegetables. There was almost no cream or butter, just olive oil. The only fish was salt cod. My mother made a ragoût de mouton, using the neck of the sheep—it was just to give a taste to the potatoes. For Christmas, one ate richer things, a boudin blanc and turkey, but even holidays were a little sad, because of the difficulty my mother and grandmother had in making money, and the absence of my father. During the holiday, one already was thinking of the day after. My mother is eighty now. She had a life of privation, humiliation, frustration, much work to earn almost nothing. Sometimes, when I speak of that, when I think of my mother and grandmother, I start to cry." The gaiety of Bruno's restaurant at Lorgues, I realize, is like that of a carnival, whirling merrily to dispel all gloom.

Bruno found his vocation late. From age 18 to 30, he was building houses on spec, around the lovely nearby village of Tourtour. It was a successful business until he was presented with an enormous tax bill that he could not pay. He had to sell the two properties he owned, along with his car, and move back into his grandmother's house. There, using 100,000 francs that he had hidden from the tax collector and a loan from a friend, he restored the house and, in November 1983, opened a restaurant. For furnishings, he bought some sewing machine tables from a junk shop and fitted them with wooden-plank tops. (A couple of them still survive, topped now with marble.) He did the cooking; his wife provided the service. The place was out of the way, accessible only by a badly rutted road. That first Christmas, no guests appeared, and the family ate alone. (Bruno and his wife, Nicole, have two sons; one is now studying business in London, and the other is apprenticing in the kitchen at Lorgues.) "In business, it was much easier to make money," Bruno reflects. "To earn 100,000 francs with a restaurant, it is necessary to work for a year to establish a reputation. Success came after nearly ten years."

That success was a tribute both to his personality and to his kitchen skills. "Bruno is one of the few people to have mastered the truffle, which he cooks with expertise and wizardry," says his good friend, the star chef Alain Ducasse. "Perhaps even more important is the dedication with which he will spend hours preparing a dinner for family, friends, and guests, ensuring that it is a meal we will not forget. Bruno's conviviality and his warm voice and character make us want to return even before we catch the aromas of the first truffle dish on its way from the kitchen." (A repast at Bruno's is also a bargain. Unlike the sky-high prices at Ducasse's haute cuisine showplace Le Louis Quinze, in nearby Monte Carlo, a meal of three generously sized courses at restaurant Bruno is a mere 52 Euros, about $45.)

Another eminent chef, the Los Angeles-based Joachim Splichal, whose restaurants include the flagship, Patina, and the Nick & Stef's Steakhouses, was introduced to Bruno by Ducasse. Splichal had lunch chez Bruno for his 39th birthday, with Ducasse and another culinary giant, Jacques Maximin, in attendance. "Everyone around the table was so at ease," Splichal recalls. "All the big chefs left their egos outside. They listened to this big man saying, 'This is what I will cook for you, and this is the wine you will drink.' We stayed there from one until seven. Everyone had the best time." Splichal had such a good time that the following yearhe staged a dinner for 90 there to celebrate his 40th birthday.

Since his hard-won triumph in Lorgues, Bruno has opened other restaurants in the South of France. In December 1999, collaborating with Ducasse, he inaugurated an inn, the Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle, in an old Benedictine abbey near Brignoles. In another renovation, working on his own this time, he created the Auberge du Parc in Correns, a sleepy village about half an hour's drive from Lorgues. Those are the only restaurants in which he has a proprietary interest. However, acting as a consultant, he supervises the kitchens of the Bistrot Bruno in St. Tropez and of the restaurant Bruno in Monte Carlo. Despite their merits, none of these establishments has achieved the popularity of restaurant Bruno in Lorgues. "It is as if someone who has drunk a great Champagne is then given another Champagne, which is very good, but he only wants the first," Bruno says. "Everything is better at Lorgues. Everything else I produce, people say, 'It is very good, it is formidable, but itis not Lorgues.'" He says he will not be opening any more restaurants.

At this stage in his career, Bruno no longer toils at the stove. In Lorgues, his chef for the past eight years has been Dominique Saugnac. He has installed a young chef, Bertrand L'Herbette, at the Auberge du Parc in Correns. As we drove there one night for dinner, Bruno alerted me that he needed to lose weight, so I'd be doing most of the eating.

The first course was an exceptional chestnut soup with thick slices of partridge. The nuts had been freshly harvested; the game was local. Sniffing, Bruno beamed with a broad smile. Tasting, he was galvanized. He asked me if it was not formidable. I concurred. He took another taste and cried out in rapture. Lifting his cell phone, he called his chef at Lorgues.

