It’s January, the month deemed to be the most depressing of the year. The Christmas lights have finally come down, but Spring is not yet here, we’re still in the throes of winter and everyone is broke. What to do to cheer ourselves up?
Luckily there is la Fete des Truffes in Uzes, which celebrates the Joy of the Truffle. Uzes is about 1/2 an hour away. It is Sunday and with nothing better to do, we pile the dogs into the car and head off. It’s a glorious day, the sky, clear and blue, and the sun bright enough to warrant sunglasses. The road takes us through vineyards on either side of the road, the vines brown and twisted, some pruned, some waiting to be pruned. The roads are empty but when we get to Uzes there is nowhere to park, every single space is taken; on a Sunday in winter? Truffles are obviously big business.
I get out the car near the town square and the Artist drives on in search of far flung car parks with the dogs. I did suggest that I could take the dogs, but as Ralph fights with everything and Molly is scared of crowds, the Artist thought it a bad idea. But as I walk towards the square with my new sunglasses perched on my nose, I think that a couple of Scottie dogs in matching red collars and leads trotting along beside me would just put the finishing touches to my look; this is France after all and if dogs aren’t for posing then what are they good for?
There is a large crowd in the square and there is a procession of men and women dressed up in what I presume to be traditional Uzesian costumes of long purple and grey robes with turbans on their heads. On closer inspection I see that a woman at the head of the procession is carrying a basket with an enormous truffle in it, They seem to be heading towards the church, where the truffle no doubt will be blessed.
An area in the square has been cordoned off with iron railings (those railings really get their full use) and sand laid down with oak and pine saplings strategically planted here and there, to recreate a typical truffle-fecund paysage. Nothing is happening yet, but people are already standing around the railings, ensuring their places for when the specatacle begins. Suspense is in the air. Cameras are poised. At the far end of the ‘truffle field’ is a van parked with it’s side door open with a PA system inside it and a man with a microphone standing in front of it, whipping up the audience with the times of the pig and dog-truffle hunting demonstrations. He also reminds us to buy tickets for a plate of truffle omelette for which they will be using 3,000 eggs and a 1,000 gram truffle, the same that was making its way into the Church? He then plays “I’m walking on Sunshine” and chats to his mates who are standing around the van, drinking wine. I notice they all have wine glass holders round their necks, like people have for their specs, but with a ring which their glass sits in enabling them to go hands free whilst keeping hold of their glass.
As I am musing about how I need to get one for the next party I go to, I hear a voice behind me, I turn around, it’s the Artist.
I see you got a ringside seat then, he says.
After a few more tunes, the man on the PA picks up his banter, and the crowd claps and cheers as a man in a green jacket comes into the enclosure leading a white spotted pig wearing a collar and lead. He’s quite a handsome pig as far as pigs go. He’s definitely had a bit of a bath and a brush-up since leaving the pig-sty this morning, The man leads him into the ring and encourages him to sniff at one of the miniature saplings; as soon as the pig gets a whiff of the truffle scent, he’s off. After a few seconds of feverish digging with his snout, his head comes up victoriously with a truffle held daintily in his mouth. Quick as a flash, the man has taken the truffle from the pig, shown it to the audience and put it in his pocket giving the pig a treat in its place. A truffle flavoured chocolate drop perhaps? The crowd claps and cheers, cameras flash and for those who can’t see, there is a running commentary from the compare. The man and pig are now off to another bush where the whole process is repeated, until he has gone right round the ring and unearthed every truffle under every sapling. Its all over after about ten minutes and the man and pig leave the ring with a wave to great cheers. We later learn from some friends that a few years ago a pig actually attacked his owner when he tried to retrieve the truffle from his mouth and the man had to be rushed to hospital!
People start to wander off and the compare tells us to come back in half an hour to see the dog truffle hunting demonstration.
Now thats something I want to see, I tell the Artist.
A crowd is gathering in another part of the square and we go to investigate. There we see a huge metal pan being held over a smouldering wood fire by a tractor. There are about 6 men standing around the pan wearing white chef jackets and aprons, they each have a wooden paddle with which they are pushing back and forth the largest amount of eggs you have ever seen. This must be the 3,000 egg omelette.
Omelette, the Artist says as we walk away, more like scrambled eggs. I must admit, I’m not very tempted.
We then squeeze our way through the crowd under the arches. Here there are local producers selling truffles along with all sorts of truffle infused produce. There is truffle oil, truffle vinegar, truffle salt, truffle rice, truffle pasta, truffle sausage, even truffle chocolate, which is in my opinion, is a truffle too far. You can also buy little oak saplings with truffle spores to grow in your garden and there are recipe books dedicated to the truffle. I never knew the truffle was so versatile!
I ask a man the price of a large truffle that he has in a basket it is about the size of a cauliflower. He weighs it and says €350. He has another one for €12 which is about the size of half a conker. I decide to buy that one. It is black and hard with a slightly textured skin. I have a brief conversation with the man about how best to cook the truffle. He tells me it can be stored for about a week with some moistened kitchen towel in a jar in the fridge. If I put an egg in with it, whole and in its shell, the truffle will flavour the egg; I can do the same with rice. When I am ready to use it, he tells me to clean it with a damp cloth and grate it finely over eggs, pasta or risotto. It is also very good in pommes dauphinois, he adds. I hand over my money, thank him and move on.
We pass a stall where they are selling bottles of truffle liquor. The man tells us you can drink it as an aperitif or use it to flavour sauces. He gives us a little sip in a plastic cup and I am almost convinced, thinking maybe I need a bottle, but luckily come to my senses in time. All the same I cannot help but admire the French and their culinary ingenuity of turning everything and anything into a drink
All around the square the restaurants are laying out tables and chairs and advertising their truffle menus. Everywhere is packed and the menus are twice or three times what they normally are. We manage to find somewhere round the back of the square and after 1/2 an hours wait, order the dishes of the day, Pizza a la Truffe and Pasta a la Truffe.
The truffle is good business!
Later as we are driving home in the car, past woods with oak and pine trees, I think about all the truffles that are probably lurking just below the surface of the ground and all the money that could be made if only we knew how to find them. I turn round and see Molly and Ralph lying lazily on the back seat and think about how they never really DO anything.
How hard do you think it is to train a dog to find truffles? I ask.