Ode to the Black Truffle: Bring It On and Don't Be Stingy

VAISON LA ROMAINE -- This time of year in Provence is time for war. The truffle wars you might call them. Wars over prices. Wars over quantity and quality. Wars over whose truffles these really are.

We have a small oak tree-framed vineyard where those strange and rare, fragrant and mysterious black truffles can be found at the edges of the vines from late November to early March. Much like the varied wild mushrooms that grow in our woods, all the locals truly believe these truffles are THEIRS. As foreigners we may own the property, but that's a mere legality. The locals have a birthright.

In the early years poachers came up when we were in residence on weekends or holidays, digging around the vineyards with playful mutts with names like Penelope or Dynamo. We would go out and join the fun, watching as the dogs would assuredly point a paw to a spot in the chalky soil, and we would begin digging. Sometimes we would unearth a treasure - anywhere from the size of an olive to one bigger than a golf ball - and there were days we gathered enough to really experiment with these precious underground wonders.

Now, as truffles get more and more rare and more and more expensive (they were selling for 4,400 francs a kilo a few weeks ago), the playful digging has stopped. Poachers are bolder. They comb the vineyard when we are there and when we are not and most often hand over "our" half as a much begrudged token.

Actually, if the truffle as it is today did not exist the French would have to find a worthy substitute. The black truffle has all the qualities of a much sought after commodity. It is rare. Man has not been able to reproduce it. It is coveted gastronomically. It can be hunted in secret. And best of all - even in declared markets such as one finds in the village of Richerenches on Saturday or Carpentras on Friday morning -- it is still sold out of trunks of cars, the treasures secreted away in old pillowcases made of thick ticking material. An under-the-counter, thumb your nose at the Feds cash business, what could be better!

But it does get better. For the same qualities that apply to finding and selling or buying a truffle apply to cooking it. Or not cooking it. In the kitchen, there are few ingredients as tricky. Or with such potential danger for disaster. Which is why so few cooks, or chefs for that matter, manage to get it right. Assuming that you have a perfect specimen - a truffle that is firm and not spongy, fragrant, and big enough to matter - you can still get yourself in a lot of trouble and turn that expensive luxury into a great big nothing.

It's hard to believe, but what is most appealing about a truffle is its texture. Crunchy, what the French call croquant, and it's in that crunch that you release in your mouth, throughout all your olfactory senses, the earthy, woodsy, magical fragrance of the truffle. Cook a truffle and you lose both crunch and aroma. Slice it and serve it raw and you still are not there. The truffle needs a companion: a touch of olive oil and a sprinkling of French fleur de sel are best, for they provide just enough moisture, just enough seasoning to help the truffle shine. Cut a truffle and leave it on a counter for a few seconds and it dries up, dying a very rapid death. I have probably seen more great truffle ruined by the heat of a kitchen than anything else.

Which brings me to how French chefs treat truffles. Considering the briefness of the season and the cost, few chefs are allowed much first hand experience with truffles, so how can one expect mastery? Second, they rarely have the luxury of using an avalanche of truffles in a dish (as Joel Robuchon did at his restaurants in the late 1980's and early 1990's) and so it is hard to bring the public (which has little experience either) to its knees.

Truffle menus abound today all over France, at justified high prices. A few evenings ago we had a lovely meal at the Chateau de Rochegude, a Relais Chateau hotel and restaurant in the heart of Provence's truffle country, only a few minutes from the famed truffle capital of Richerenches. The truffle six course truffle menu must be applauded for its simplicity. But it suffered in the same way that so many truffle menus do: There were not enough truffles, and when there were truffles they were not used to their best advantage. A single truffle slice, or maybe two, in the steaming cappuccino of chestnuts was not enough to allow your palate to even recognize the truffle was there. A room temperature poached egg on top of a bed of celery root remoulade could have been a fine base for the truffle, but the cool temperature never allowed the truffle to exude its fragrance. The most successful dish was a giant "raviole" of truffle, really two sheets of pasta the size of a salad plate, gently filled with a mixture of sautéed mushrooms and artichokes and plenty of black truffles. Now we were talking: There was texture, there was warmth, there was fragrance. And pleasure. Other dishes - a truffled chicken bouillon and quail stuffed with truffles and sautéed foie gras - were good on their own, but would have been just as good without the truffle. I loved the idea of shaving fresh black truffles over the seasonal cow's cheese from the Jura - Vacherin - but, again, the shavings were just too stingy to make a big difference.

Chateau du Rochegude
Tel : 04 75 97 21 10.
Fax : 04 75 04 89 87.
Closed Tuesday lunch and Sunday dinner, and Monday off season. Credit cards: American Express, Diners Club, Visa. Menus at 250 to 550, truffle menu at 750 francs, including service but not wine.