Truffles from Burgundy are not yet as well known as the wine of the same name. After all, the region can point to 2,000 years of wine culture and the world-famous wine route begins just south of Dijon. The medieval town of Beaune lies in the middle of this Unesco World Heritage site. Climats are the name given to the vineyards, which are characterized by rolling hills of light limestone-sandstone. Archways and walls of light-colored stone enliven the landscape. In the old town of Beaune stands the Hotel-Dieu, one of the most emblematic houses of the region. Considered a jewel of Gothic architecture, it is famous for its roof of colorful, shimmering shingles and for its outstanding history.
The Hotel-Dieu was built in 1443 as a hospital for the poorest and operated as a hospital until 1971. To this day, the hospice is financed primarily from the proceeds of the vineyards that are part of the Hotel-Dieu’s endowment. High-quality barrel wines are auctioned off once a year at a nationally known and highly regarded auction. The proceeds go back into charitable projects, in keeping with the spirit of the former builder and founder Nicolas Rolin, at the time Chancellor of Burgundy. The Hotel-Dieu is now a museum of early modern nursing and is one of the places to see. For wine lovers, Beaune also offers the Maison des Climats a modern museum dedicated to the famous Cote D’Or vineyards. But just outside Beaune, on the edge of the vineyards, where the forest begins, there thrives the other coveted specialty to which this story is dedicated.
Coveted and expensive – truffles from Burgundy
La Maison aux Mille Truffes is a small family business. Thierry Bezeux has already been a mechanic on a nuclear submarine and worked in the management of a plastic packaging company before dedicating himself to a nature-related subject since 2003. With the truffle trade and his animal collaborators of the Lagotto Romangnolo breed, he is now rooted in nature and, as we learn during a visit to his House of a Thousand Truffles, literally so.
The root of all delicacies
At first glance, the House of a Thousand Truffles seems to be nothing more than a plain salesroom for all sorts of truffle products. Even less sensitive noses notice the intense truffle scent in the air. Behind the counter, truffle sniffing dog Jules dozes. On the counter is a small basket with precious contents. Black truffle freed from soil. It is October and this is the time for the black Burgundy truffles. Thierry Bezeux fends off our questions about types of truffles and where to find them and asks us to go behind a heavy cloth curtain where all our questions will find an answer.
Like a ringmaster, Thierry pulls aside the curtain and lets us enter. Our eyes slowly get used to the darkness and we recognize a lot of tree trunks and roots. The perfect place for truffle theory.
Truffles grow in the root system of their host plants. Their occurrence depends on many factors. They love calcareous soils, feeding on the water and mineral salts of their host tree. Truffles thrive, Thierry explains, only on certain deciduous trees. Conifers but also fruit trees are not suitable host plants. Good are oaks and hazelnut. But ultimately it is the nature of the soil, aeration and sunshine duration that leads to the growth of truffles.
It takes six to eight months for truffles to reach maturity. The degree of maturity is not indicated by the size, but by the smell they give off. And this is where noses come into play.
Fine noses for fine goods – on the trail of the truffle
Wild boars are responsible for the natural spread of truffles in the forests. They track down the mushroom, eat it and excrete the mushroom spores undigested. Through the example of the wild boar, man came to use the domestic pig in the search for truffles. However, in the European strongholds of the truffle, in France and Italy, the dog has prevailed as a workhorse. Not least because every truffle hunter is concerned about secrecy of his finding places. With a dog as a companion, he is simply more inconspicuous than with a domestic pig led on a leash.
Let’s talk about money – What truffles can cost
It’s October. It’s been harvest time for the burgundy truffle for a month. The lighter summer truffle has less aroma than the intense winter mushroom. More aroma also means more value. While a light summer truffle fetches around 30 euros per 100 g, the same amount of Burgundy truffle already costs three times as much. For the most expensive truffle worldwide, the white Alba truffle from Italy, even 800 euros per 100 g are put on the table. Thierry Bezeux goes three times a week and then twice a day with his dogs. But his own finds have long been insufficient. He also buys truffles from private collectors within a radius of 200 kilometers. The season for the Burgundy truffle runs from September to January. It always gets exciting just before Christmas. Then the demand for noble truffles is particularly high among customers. But the fantastic sales opportunities in the pre-Christmas period remain unused when there is a thick blanket of snow over the treasures. For the dogs it would be no problem to sniff through the snow. It is only the telltale tracks in the snow that keep the truffle team from searching.
Thierry Bezeux’s truffle dog Elfe belongs to the Lagotto Romangnolo breed. This Italian dog breed is 800 years old and has special abilities. An extremely well-developed good nose meets the playful joy of searching and finding. Elfe was just 10 weeks old when she already started to search. The truffle hunters take advantage of this eagerness. The dogs are trained specifically on the scent of the ripe truffles. To do this, a ripe truffle is placed in the cavity of a tennis ball and a game of throw-and-bring begins at a high culinary level! Once the learning goal is achieved, the dogs are able to display truffles at a depth of up to 12 centimeters.
In the small oak forest behind the House of a Thousand Truffles, sniffer dog Elfe shows off her skills. “Cherche” calls Thierry and Elfe gets going. Seemingly without a plan, she scurries back and forth between the trees. Then she barks and paws briefly, indicating a possible location. Thierry is quickly on the spot and digs with his special tool. He has to keep the excited dog somewhat in check. The dogs also like the mushroom quite a bit and wouldn’t say no to this snack if you let them. Usually the team agrees that the truffles go to Thierry and the treat to Elfe.
Finally, a truffle tasting
For visitors to La Maison aux Mille Truffes, after the truffle museum and the search demonstration in the forest, there are some culinary treats. On a tasting plate are all kinds of preparations with truffles. In conversation, Thierry Bezieux gives tips on how to use truffles in the kitchen. In order to properly set the scene for the mushroom and transfer the maximum aroma to the food, it should be combined with fat first, if possible. It is better to let the fresh truffle steep in butter grated a day before the actual use and then continue to use the truffle butter, advises the truffle expert. After more than 10 years in the truffle business, Thierry Bezeux is very successful with his concept. He guides 3,000 tourists a year through his small museum. He also explains his success by the fact that vacationers in Burgundy like to open a new culinary chapter in addition to the many wine tastings.
Beaune – an ideal starting point for many activities
On a trip to Burgundy, the city of Beaune is suitable for many activities. Vineyards can be visited in summer by bicycle along the Cote d’Or. Hotels also organize excursions for their guests. For example, the Ermitage de Corton, located just from the gates of Beaune’s old town and named after the area’s most famous vineyard, the Corton, offers tours in a nostalgic VW Bulli. The Hotel Ermitage de Corton has several suites and runs its own restaurant with an extensive wine list. If you prefer to stay in the old town, you’ll encounter all sorts of history at Hotel Le Cep. Parts of the building date back to the 14th century. The young King Louis XIV also stayed here. And the Moutarderie Edmond Fallot is just a five-minute walk away. A guided tour of the museum and production facilities and a tasting of the famous mustard from Burgundy is also a recommended culinary excursion. Read more in the report A trip to the most famous mustard in the world.
The research trip was partly supported on site by the French Tourism Federation