Rachel Baker delves into the secrets of the black diamonds of Provence

I first heard about Nicolas Monnier and his truffle experience course at our local boucherie in Apt. Monsieur Malavard was extremely passionate about it, waving his arms in the air and speaking so fast I was forced to say parlez lentement s’il vous plaît. His enthusiasm was such that by the time he had wrapped my poulet fermier I’d already decided to make contact with Nicolas that afternoon.

The day I meet Nicolas, the early morning mist has developed into a soupy fog. Our meeting point is at a lay-by between St. Saturnin-les-Apt and Sault, high in the Luberon hills. My husband jokes I will be blindfolded to keep the position of the truffière secret. Thanks to the thick fog this isn’t necessary. We could be anywhere.

Nicolas’s gentle manner and good command of English puts me at ease right away. I climb inside his four-by-four and we follow a rough unmarked track for about a mile before we reach the farmhouse. Built in the 19th century, le mas des Tavannes has the charm and austerity of the old mas of Haute Provence, located deep in the mountains and surrounded by forests and truffières.

As we warm ourselves next to a huge open fire in the farmhouse kitchen, Nicolas tells me the South East regions of France (Provence, Languedoc and Rhone regions) produce a staggering 90% of all French truffles. Tuber melanosporum, the Périgord or black truffle is the main truffle but also Tuber aestivum, the summer truffle.

Nicolas is keen for me to understand one thing: the association between the tree and the truffle. “There is no truffle without a tree,” he says. The truffle forms a symbiotic relationship with the tree; the tree gives sugars to the truffle via the sun, while the truffle provides valuable minerals to the tree.

He explains the truffles unique aroma and flavour comes down to maturity and growing conditions. Truffles harvested early in the season haven’t had time to mature when the weather is mild. The quality of la terre or the ground also makes a difference. Truffles prefer tough, rocky conditions to grow well and they need plenty of sun. Nicolas dispels the myth about the size of a truffle affecting its flavour but does add, “I would recommend something between the size of a golf ball and a grapefruit – no bigger.”

Nicolas is best described as a trufficulteur and a chef. His ‘knowing and cooking truffles’ course covers both subjects. In his opinion, the two notions are inseparable from each other. “One cannot appreciate and cook truffles without knowing them.” For Nicolas a truffle is not a taste but an aroma. “It’s like cooking the perfume of a rose,” he continues. “To capture the aroma requires time.”

Gras or fat is the perfect medium for releasing and capturing the aroma of truffle and butter gives particularly good results. Nicolas produces a bowl of whisked butter flecked with black truffle, which has been resting for two days to allow the flavour to mature. We eat it with thin slices of French bread. It tastes of the forest; of freshly picked wild mushrooms with undertones of a musky, more complex flavour. It’s exquisite. I have never tasted truffles so good.

With the flavour of truffle still lingering in my mouth, we pull on our boots and head outside to the truffière. Nicolas’s dog ‘Baby’ waits eagerly at the door. Baby is a Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian breed with thick curly fur and a highly trained nose. The moment Baby is put on the lead he knows he is ready to work. He isn’t unleashed until we are securely inside the truffière.

Baby starts to sniff the ground beneath the trees much the same as any other dog when it is out on a walk. As he goes about his work, nosing around the base of the small oaks, Nicolas keeps a respectful distance so as not to disturb him. After a few minutes Baby stops to sniff some more, catches a scent, and begins to scratch ferociously. Nicolas strides forward. “Non, Baby,” he commands. He only has to say it once.

Nicolas kneels and gently clears away the top layer of soil with his hands. He continues, using a circular action, until the outline of a truffle emerges. Baby watches and waits with anticipation. The moment the truffle is released he starts nosing Nicolas’s pocket for his reward of cheese. A small token for such precious treasure. The aroma of the freshly dug truffle infuses the air. It’s a good size and Nicolas is pleased. Baby works on and subsequent truffles are unearthed. The last truffle eludes us. Nicolas calls Baby back to check. Baby quickly confirms it is there and Nicolas uses a small hand tool to dig deeper until the truffle is finally revealed.

As we leave the truffière I feel privileged to have shared in this experience. It is clear that master and dog work in sync with one other. Baby responds to his master and Nicolas responds to Baby. Like the tree and the truffle, the trufficulteur and his dog cannot work independently from each other. They are in perfect symbiosis.

To find out more about Nicolas Monnier’s truffle courses visit

http://www.connaitreetcuisinerlatruffe.com

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