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An American in the French Languedoc

Talairan Truffle Market


What is it about a humble mushroom, clandestinely cultivated under an oak tree that provokes such culinary passion and a unique underground economy within Southern France?

Saturday morning darkness, a third consecutive day of Languedoc drizzle and extended late night dinner conversation…hardly incentives for attending the Talairan Truffle market.

Armed with acceptable excuses for bailing out, I evertheless carpooled with three friends to Talairan’s intimate Salle des Fêtes across the street from the local Mayor’s office and adjacent to the lone coffee shop/bakery/restaurant.

We arrived at 8:30 AM, a full two-hours before the market officially opened. Our premature arrival was one of those logistical mishaps of crossed signals and someone neglecting to proofread promotional fliers. No matter, we were committed.

We were not alone upon arrival. Several aficionados milled around the entrance door swapping tales of their mutual obsession, the truffle. A gaggle of ten camouflaged hunters arrived, ammunition clips intact on their belts. Their multi-terrain vehicles are heavily decaled and stenciled with images of sangliers (savage pigs), their weekend object of prey.

Their presence is audibly apparent in southern villages during the weekends between November and January. Shotgun blasts echo in the not too comfortable distance. Mercifully, they leave their rifles in the vehicles. This morning they’re chasing pricier game.

Within the Salle des Fêtes, the aroma of truffles is unmistakable and robust. Truffles are the culinary saffron of France, their value exceeding gold, literally. They are harvested under oak trees, but require a trained dog or pig to sniff their location. A dog, one can distract with a trivial incentive treat. A pig will combat you for truffles due to their gourmand tendencies. Trained scout pigs tend to have abbreviated lifestyles.

The object of desire in appearance is roundish, brown, lightweight and resembles…yes, dried excrement. When employed in cooking, they’re typically shaven or grinded into small bits. The absorbed moisture within the cooking process softens their texture. Their taste is rumored to hover near the culinary equivalent of nirvana. I have a confession to inject. I don’t enjoy the taste of mushrooms, so I’m an unlikely candidate to lend my voice to the chorale of praise.

Pre-market festivities supercede the modest event. Several winemakers, a local butcher and confection vendor has established stalls within the auditorium, but they are minor cast. The celebrities are the truffle vendors, all four of them.

Not just anyone with a wrapped basket of truffles can cast their net towards economic prosperity. No official truffle price has been established prior to the market opening. A variety of factors including the number of vendors, buyers, precedent markets and…who knows what, will establish the acceptable selling price. No one takes issue with these regulations, nor the verdict rendered by a licensed truffle judge as to which mushrooms may be actually sold this day.

A burley, bent-nosed, no-nonsense man of approximately forty, serves as adjudicator. He laboriously, sniffs and scrapes with his small pocketknife each individual mound of truffle, no matter the size. Most are no larger than an inch in diameter. He separates the acceptable from thesuspect. Rumors abound that a Chinese based mushroom, identical in appearance, but inferior in flavor, have been infiltrating the merchandise inventory in the region. His judgment is absolute and protest not permitted. I imagine his cultivated nose is a lucrative asset. The market-selling price is established at 859 Euros per kilogram (approximately $475 per pound).

At 10:30 AM, the level of anticipation is mounting. Each vendor is in place, scales and wrapping paper eady. An omelet-truffle spread on toasted bread has been prepared by the organizers to whet the purchaser’s appetites. The samples are plentiful. The butcher alone has inhaled twenty, compensation due to minimal interest towards his product line.

Five minutes later, without ceremony, the market officially opens. A surge of buyers swarms towards the vendors, juggling weighing duties with wrapping and changing money responsibilities. The initial surge recedes and surprisingly inventory remains. I buy a 12 Euro rock (okay large pebble) for my wife and sample a few of the local forgettable wines. The whole business is completed within 20 minutes and an exit towards an afternoon nap is reward.

A rumor is circulating that a single restaurant buyer is seeking 10 kilos for his distribution business. He will linger until the amateur buyers leave and negotiate separately for the remaining inventory. In Parisian circles, the market price can often exceed double the local. Trading is cash only and receipts non-existent.

Truffles have a maximum shelf life of two weeks. Most were uprooted this very morning to preserve maximum moisture content and weight. Weight translates to money and within this economically depressed agricultural village, quite a sum changed hands that morning in January.

Marques Vickers will be contributing monthly columns sharing his experiences as an expatriate in Languedoc.

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