Summer truffle hunting in Provence

On Saturday we ventured into a small village (which will remain nameless - explanation will come a little later!) about an hour away from our little haven in Provence to do some truffle hunting! This is something we have been looking forward to with great anticipation, and although a little disappointed we couldn't be looking for Winter truffles (the much more highly prized cousin of the Summer truffle) we were happy just to be able to experience it. And the day exceeded our expectations by amazing proportions!

We arrived at the "farmhouse" Les Pastras to be warmly greeted by our lovely hosts, Lisa and Johann. Hearing and feeling their enthusiasm for their small part of the world, I just knew we were in for a treat! Lisa (from America) and Johann (French born) had left their lives in Chicago in 2003 to return to the family farm that Johann grew up knowing. His grandparents still live on the property and although both in their later years are still active in the farm. Lisa and Johann looked at the different options available to them with the use of the farm land and with the help of friends and neighbours, as is so often the case in these rural parts of France, have created an oasis with olive trees, vineyards, fruit trees, bee hives and the prized oak trees that their Summer and Winter truffles grow so quietly and unobtrusively below.
Vineyards that produce table grapes

Johann explaining to me the finer points of cultivating the olive trees. They have an olive picking party every year around November 11th - I wonder if I can re arrange our itinerary?! 

The beginning of our tour went through the property, looking at the effect that fires, frosts and time has had on it. Interestingly, they have managed to create an entire olive grove of over 400 trees using what they found on the land. The ability of these trees to survive just about anything is quite amazing. They are hardy through fires and frosts and regenerate themselves so with careful farming ways, the off shoots can be separated and replanted to create an entire olive grove - basically for free - well, free as far as euros are concerned - a hell of a lot of blood, sweat and tears have gone into it I'm sure!

Continuing on through the 11 hectare organic farm and we come across the rows of bee hives, which we steer well clear of! Johann explains that even he doesn't get too close to these - this is still his grandfathers love and often he finds his 90 year old grandfather in his beekeepers outfit checking on the progress of his beloved bees. Explaining that the excess honey that is collected from the top part of the hives to ensure the bees have enough left to sustain them throughout their working life, it becomes clear that this farm is all about sustainability and producing top quality products, but not to the detriment of the natural environment around it.

Then onto the real reason we came...truffles!
Pupuce and Mirabelle - our little truffle hunters

A row of oaks that is the home of the prized Winter truffles stands tall and proud in a very different position to that of the Summer truffle. They make us want to come back here again in Winter! Ensuring the correct soil, orientation and ability to get the right amount of water is not only a science - but also a stroke of luck for this family when they discovered through a friend that their oaks were producing the nuggets that are often referred to in France and other parts as the "diamonds of the kitchen".
Our first find!! Well, the dogs first find but we are claiming it for our own!!
Further along the field we come to the Summer truffle trees. Lisa and Johann's friend and his truffle dogs - Mirabelle and Pupuce have just arrived (running on Provence time, only 15 minutes late! Ha ha!!) The dogs don't have to be cajoled too much to head to work. They have been trained to hunt for truffles in a reward based training program from the time they were puppies. It starts with a little piece of truffle being put inside a ball and as the dogs get rewarded each time it gets retrieved, they soon associate the strong pungent smell of truffle with getting a reward. It's simple, and it works! Mirabelle and Pupuce start scratching around close to the trunk of one of the oaks and within seconds, a truffle is excavated, only a couple of centimetres below the surface of the ground. We are so excited with this first discovery, we barely notice that Pupuce is off in another direction having a scratch in the ground also! Within a space of about 20 minutes these two little hard workers have emerged with just over 100grams of beautiful Summer truffle, as well as a couple that have past their best. These get replanted in the ground after the dogs have finished for the day so they can give back to the soil where more little truffles will be growing soon.

So how do they grow you ask? (I'm sure I heard you asking, but if I didn't bad luck - I'm going to tell you anyway!) The truffle - or tuber - Truffe in French - grows in the spores of the oak tree roots. As far back as 1808 was the first known "cultivation" of the truffles by a French man by the name of Joseph Talon, not very far from this very property! The "cultivation" has always been a little hit and miss as there are so many variables that have to be perfect in order for the truffle to grow. If there is too much water, too many weeds surrounding it, too much sun, too little get the idea! Difficult business to be in! But at about 1200 euros per kilo for the Winter truffle and 200 euros per kilo for the summer truffle - one that is well worth the gamble if you have the property, nouse and the love!

One of the stories told to us by Johann was of a local farmer that is known to sleep out in his field of Winter truffle trees during the season with a shot gun by his side. It is not uncommon to hear of truffle thieves coming onto the property in the dead of night to uncover one of these little gems. Once this local farmer caught someone in his heat seeking video camera, took a shot into the air to scare him off and then took off after him in his truck to give him no uncertain message as to what would happen to him if he ever came back and tried to steal from him again!

It is for this reason that I am unable to disclose the exact location of this farm, and also the reason that although Lisa and Johann offer tours of their truffle farm, they are only offered to non French people! It is done with such secrecy that they have to be careful with each booking and only release the location of the farm a couple of days prior to your reservation!

Upon completion of our farm tour, we headed back to the farm house to sample a little truffle and enjoy a glass of Champagne. Well, that was what was supposed to be included in the package anyway. But after eating some amazing canapés prepared by Lisa: truffle on salted butter and bread, truffle on cream cheese, truffle on cows cheese, brownie with truffle infused creme anglaise...oh yes, and I think it was 4 bottles of champagne later and a few family favourite truffle recipes shared finally we left the farm!! What had been advertised as a 1-1.5 hour truffle experience, had turned into 4 hours of learning, enjoying, eating, drinking and making new friends! We left the farm with a firm dinner date with our hosts set before we leave this wonderful part of the country on Saturday.

A couple of the recipes have already been tested - well we had fresh truffles so what more could we do! The truffle roasted chicken was perhaps the best roast chicken I have ever had (simply slice the truffle thinly and slide in between the chicken skin and the meat - cook as usual for a roast chook, but don't add gravy - it takes away from the amazing truffle flavour!)

As for last nights truffle burgers - they were a hit with all! Home made burger patties with meat that has been freshly minced with slices of truffle and brillat savarin cheese (or any other high fat, gooey, yummy like triple cream brie) stuffed into the middle of it. drizzle with a little truffle oil to finish off just before serving!

Happy truffle eating!!!



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