The Black Truffle Extravaganza

big-ass truffle

When I was in Cahors, I had dinner with a French woman who teaches English. She told me one of the biggest differences between English and French is that in English, we often use a lot of words to mean one thing. And not all of them make sense. I’ve never really thought about it all that much, but she was right; we do tend to use a lot of expressions and words where one, or a few, might suffice.

black, black truffles

“Hang a left”, “Hide the sausage”, and “Beat the rap” are a few phrases that come to mind because another day during my trip, someone was giving driving directions to a French driver, and he didn’t understand why one would “hang” a turn. (The other two phrases didn’t come up during the week, which was both good and unfortunate. And not necessarily in that order.)

But we Anglophones do have to use quite a few words to mean one thing. “That wooden tool that you use to spread crêpe batter on a griddle” is called, simply, a “râteau“.

Henras truffles

There’s a few other culinary terms and tools that we have lengthy explanations for, when in French, one or two words would suffice. Mie is “the inside of the bread”, and “Breton cake with an insane amount of butter folded in, then caramelized” is kouign amann.

oak leaves

Aside from a plethora of food-related words that mean almost the same thing, such as “tentacled creatures that must be avoided at all costs”, which include poulpe, sèche, chiparons, calmars (so one must be on red alert at all times to avoid them), there are differences between an atelier, boutique, fabrique, usine, and laboratoire; all describe places where food is made and/or sold. And the people that buy raw product and do something to it can either be conditionneurs or transformeurs.

black truffles sliced truffles

A conditionneur is someone who takes something, changes it just a little, and prepares it for sale. A transformeur takes something, changes it a little more, and prepares it for sale.

henras trufflecans

Interestingly, the woman that I had the conversation with, her mother is Anne-Marie Gaillard, a transformeur (or transformeuse?) of black truffles at her company, Henras. And I happened to meet her during the height of truffle season during my visit to Cahors.

washing black truffles

I don’t think anything can prepare you for the smell that races quickly through your nose and makes a beeline for your brain when you walk into a room of hundreds of fresh black truffles. In fact, including the six bins in the refrigerator, soaking in what is likely the world’s most expensive water, which removes the dirt, and the four large tables where the truffles were generously tumbling about, I’d say there was maybe a few thousand in there.

giant black truffle

Every year, during the two months of black truffle season, Madame Gaillard and her small team virtually lock themselves in this room, washing, picking, and sorting through the fresh truffles, most of which will be shipped to various restaurants and food shops in France, and beyond.

sorting black truffles

You might not think they’re such a bargain (the wholesale price of the truffles is currently between €600-€900, or $825-$1250 per kilo, 2.2 pounds), and with retailers like Dean & DeLuca selling black truffles for $200 per ounce, one might be tempted to stock up. But unless you have a resale license, you need to get in line with everyone else.

truffle sorting truffes noir

Luckily, Madame Gaillard took a shine to me and invited us to her casual, but chic ‘truffle-bar’ restaurant in Cahors, for dinner with her kids (and a few “friends” that showed up, coincidentally, at around the same time the truffles started to get shaved), so I’d have a chance to indulge.

plenty of black truffles

Interestingly, the appeal of truffles isn’t so much their taste. It’s their aroma that makes you wilt with pleasure. As you might know, a good portion of taste relates to the scent of foods. If you don’t believe me, next time you’re eating something, hold your nose and see how your perception of it changes. Although you might want to do that at home; if you do it in a French restaurant, the chef might toss you out.

sliced black truffles & knife

Thankfully there was no danger of getting tossed out of Henras, and no need to hold my nose at anything they put before me, either. As I was waiting for dinner, sipping a glass of the black wine of Cahors, Madame Gaillard plucked a knobbly, odd-shaped specimen from a bag and quickly shaved it on a plate, adding only a flurry of fleur de sel, before passing it around for us to taste.

sliced black truffles with salt

They were fairly tasty but only faintly flavorful: the pleasure was from the scent wafting upward from the plate, not from what I was chewing on. And that was when I saw the folly of those people making things like “truffle burgers” using over-sized slices of truffles, and sandwiching them between a bun.

truffles in oil

It’s kind of ‘daredevil dining’ and is all about machismo than really looking to get the best out of the truffle (kind of like eating a vanilla bean versus using it in a sauce) but for the rest of us, a few slices shaved over pasta or risotto is simply heaven. Or sliced and served atop toasts smeared with salted butter.

truffle toasts

Not from the region, be equally unforgettable and luxurious, was the absolutely gorgeous plate of Spanish Iberico ham, made from the meat of pigs which feed on wild acorns. If you haven’t had it, it’s definitely worth tipping the balance of your carbon footprint to get yourself to somewhere that’s it available.

