It's Time to Pig Out as Trufflers in France Harvest the World's Costliest Fungus

UPDATED 03/28/1983 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/28/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

A choice Perigord truffle is an unappetizing sight—jet black, with a pimply surface, it is a rare fungus but more closely resembles a lump of coal. Yet to a gastronome it is a near-mystical ingredient that can raise a dish from the simply splendid to the absolutely ambrosial—slivered into pâté or pasta, baked whole en croûte, or sliced raw in a salad. Even more breathtaking is the fresh truffle's price—sometimes as much as $480 a pound, it is one of the most expensive foods on earth.

Since the time of the Romans, who dedicated it to Venus, the truffle has been regarded as an aphrodisiac. Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French epicure, demurred, although, he wrote, "it can, on certain occasions, render women more amiable and men more loving." Be that as it may, Napoleon is said to have conceived his only child after feasting on truffles with the Empress Marie Louise. Merely touching them can be a blessing. "In all my years of working with truffles," says Jacques Pebeyre, 56, France's biggest truffle trafficker, "I have never known anyone who handles them to get an infection from a cut."

And what does this cherished delicacy taste like? Truffle fanciers have trouble describing it. Most say that it has a musky, earthy taste, like the soil it comes from; others describe it as piquant. Individual truffles vary, according to ripeness and size. The odor, too, is hard to characterize. "It's indescribable, it's a perfume," Pebeyre rhapsodizes. "Ah, when I take a first whiff, it's a moment of great delight."

This week Pebeyre and his fellow trufflers are gathering in the last of the winter harvest, which runs from November through March. This year's crop will total some 40 tons, about 12 tons more than last year, assuring a 5 percent drop in U.S. prices for prime fresh truffles. They'll be selling this spring for a mere $20 an ounce.

Next month the new crop will begin to form underground in clusters, through a magical symbiosis no one quite understands with the root systems of certain trees (principally oaks, hazels and poplars) in southern France and parts of Italy and Spain. Cultivation is haphazard; the science of raising them is still in its infancy. Buried truffles are indicated by a barren patch of earth called "la brulée," or "the witches' circle," above the place where they lie buried. "It used to be considered bad luck to step into the brulées," says Pebeyre.

To locate the hidden treasures, French farmers lead pigs and trained dogs among the trees. Female pigs are usually employed, since boars become enraged and will attack the hunters if the truffles are taken from them. Both pigs and dogs can snuffle a truffle 10 inches underground. Dogs are preferred, since they have no appetite for the fungi and can detect them from 45 feet away.

Pebeyre heads the family truffle business in Cahors, in southwestern France. His grandfather founded the firm in 1895 and his father, Alain, 98, still helps out, although he turned over the management to Jacques in 1972. When he finishes his military service in November, Pierre Pebeyre, 22, the only son of Jacques and his wife, Monique, will join the family firm; his sister, Catherine, 31, is a doctor. A staff of seven helps sort, wash, peel, can and ship airfreight orders of fresh truffles to grand luxe restaurants and specialty stores around the world. Pebeyre buys from farmers as far away as Spain. Every Tuesday in season he goes to the weekly truffle market at the Gascon village of Lalbenque, pockets stuffed with cash, to bargain for the farmers' baskets. This year Pebeyre will sell around 16 tons of the pricey fungus, more than one-third of the total 1983 crop.

In the truffle's heyday at the turn of the century, 2,000 tons were produced annually and cooks even stuffed turkeys with them. Production suffered drastically when the farmers went off to war in 1914. "It will take another 50 years before we rebuild truffle production," says Jean Grente, 61, head of the French agricultural research institute. For the past 15 years Grente has been working on a method of artificially inducing young oak saplings to produce truffles. The outcome of the experiment is still years away. Jacques Pebeyre doesn't mind waiting. "For me, the truffle is a condiment of great luxury. You have to desire it. Like all good things you should not have too much."

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