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Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my

blog postings inspired by my time in and around

Aix-en-Provence and the Vaucluse. The spot includes travel tips,

discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,

cultural events, interviews and historical

tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Black Diamond Part 1

Truffles at the Rognes Truffle Festival

Truffle breath is something to behold. I experienced it at the first truffle market we attended back in December in Rognes. A woman was passing by me and called out to a friend while eating a truffled butter sandwich. Wow! Even at this outdoor festival, the smell of truffles hung heavily in the air. There were hundreds of stalls, most of them selling truffles and truffle products, such as oils, vinegars, truffle cutters, truffle brushes, you name it. We now own all of the above. Other stalls sold produce such as lovely hams, cheeses, jams, biscuits, wine and vacuum-packed chestnuts (excellent – see recipe from the last blog). There was also a truffle-hunting demonstration with pigs and dogs. Which begs the question, is that “je ne sais quoi” aroma that characterizes the truffle just the smell of dog lips?

The prized black truffle, tuber melanosporum, grows in this region of the Vaucluse from around mid-December to March. If you happen to be in this part of the world in the winter, it’s a good idea to develop a taste for the truffle, as it’s the main attraction at this time of year – a huge attraction, in fact.

The truffle market in Carpentras is renowned. It’s mainly an event for big buyers who gather in the square of the Hotel Dieu around a series of big, long tables. Sellers in heavy parkas and caps shift around nervously, displaying their sacks of “black diamonds” while buyers stroll past, fingering a few and smelling a lot of them.

One hopes that no one had a cold that day, after all that fondling and sniffing.
Truffles sellers at the Carpentras truffle market
Truffle buyer at the Carpentras truffle market

The markets also sell starter plants of oak, impregnated with the spores of truffles. But after planting them– in the correct environment and the right conditions – one must wait around ten years to harvest the first truffles. For those who are impatient, or dishonest, there is the business of stealing truffles. Thieves sneak into oak forests under the cover of darkness with their dogs.

And it’s big business. This season truffles went for around 900 euros per kilo. Sometimes more, and sometimes less. So it’s clear why someone would want to steal even a few to sell at the market. But be warned, a truffle thief was shot dead by the owner in a field just north of here a couple of weeks ago. For regular honest people such as ourselves what this means is, to support this habit, we are going to have to send Jim into the marketplace with his accordion.

Philippe Appels with Mandoline, the truffle dog
A beautiful specimen, freshly dug up

La Maison du Moulin
Last weekend we participated in a truffle hunting demonstration – a real one, not staged – near Grignan, north of us in the Drôme region. Grignan is near the town of Richerenches, which is home to the other great truffle market. Philippe Appels owns this large plantation of oaks. When I asked if he was worried about thieves, he said “There are ONLY thieves around here.” “Why not install an electric wire?” I asked, as I’ve seen elsewhere. “It wouldn’t make any difference.” He seemed resigned to the reality of the situation.

We were out with his dog, Mandoline (the word for the truffle shaver, as well as the musical instrument). Mandoline was trained to be a truffle hunter from day one. He knows how to stiff them out. He identifies the right spot and starts to dig, then leaves it to Philippe to probe with his claw-like instrument. Somehow Philippe is able to discern the truffle, however small, from the pebbles and little rocks. And he is so enthusiastic. He admits, even after years of truffle hunting, he still gets excited at the moment of digging up that big, black lumpy melanosporum. He loves even pulling up a handful of dirt and smelling it, confirming a truffle is near. He begs us to sniff the handful of mud, too. As he scrapes the dirt off of the beautiful example we found, he can’t wipe the smile off his face.

This truffle hunt took place the morning after one of our most memorable truffle cooking experiences. Bénédicte Appels runs the kitchen at La Maison du Moulin, an old stone farmhouse outside of Grignan. Not that we ever saw the actual mill, so preoccupied we were with truffles.

We checked into our lovely room in the afternoon and later gathered in the kitchen for an evening of cooking. We were joined by three other French truffle enthusiasts. Bénédicte wrote the menu on her blackboard (ardoise) and we started in, brushing, rinsing and slicing truffles into thin slices (lamelles), sticks and small dice. We blended some into mascarpone, we mashed more into butter (this is better made two days or more in advance). We also added some to a big bowl of eggs which would later be turned into a brouillade.

Traditional performers at the Truffle Festival in Rognes
The Confrérie in Rognes

Truffle Police, ensuring only tuber melanosporum are being sold
But before I get ahead of myself, I should backtrack and describe more about a typical truffle festival. We visited three, in fact: most recently in Caprentras, before that in Pernes les Fontaines and the first, December 19th, in Rognes, mentioned above. At Rognes, we arrived early, as advised, around 9 am, just in time for the first omelette aux truffes, served with a fork stuck in a piece of baguette and a glass of red wine. We were able to survey the hundreds of stalls before the hoards arrived.