Iberico ham

I’m not one of those people that thinks “Fat is flavor!” no matter what. But when you slip a piece of this in your mouth and it simply melts away, everything else stops momentarily and you realize you’re eating something extremely special. I’ve seen some of my compatriots in Spain, yanking off the thin ribbon of fat and leaving it behind, startling the nearby Spaniards, and me. Then the chef got to work scrambling eggs.

wine glass scrambling eggs

Lest you think scrambled eggs are boring, or just breakfast fare, they shaved an entire truffle (at least) into the eggs before the chef, with his slow-moving spatula, coaxed the eggs over the lowest possible heat until they firmed up. But just ever-so-slightly, and were served runny and aromatic. I wouldn’t mind them for breakfast every day.

Like, for the rest of my life.

lui scrambling eggs & truffles

As he was piling the eggs onto my plate, the chef remarked, “You can’t serve this in America”, assuming he was talking about the astounding amount of black truffles in the dish. But he was referring to the softly-cooked eggs. Can you really not serve soft-cooked eggs in America anymore? People, get thee to a farmer’s market and buy your eggs from a trusted source.

truffle-like truffle cleaning brush

(And I didn’t quite know where to put this picture of the truffle brush that looks exactly like a truffle, so it’s here just because I loved it. I would’ve bought it, but think they might have flipped if they knew I was going to use it to scrub pots and pans.)

Our meal continued through a few more truffle-laden courses, including a firm, jellied aspic, molded with a disk of foie gras from a local producer, slices of black truffles, and artichokes.

truffles and foie gras holding truffle

But eventually, the last truffle was shaved, the red wine was polished off, our glasses of mousse au chocolat (sans truffes) were scraped clean, and it was time to call it a night.

It was a fantastic experience at Henras. And aside from all the truffles that were added to my tally, also added were a few more words to my French vocabulary.

jeremy soup drinking

One, which was particular to this region, was chabrot: the pouring of red wine into one’s almost-finished bowl of soup, which is lifted up and polished off. And like the bowls of wine-enriched soup that kept us warm and fortified as we journeyed through the vineyards and restaurants of the Lot, I wasn’t looking forward to the end.

(Next up….the final post from Cahors)

Related Posts

The Truffle Market at Lalbenque

Truffle Hunting

The Coopers of Cognac

Cognac

Camp Cassoulet

Henras Truffles
Restaurant
40, bis boulevard Gambetta
Tél: 05 65 23 74 06

Laboratoire
284, rue Wilson
Tél: 05 65 35 20 22

The restaurant is in downtown Cahors. The laboratoire isn’t open to the public, although you can buy their products there as well as at the address on boulevard Gambetta.

60 comments

  • Do the Henras canned ones retain anything like a ghost of the extraordinary odour of the fresh ones? I’ve always been so disappointed by the jarred or canned ones I’ve tried, but maybe these ones are better.

  • When will it end?

    Truffles, Iberico ham, Cahor wine…… you taunt and tease us and I’m sure that has to be against our human rights. At least take crappy photos so as not to torture us further!

    I will have to make do with some of my focaccia from yesterday for breakfast, I was really hapy with its authentic taste and texture until I read this! I guess I should delete the recipe from my blog and go fly to Spain for some jamon!

    Dylan

  • I find the same in Japanese! Sometimes it’s so hard to explain a thing without resorting to lots of words when you just want to use the one but generally if I use the Japanese word I get blank looks…Wonder why?

  • I’ve loved this story series. Knew very little about truffles before, except for I recently tried a truffle oil. Your pictures are wonderful, and I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the dishes. Thanks for sharing!

  • Natasha: Madame Gaillard opened a small tin of black truffles from Henras that had an incredibly fragrance. She used them to perfume a vinaigrette for a green salad. The little tin costs about €12 (can’t remember exactly how much was in there, but I’d say a modest tablespoon of chopped truffles.) I was going to buy one to make ice cream, but she said that I should really use fresh.

    There’s a lot of insipid, bland tinned truffles out there and you need to buy from a reputable source, and assume they won’t be cheap. I wouldn’t spend the money unless I was sure they were going to be good.

  • A lovely series, and I’m deeply envious of your experience! Thought of you last night, as was watching Raymond Blanc making his signature “café crème” pudding with a coffee-cup made out of dark chocolate, and I thought “I bet David used to do something similar!”

