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.
We finally find somewhere to park and head to the main square which is heaving. Amongst all the people 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. At the head a woman is carrying a basket with an enormous truffle in it; the procession is headed towards the church, where the truffle, no doubt, will be blessed.
Another area in the square has been cordoned off with iron railings (those railings really get their full use here in the South) and sand laid down with oak and pine saplings strategically planted to recreate a typical truffle-fecund paysage. Nothing is happening yet, but people are already standing around the railings, expectantly. Suspense is in the air. Cameras are poised. At the far end a is van parked with a PA system inside it, outside its open door, a man is standing with a microphone, whipping up the audience. He 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. I wonder where I can get one.
After a few more tunes, to loud cheers and clapping, 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 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 the next bush where another truffle is unearthed and then carry on around the ring until all the truffles have been found. Its all over after about ten minutes when the man and pig leave the ring with a wave as the crowd cheers them on.
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 that’s 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.
Is there no end to the versitility of this funghi? Apparently not; a man offers me a taste of his truffle liquor, I am almost convinced that I need a bottle, but come to my senses just in time. You have to admire the French and their culinary ingenuity of turning everything and anything into a drink!
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 I should use it fresh and not cook it at all. 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.
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.