• Wendy Nelson

The High Cost of Truffles

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Limestone is not always your friend. Except when it yields delicious treats.




No point sugar-coating it: Montpellier water is hell on my hair.

I love Montpellier and I can’t think of a better place to be under confinement (the new lockdown-lite which went into effect nationally on April 3rd) but my hair, which has never been called my best feature, is deteriorating precipitously. At its best, it’s both ridiculously fine, and there isn’t all that much of it. Within the first month here, it mutated into a frazzled nimbus resting on my shoulders. Imagine—sorry to do this to you—light brown cotton candy, only less sticky.

I consulted my favorite pharmacies. Both diagnosed the same culprit: l’eau calcaire. Hard water. At both stores, the clerks reached out and fingered my frayed, lifeless hair, before making a kind of supportive clucking noise with their tongues. Veronique observed “your hair is very fin.” In her southern accent, fin came out as fang. I’m pretty sure no one at CVS has ever touched my head while I was in the shampoo aisle.

Historically, I would classify myself as cynical about the snake oil sold to women to address various superficial concerns attendant with aging: Crows’ feet! Dimpled butt! Crèpe-y neck! But I have fallen over the cliff with this hair business. Bring on your unguents! I am now taking daily keratin pills (quite the thing here); massaging obscenely expensive drops into my scalp three times a week (for all I know, the glass pipette is dispensing water); and experimenting clumsily with masks. I’ve been advised to pour vinegar over my hair (which is okay but I end up smelling like a vinaigrette). I’ve heeded the admonitions to wash my hair less (but don’t skip the showers, my guide always adds quickly), and abandon the blow dryer.

While I have doubts about the efficacy of these remedies, I don’t doubt the diagnosis of eau calcaire. You can literally see the scum on the water. It’s not harmful….except to hair. And things like washing machines. Within a day of arriving in Montpellier we went to the wonderful Monoprix and bought a Britta filter. It is our most precious domestic possession. Boiling the water does no good: it just causes the minerals to froth up in a soft white crust.

The main mineral is lime. There’s a lot of limestone in France: it’s what much of Paris is built of, as just one example, starting with Notre-Dame. Down here in the south, the rough scrubland that grows from the limestone soil is called the garrigue. Wild lavender and thyme like limestone soil. So do green oaks, among whose roots grow truffles: the costly black ones (Tuber melanosporum) and the less-expensive summer truffles (Tuber aestivum).

 

Up the street from me is a store which sells only truffle products. (It, by the way, is deemed essentielle in this latest confinement. Is this a great country or what?) 80g of chopped black truffles costs 99E. That’s a lotta scratch for a little bit of fungus. I knew that there was a complicated procedure for finding truffles, involving pigs, or dogs, or, ack, flies, but I also knew that the tremendous value of truffles means that everything to do with collecting them is shrouded in secrecy; I despaired of being able to learn more.

And then stepped in our wonderful new friends, who know a truffle guy. To protect his stash, we’ll call him TG. TG said he would be happy to take us on a search for truffles. Thus, in early March—before the confinement began and we were limited to a 10km radius from our Montpellier apartment—we rented an enormous Ford and drove out into the garrigue to meet TG.

It was one of the best days we’ve spent here. The sky was dazzling blue, the sun was warm, and the hills rose grey and white and grey-green around us. As we drove, our friends told us that the main things that grow in that area are grapes and olive trees and truffles, and we saw vines and olive orchards clinging to the limestone hills. We wandered down the rows of oaks with TG and his brilliant dog, Mala, the only sound that of the wind rustling the oak leaves.

TG led us into one of his fields, planted with long rows of green oaks. “Cherche, Mala,” he instructed his sweet dog (some kind of retriever mix), and she obediently put her nose to the ground and began searching for the elusive smell as she walked a line along the base of the trees. We ambled along behind her, talking about la trufficulture in France.

It’s not a business model that I can see many Americans signing up for. You buy oak seedlings (about 6” tall), whose roots have been pre-loaded with truffle spores. You plant them. You irrigate them; no small task in that rocky, dry area. You wait 7-10 years for them to mature. Once they’re mature, only about 10% of them will actually yield truffles. You harvest winter truffles from December(ish) or January until March. We were at the very end of the season. The less flavorful and less expensive summer truffles come when it gets hot. Most oak trees only support truffles for 20 years or so. Thank goodness TG and other truffle cultivators see the equation differently than I do.

When Mala found a likely spot, she began to dig very delicately with one of her front paws. “Arrête, Mala,” TG called out, and we hurried over to where the dog was now standing. If Mala were less well-trained, or we were slower, she would have gobbled up her 100E worth of truffles before we got there. TG pulled out a pick and loosened the rocky, limestone-y earth in a foot-wide diameter around Mala’s polite scratching of the soil, and then began digging with his bare hands. Sometimes—if the truffle was pretty large—he’d find it quickly. Other times, after searching in vain for a couple minutes, TG would call Mala over again. “Viens, Mala! Cherche!” Then Mala would trot over and recommence her gentle one-pawed digging, thinking to herself—I’m sure—“I brought you right to it, dumbass. Do I have to do all the work?”

For so late in the season, two of the truffles Mala dug up—an inch and half diameter—were real finds. The others were a good bit smaller, and, covered in dirt, were easily mistaken for stones. TG rewarded Mala with a treat, and then used a soft-bristled brush to remove the dirt from the truffle before putting it into his bag, getting up from the ground, and following Mala to her next find.

 

He told us 100 years ago, truffles could be found everywhere amongst the roots of the oak trees. The woman who had lived in the little chateau at the top of the nearby village, he said, would slice the truffles and deep fry them, like frîtes. There was also a popular dish, of some version of fowl en demi deuil (half mourning). You’d slice your truffle (a mandoline is the best tool; a potato peeler works, too) and slide the slices under the capon skin before roasting it in the oven. The black slices of truffle gave the suggestion, apparently, of mourning dress.

But now, he said, with a shrug and some uniquely Gallic sounds that come from pursed lips, global warming had changed that. If there’s not enough rain in March, the truffle spores that are latent in the ground amongst the roots don’t start growing. Thanks to hotter and drier years, truffle yields have plummeted. There are no fried truffles in anyone’s future. Truffle operations like TG’s make the reality—and the immediacy—of global climate change abundantly clear.

On that gorgeous March day, though, we focused on hurrying after Mala, enjoying a wonderful rambling chat, and savoring the pungent, earthy smell of each nugget Mala found.

When we got home to Montpellier—with truffles that our friends had all generously insisted that we take—we set to apply the education we’d gotten from them. Truffles like heat—but not too much heat—to release their full flavor. They are also happiest in fat, like olive oil, butter, cream, or cheese. Aren’t we all? We experimented with several dishes over the next two weeks while the truffles were at their freshest. P shared that toasted slice of baguette with olive oil and paper thin slices of truffles is a simple and elegant apéro.

While I never made truffled scrambled eggs to my satisfaction (brouillade aux truffes is unctuous perfection, when done right), we did hit a home run with pasta in a truffle cream sauce and pommes gratinées aux truffes (scalloped potatoes). And early asparagus napped in cream and sliced truffles and parmesan—run briefly under the broiler—was pretty revelatory.

The truffles are going to have a hard time of it in the hot years ahead. The least I can do is stop begrudging them their limestone homes.

And if anyone has hints on rescuing hair from hard water, send them my way!

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