    But I must take issue with you on one thing – poulpes and calamari are simply delicious!

  • If you like the jamón iberico, you should try the other varieties out there, although I’m not sure how easy they are to get in France! My favourite is cecina, a deliciously smokey-tasting, almost black ham. I’m living in the north of Spain at the moment, and I don’t know what you’re allowed and not allowed to post, but I’d be willing to do you some sort of food-parcel swap, if you want to exchange some delicious things that you can only get here for some delicious things you can only get in France!

  • Finally, someone who really means it when they described somethings as “smeared” with butter. Hello, deliciousness!

    And I really do need to try and figure out this truffle thing sometime. Sigh.

  • I don’t even like truffles (better, really, to have at least one totally extravagant food that I can pass up….), but this looks like a blast.

    The observation about French vs. English is interesting, but I don’t buy it — or at least I would say that it cuts both ways. A lot of the anglicisms in French are for exactly this reason: why say “fin de la semaine” when you can just say weekend? We translate a lot of documents in my work, and there’s not a single instance, in my experience, where the French version (or even the French title) was shorter than the English. On the other hand, food may be one of the areas where the French have more speciliased vocabulary that fits the bill…

  • Never tasted a truffle, though I used to shave slivers off almost every day once upon a time. There were always too many pairs of eyes on me. Damn. They do smell divine – that much I remember. Two days ago, my husband slurped wine off my breakfast plate when he almost drowned my omelette – only, we called it “clumsy”.

  • The truffle story is so interesting. I love reading it. Now I not only want to experience the aroma of all the truffles, but also the taste of the bacon!

  • A fascinating series of posts about the Truffles.
    We really enjoyed the posts.

  • This story has made me go, “WOW” at every photograph and word. The foie gras truffle and artichoke in aspic…WOW. Thanks very much!

  • I just returned from a week long truffle extravaganza in the South of France, and this post has my heart fluttering about the experiences of yesterday. You’ve captured the mystique and magic of truffles beautifully!

  • I love the pictures, once again it’s too bad that odorama pics have not been invented yet : if they were scented as they are crisp and beautifull, that would be amazing :D.

    (btw it’s “chabrot”, with a t. (turns out that french sentences are indeed spoken with fewer words, but they catch up with a lot more mute letters inside those words :D)

  • Betsey: I’m sure you’re right about culinary terms, since many of the techniques originated in France (ie: nappage), which don’t exist in English.

    btw: When I play Scrabble with French friends, and I always get stuck with the W. And words that begin with W are the shortest chapter in the French dictionary. And what is there is weekend, Walkman, wagon, etc…

    Krysalia: Interesting, because I had him write it down in my Moleskine book and he wrote it that way! I looked it up and you’re right (of course), and I learned that the origin of the word is from cabroù (goat), since you’re drinking your soup like a goat. (I found these fantastic old postcard images of faire chabrot, too.)

    I don’t think they give goats red wine in the Lot, but we certainly made up for their loss
    : )

  • Reading this story was like smelling the truffles. Lovely, wonderful, rich…

    When my little girl was one year old, we went to an Italian restaurant with her grand parents. The chef came to our table and just sliced some black truffles on a plate in front of her with the comment: Girl, you need to get used to the taste of good things.

    She is two and loves pasta with truffle oil (I can’t afford buying truffle to feed a 2 year old ;-) ), just as my husband and I.

  • “That wooden tool that you use to spread crêpe batter on a griddle” is called, simply, a “râteau”

    I’d like to see you use one of those in your kitchen.

    Mie is “the inside of the bread”

    And so is the crumb.

    “Breton cake with an insane amount of butter folded in, then caramelized” is kouign amann.

    So what would a Breton call a Cornish pastie (besides revolting)? Perhaps, “a filled pastry containing cooked meat and vegetables”? But that could just as well be a meat and vegetable pie.

    BTW, Spanish Iberico ham is not necessarily from pigs fed on acorns. For that you need jamón ibérico de bellota

  • I’m really enjoying this truffle series. You’ve packed a lot of information into a few posts! And the picture of the jamon takes me right back to my trip to Spain last summer, during which I ate jamon at as many meals per day as possible…

  • @David Are you sure that’s what she meant by “use a lot of words that mean the same thing”? I suspect she might have been talking about synonyms. The English language has the most number of words of any European language (perhaps of any language) because of the number of synonyms and words with subtle shades of differences in meaning. For example, we have separate words “safety” and “security”, whereas German has the word “sicherheit” and Spanish the word “seguridad” that covers both meanings.

