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The truffle and its host, the oak tree

In the Var department, oak trees are used for truffle cultivation. Only after 10 years the first truffles can be harvested from a tree. At the age of 20 - 30 years, the truffles become smaller, growing on the roots of the trees / © Photo: Georg Berg

In the Var department, oak trees are used for truffle cultivation. Only after 10 years the first truffles can be harvested from a tree. At the age of 20 - 30 years the truffles become smaller, growing on the roots of the trees / © Photo: Georg Berg

At the start of the truffle season

In France they call it the black diamond of gastronomy. Black truffle is highly sought after and is one of the most expensive edible mushrooms in the world. Shortly before Christmas, the price per kilo rises to 1,000 euros and more. Restaurants then offer a particularly large number of dishes with fresh black winter truffle. With a grater, the truffle is shaved over the food shortly before serving. The bulbous, black to dark brown fruiting body of the Tuber Melanosporum is crisscrossed with white veins. The season for winter truffles begins in early December and is opened ceremoniously.

Truffle market in Aups: season opening on the first Thursday in December by Philippe De Santis / © Photo: Georg Berg

The truffle syndicate of Aups

Every year on the first Thursday in December, the truffle growers of the Var department in southern France post up in the small marketplace for the opening of the truffle season. Some sell directly from the trunks of their cars, others set up stalls in elegant black. Kitchen scales are placed, small baskets covered with a cloth. You don’t see any price tags. Who is allowed to sell here, to whom and at what price has been regulated by the syndicate for over 50 years. Aups is thus the first European truffle market to be organized and one of three places in all of France where truffles are sold directly to private individuals.

Before the sale, the syndicate checks the quality and origin of each dealer’s truffles and also sets the price per kilo / © Photo: Georg Berg

More and more prospective buyers fill the marketplace this morning. Everyone seems to be waiting for a sign. It is not until the opening speech by syndicate head Philippe de Santis that the current price per kilo for black winter truffles is announced. The price is 600 euros at the start of the season and could almost double by Christmas.

Black truffle, winter truffle, France, Var region, Tuber Melanosporum, price per kilo between 600 and 1,000 euros / © Photo: Georg Berg

In search of truffles with fly, dog or even pig

Since truffles only keep fresh for a few days, truffle hunting is now in full swing to satisfy the demands of restaurants and private individuals. In the Var region of Provence, most truffle growers own private land where they plant oak trees and inoculate the roots of the tree with the fungal spores. At the Domaine de Majastre in Bauduen, truffle hunting with sniffer dogs is also shown to tourists. In principle, all breeds of dogs are suitable for training as truffle sniffer dogs, tells us “Trufficulteur” Tangay Demachy.

All breeds of dogs can be trained as truffle sniffing dogs. Truffle sniffer dog Manolo shows “trufficulteur” Tangay Demachy a finding spot. During the high season, 5 truffle hunters work at Domaine de Majestre with their dogs. They are paid per week and according to the weight of the truffles / © Photo: Georg Berg

This was not always the case, because before 1949, many truffle hunters found it too expensive to keep dogs. The animals had to be fed throughout the year. Farmers therefore relied on flies. The small fly was an effective indicator of truffle occurrences. Flies like to lay their eggs in places that are free of grass and plants due to the mycelium of the truffle mushrooms. If flies linger for long periods of time in summer over barren, often rocky areas near trees, they will mark this spot and search for truffles later in the year.

After the Second World War, truffle hunting was professionalized. Plantations with oak trees were planted and from then on dogs were used. Unlike a well trained and obedient dog, a truffle pig is difficult to control. It is voracious and tends to consume truffles. Nevertheless, in Aups every year on the fourth Sunday of January the truffle dogs and also a truffle pig are blessed in front of the church.

In the Var department, oak trees are used for truffle cultivation. Only after 10 years the first truffles can be harvested from a tree. At the age of 20 – 30 years the truffles become smaller, growing at the roots of the trees / © Photo: Georg Berg

The truffle and its host the oak tree

At the Domaine de Majastre in Bauduen, five truffle hunters work with their dogs during the high season. They are paid per week and by weight of truffles. Harvest time and sales begin in late November or early December and continue until the end of February. Truffle hunting stops in March at the latest. In April the reproduction of the precious mushrooms begins. 5 to 15 truffles grow on a tree per year. But only after 10 years the first truffles can be harvested from the tree roots. Already from the age of 30 years an oak tree produces only small truffles. On plantations, the old tree is then replaced by new plantations. For about 20 years, less and less rain has fallen in the Rhone-Alpes-Cote Azur region. Truffle growers now also have to irrigate their trees in the summer. At Domaine de Majastre, out of 80 hectares of oak plantation, about 50 hectares of the oak plantation are irrigated.

Black truffle with scallop. A classic in the French cuisine / © Photo: Georg Berg

Great delicacy and big business

Whether it’s a magnificent specimen weighing several kilos or truffle fragments, almost every find of one of the most expensive mushroom species in the world is used for gastronomy. And it has to be fast, because truffles keep fresh for a maximum of five days. Reduced to a few ingredients, the aroma of black truffle comes out particularly well. Fresh scallops seasoned only with sea salt, black pepper and olive oil and served with freshly shaved black truffle are a classic of French cuisine. A traditional and simple truffle dish from Provence is Brouillade aux Truffes. Some cooks swear by placing raw eggs in a screw-top jar with the truffles. The flavor of the truffles infuses through the porous shell of the eggs. Other cooks forgo the miracle of diffusion and add truffles to scrambled eggs with cream, pepper and sea salt. When the black winter truffle reaches its best aroma, I learn on this trip from a truffle grower behind closed doors. The perfect degree of maturity and thus the best and most intense truffle aroma is reached only in January. So if you want to enjoy truly good truffles, you should go on a truffle trip in January and February.

In Aups (France), every fourth Sunday in January, the truffle dogs and a truffle pig are blessed in front of the church of Saint Pancras. The truffle pig is always a female, because the sexual hormones of a male pig smell similar to truffles / © Photo: Georg Berg

Travel tips for truffle fans

The truffle season runs from the beginning of December until the end of February. For truffle lovers, a visit to the truffle market in Aups on Thursday mornings is a must. Best in combination with a visit to the truffle museum and lunch.

The restaurant Le Saint Marc in Aups has an extensive menu based around the truffle.
The Maison de la Truffe museum in Aups has a modern audio-visual exhibition on the history and cultivation of truffles in the Var region, which is also easily accessible for children.
With the beginning of the truffle season it is possible to accompany the work of truffle dog and trufficulteur. This is possible for example at the Domaine de Majastre.
General travel information about the Var department.

Photo gallery about truffle breeding and truffle plantations

Truffles grow only on very specific deciduous trees. In Provence it is the oak tree. However, the plantation oaks do not grow old and stately, because already at the tender age of 30 years they give only small truffles. The tree is cut down, its wood is processed and a new young oak is planted.

More information about truffle, black, Tuber Melanosporum

More interesting aspects about the black truffle, winter truffle, Tuber Melanosporum from a trip at the beginning of the truffle season to the region Rhone – Alpes – Cote Azur in the department Var in France can be found here:

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The research trip was partly supported on site by the French Tourism Federation

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