The formal ceremonies even included a concert by a gaboulet/tambourin group (fife and drum), performed by people wearing bonnets and costumes (sorry Jim, the price you pay for attending a truffle festival). After a speech by the mayor, the Confrérie de la Diamant Noir (the formal organization of truffle people), dressed in requisite black robes, hats and long golden ribbons with dangling medallions, processed solemnly through the whole market, chatting with people along the way, ending up at the top of the road for apéritifs. We joined them for lovely croûtes with smoked salmon, puff pastry with anchovies and more. That was followed by a ‘gastronomic meal’ in a community hall, each course featuring truffles in some way.

We (mostly Jim) have been experimenting with truffles for several weeks now, some dishes more successful than others. We’ve learned a lot along the way. The most important rule is to never cook a truffle (melanosporum variety). Otherwise the flavour will disappear instantly. You can warm it a bit, but never cook it. Best of all is to infuse it for two or more days with one of the ingredients to go in your dish, whether it’s cream, butter or mascarpone - yes, all highly caloric ingredients!

What this means is, while Jim is busking in the market, you will find me running up and down a few more mountains in our neighbourhood.

Eggs being infused with truffle

One of the best recipes of all, and the most popular, is also one of the simplest, if you follow the instructions. Jim has now perfected it. For this dish you must begin at least two days in advance. Take a fresh truffle (or more, depending on number of servings) and two fresh eggs per person (okay, Jim insists on three), put them in a jar, and hermetically seal it. Put it in the fridge until cooking day. The truffle aroma will infuse the eggs right through the shell. A few hours before cooking, crack the eggs into a bowl and mix with a fork. Season with salt and pepper.

Brush the truffle carefully with a stiff brush like a toothbrush. You may need to use a tiny paring knife to chip out the bits of dirt in the cracks and crevices (truffles are not always perfectly round). Then continue brushing and wiping the truffle under cold running water until you are sure you have removed all of the grit. This is the trickiest part of the job. And you have to do it right before using the truffle, as the water, after time, will make it lose some of its flavour and begin to go soft. Dry the truffle with a cloth, then slice it into rounds, setting aside a few for the final garnish (wrap them so they do not dry out), then chop the rest quite finely. Add them to the cracked eggs and cover tightly with plastic wrap until cooking time.

A brouillade is like scrambled eggs but it is never cooked directly on heat, rather in a bain-marie, or in other words, in a metal bowl set over very gently simmering water. The mixture should never get firm, like scrambled eggs, but should be soft and creamy, almost like porridge. The French call it baveuse, or runny.

Choose your pans (unless you own a bain-marie): one bigger one to go on the stove with a few inches of water in it, then a metal bowl to fit inside. We generally keep the bowl above the simmering water, but Bénédicte kept her pan directly in the water. Bring your water to a simmer and set your metal bowl on top. Add a knob of butter and melt it, tilting the pan. Then pour in the egg mixture, scraping out every last morsel of truffle with a spatula. Immediately start stirring with a wooden spoon or a whisk. Invite your guests to the table, because the brouillade needs to be served immediately. Entertain them with scintillating stories while you continue stirring, scraping the sides so that it does not stick too much. At first nothing will happen, then you will notice it starting to thicken. Continue cooking and stirring until it is creamy and thick, but still somewhat runny. Don’t worry, it is cooked. Stir in a spoonful of crème fraîche (purists wouldn't, but I like that slight tang). Pour into warmed serving bowls, garnish with extra slices of truffle and serve without delay. Offer fresh pepper and fleur de sel (from the Camargue if possible). Eat it with a spoon.

Scallops and truffles
This is one of the recipes we prepared at Grignan with Bénédicte Appels. It’s easy to make, as long as you have truffles, and the presentation is sensational. (I will admit, we tried the recipe again when we didn’t have a truffle and simply drizzled truffle oil on at the table and it was also very good.)

You’ll need one scallop shell, including the lid, per person (or consider small gratin dishes). In terms of amounts, we found that two scallops, including the coral, works for one shell.

First steam some juliennes (thin strips) of leeks, and drain. Put the bottoms of the scallop shells on a baking sheet, propping them up with crumpled bits of aluminum foil (so they don’t tip). Fill the bottom of each scallop shell with leeks. Slice the scallops into thin rounds. Overlap them in a pretty circle on top of the leeks. Slice a truffle thinly. Slip the slices (lamelles) of truffle in between the scallop slices. Place a teaspoon of truffle butter in the middle (truffle butter is just butter mashed with diced truffle). Season with salt and pepper. Place the top scallop shell on top. Cut slices of puff pastry into strips (commercial puff pastry is fine, because you don’t actually eat it). Wrap the puff pastry strip around the crack to hermetically seal the scallop. Brush it with a bit of egg yolk. Bake it in a hot oven (200 degrees celsius, 400 degrees fahrenheit) for 12 minutes and serve without delay. Your guests crack open the pastry and dive in with spoons and forks. Bon appétit!

Scallops in the shell with truffles
À la prochaine,


1 comment:

liv said...

Since I just heard from Serena recently that she is visiting you, I want you and Jim to take pity on my family when you get back to Evanson st. Your stories are making my mouth water and I would love to eat the food. I will buy all the materials (food stuff) if you cook some of these dishes for us!

Perhaps you will never come home....what a fabulous place, too bad we couldn't get there before August.
Hugs to both of you,
Liv and co.