Truffle Hunting in Provence

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In the Luberon, a Franco-American couple demystifies one of the world’s most expensive ingredients.

As we bumped along a narrow road in a small Provençal village one evening in August I could tell my husband and I were both thinking the same thing: Are we going the right way?

Using our iPhones we were trying to navigate to the GPS coordinates of an organic farm outside Cadenet, a working class town with a medieval castle in the Luberon where we had scheduled a truffle-hunting tour.

I can’t remember the first time I tasted truffle, but I know I’ve loved it every time, whether it was fresh truffle on pizza bianca or richly flavored truffle oil drizzled on bread. My husband and I even served truffle popcorn at our wedding, but I’ll be the first to admit, when a menu states that you can add shaved black truffle to risotto or steak for an additional $20 (often more) it seems a bit overindulgent. I’m eager to learn how the famed funghi is harvested and if it justifies the hefty price tag—white truffles from Piedmont in Italy can cost more than $3,500 a pound.

We’d been given strict instructions not to ask locals for directions or even tell anyone what we were doing. (Later we learned the two sworn enemies of a truffle grower are wild boar and locals who have no qualms about poaching truffles off private property.) We continued on a dirt road that wound its way up a hill and into a canyon and breathed a sigh of relief when we spotted the sign we were looking for: Les Pastras. The 27-acre farm was a tangle of oak trees, olive groves and fruit trees and the lowered sun cast just the right amount of golden light on the rustic grounds to give it a dusty pink glow.

We parked our car and hurried to meet our guides, Johann and Lisa Pepin. The Franco-American couple inherited the farm from Johann’s grandparents; in 2008 Johann discovered the land was rich with truffles. He stopped to point out the spot beneath a large oak tree where he found the first with the help of a local truffle hunter: a nearly tennis ball-sized black winter truffle or tuber melanosporum that might as well have been solid gold as far as he was concerned. Pepin decided to plant 500 evergreen and pubescent oak trees in the hopes that their roots and the soil would sprout summer and winter truffles. “We’ll be lucky if 25 percent of the trees produce,” said Pepin, indicating truffle growing is a risky endeavor. This may be why agrotourism has become their primary business. They offer truffle hunts during the summer and winter as well as olive oil and wine harvesting experiences. An “adopt a tree” service sends true enthusiasts an annual shipment of black Perigord truffles in January when they are at their peak.

Eager to see the process behind unearthing the prized culinary delicacy, we learned on the tour that it isn’t that difficult when you have a rough idea of where to look—and the help of well-trained, affable dogs. Our four-legged truffle hunters included Éclair, a black lab mix with a white lighting stripe on his chest and Mirabelle, a terrier mix. Within five minutes Éclair, who was still a puppy, started digging frantically in a dusty patch of earth—we learned that a good indicator of whether or not a tree is producing truffles is if it has a “burn patch” or patch of ground where nothing is growing beneath the tree. He flipped up a black knobby nugget and the truffle hunter, a neighbor of the Pepin’s named Jean-Marc, was there to quickly grab it. Éclair received a treat and we all marvelled at the firm and aromatic black summer truffle.

Within minutes Éclair started pacing wildly and sniffing near a patch of vines—he’d found something again and a few moments later Mirabelle made a discovery. The veteran simply sniffed and sat alert next to the spot patiently waiting for Jean-Marc to dig up the find. Soon our basket was bursting with summer truffles—and our mouths were salivating.

Thankfully the Pepin’s truffle hunts always end with a tasting. We enjoyed beautifully marbled truffle slices on bread with salty butter and on thick wedges of local cheese, bread dipped in Lisa’s black winter truffle oil, and even truffle ice cream, all accompanied by Champagne made by Pepin’s cousin.

This month, Johann and Lisa will begin their winter truffle hunting tours where the truffles will be six times more pungent than the varieties we tasted. If you’re planning to be in France during the season, it’s a must-do activity for any food lover. Now, whenever I see fresh truffles on a menu, I order them and think back to sitting poolside back in August while the Provençal sun was setting. I knew in that moment that they are a worthwhile indulgence indeed.

Photo Credit: Getty Images