"Dominique, I am eating a velouté of chestnuts at Correns, and I am knocked over by it!" he thundered. "You must try it!" Next Bruno called his wife, an attractive, petite blonde who manages Terres de Truffes in Nice. He told Nicole, too, what a fantastic soup L'Herbette had prepared. Then he ate a second helping. There were four courses yet to come.

In Bruno's company, I felt that I was truly seeing le vieux Provence, a Rabelaisian land that existed long before the invasion of the second-home buyers and the readers of Peter Mayle. No one knows better than Bruno how this legendary terrain is threatened. Although a truffle market still prospers in Provence during the winter, Bruno obtains most of the six tons of truffles he buys each year from Italy. (About half of those are summer truffles.) Unlike wine grapes, truffles from different terroirs, or climate and soil conditions, do not differ in taste. "If the weather conditions are the same, each kind of truffle is the same, wherever it's from," says Rosario Safina of truffle purveyor Urbani USA. Still, Bruno bemoans the changes that have diminished the local truffle harvest, sending him as far afield as Poland, Slovenia, and Croatia.

"It no longer rains here," he says. "The climate has been modified by pollution." In order for it to flourish, the tuber requires ample moisture several months before harvest. For the summer truffle, that is usually not a problem, since winter rainfall is fairly reliable. However, black truffles, harvested in winter, need rain in July and August, which is very scarce. Increasingly scarce, as well, is the wooded terrain in which truffles grow. "In 1950, there were no people here—only a few simple houses of people like my grandmother," Bruno says. "Now people from Paris buy houses here." Paradoxically, the influx of urban sophisticates has been accompanied by the reappearance of an animal that devours truffles: the wild pig. When Bruno was a boy, Provençals hunted and ate the pigs. "Now people prefer venison," he says ruefully.

Bruno believes that his grandmother's spirit is protecting his restaurant at Lorgues. Certainly, it survives in him. Within the charmed precincts of restaurant Bruno, the meaty chunks of Tuber uncinatum, baked in a pastry crust, may have come from Italy, not from the nearby hills; and Italy may also be the source of the summer-truffle slices sprinkled over the four large sea scallops delivered that morning from Brittany. But the big-hearted bonhomie of this unique retreat conjures up the days when Bruno's grandmother was pushing aside oak leaves to find a patch of barren earth, hunting for the tiny flies that hover near it, smelling the earth to verify her hunch, and then, with ancient wisdom and a stiff resolve, plunging in a spade and beginning to dig.

Restaurant Bruno, Campagne Mariette, Route du Vidauban, 83510 Lorgues, France; 33-4-94-85-93-93; fax 33-4-94-85-93-98. Closed Sunday evenings and Mondays. A renovated farmhouse on the property features four tasteful and comfortable guest rooms. Rates: $73-$178.


Top Truffles, A La Carte

At his restaurant in Lorgues and his Terres de Truffes shop in Nice, Clément Bruno aims to introduce the public to the many varieties of truffle. "Each has a different personality," he says. "It is like the difference between peaches and apricots."

TUBER MELANOSPORUM What most people think of when they hear the word "truffle," the black truffle is harvested primarily in France, Italy, and Spain. Sometimes called the Périgord truffle, after the region of southwestern France in which it has been famously hunted, it is in season from mid-November to early March and has a powerful, lingering fragrance and taste.

TUBER MAGNATUM PICO The white Alba truffle is the most expensive and aromatic of the breed. Available fresh from October into December, it can cost $100 an ounce at the height of the season, and double that at the end of the run, around Christmas. Despite the Italian name, the Albas are more likely these days to hail from Croatia and Slovenia. Unlike black truffles, they are usually shaved raw onto dishes like risotto.

TUBER ESTIVUM The summer truffle, known in France as the Saint Jean d'Eté and in Italy as the Scorsone, is available eight or nine months of the year. It is the most plentiful, the cheapest, the grayest, and the least flavorful—but still tasty.

TUBER BRUMALE In France also called the truffe musquée, it has the same winter season as the melanosporum but is less expensive and less refined in flavor.

TUBER UNCINATUM Called the truffe de Bourgogne, this venerable variety was the most popular in France until it was deposed by the melanosporum in the 16th century. Its season begins earlier, in late October, and ends in late December. In intensity, Bruno ranks it below the brumale but above the summer truffle.

TUBER MESENTERICUM This small, dark-skinned truffle, in season October through January, is highly acidic and strongly flavored, best used in small quantities, as in a sauce.

Contributing editor Arthur Lubow wrote about the architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron in the January/February issue.