    This does make English more difficult to learn but I wouldn’t want to lose any of our linguistic variety. You can trace where words come from and the subtle variations in meaning add richness.

    @Linds Most truffle oil has never seen a truffle.

  • Truffles aside, that boy is ca-yooooooooot.

  • Oh, how envious I am. I wish I had a good source of black truffles, but alas my source has dried up here. I can just smell them from your story. Truffle with scrambled eggs are my hands down favourite way to enjoy them. And I think the reason why the chef said you can’t serve them this way in America is because people over here are squeamish about runny eggs. We all cook them too far in my opinion. Creamy French scrambled eggs are pure bliss, but especially with the truffle. mmmmm

  • I am a white truffle fanatic but still… My mouth is watering just the same.,

  • loved this, reminded me of a trip to Gubbio in Umbria a few years ago all the ways we experienced black truffles there….

  • Thanks for the great education! Not to mention the fab fotos!

  • Sublime, decadent, oh and truffle butter on a baguette with some saucisson is good too!

  • ‘Tis the season to be en France! But alas I am not. Have been thoroughly enjoying these posts on truffles however. And now I know how to ‘chabrot’ the last of the soup in my dish.

  • Some day I hope to actually see>smell>taste a truffle! The truffle brush looks so real!

  • David,
    It is true that these wonderful black truffles are found near hazlenut trees? I have never seen nor eaten one of these deliciouses but will begin looking in the direction of a hazlenut grove if confirmed. ( As soon as I can saddle up a pig! )

  • David,

    I have truly enjoyed your truffle series. May I call to your attention that one of the strengths of the English language is its comparatively large vocabulary and myriad synonyms. Your French English teacher may be underestimating the richness of the English language.

    Phyllis, aka sweetpaprika
    American English teacher and food blogger.

  • Thank you for this post. I’ve never tasted (or smelled) black truffles. Now i’m quite intrigued to try these little dark treasures! :)

  • David wrote:

    “As you might know, a good portion of taste relates to the scent of foods. If you don’t believe me, next time you’re eating something, hold your nose and see how your perception of it changes.”

    I can unfortunately attest to that. The last time I was in Paris I had the flu, and couldn’t smell or taste anything for most of my time there. I was in the center of the culinary universe without a sense of smell or taste! I must have been a real ass in a previous life to have received such a harsh karmic smack-down. Fortunately, on my last day I woke up clear-headed and hurried to several of the patisseries I’d staked out days before so that I could gorge myself on croissants and lemon tarts.

  • You know the one time I’ve ever had truffles was in scrambled eggs.
    YUM.

  • @ Will, talk about culinary smack downs, one time I got a raging stomach virus the morning of Thanksgiving that was also my birthday. I can’t imagine what I did to deserve that…had kids maybe? Germy little buggers.

  • Oh. My. God.

    is it possible for a blog post to inspire an olfactory hallucination? because I swear I am smelling these truffles, even though I know I can’t possibly be doing it.

    Amazing, David.

    I was gifted with two giant magnificent chanterelles yesterday, which I wrote about on my blog. But these truffles put that to shame!

  • josephine: They’re usually found under oak trees. I took a picture, which is in the post, that shows the leaves and earth that they’re buried under. I do have friends with a hazelnut tree and I spend plenty of time, myself, foraging for hazelnuts myself!

    blowback: I did try to use a râteau and didn’t have very good luck

    Phyllis & Caitlin: I never thought about it until she brought it to my attention. But the French language is pretty rich: they have 14 verb tenses and in English, we have 7. I started thinking about it, after she mentioned it, and it is interesting how many things there are in each language that other languages have to use a multitude of words to describe.

    In English, our language is pretty flexible and we have all sorts of ‘urban’ lingo that gets added every year. Although the other day I was in a restaurant and was talking to the waitress, who told me that in French, you don’t say ‘cheeseburger…they say, le cheese.

    (In English!)

  • I do know that when they give you a quote for translating documents, they use a multiplier for English to French translations — I seem to remember it being something like 1.3, depending on the translation company — which means that every 10 words of English generates 13 words of French.

    I also know, as an English teacher, that English only has about 1500 words in regular usage. (Yes, lots more than that EXIST, but normal day-to-day usage only uses about that) — but we combine them in a breathtaking number of ways. Hit the road – Hit me again (in Las Vegas) – Hit me (from a boxer) – give me another hit (from a junkie) – that song was a hit…five uses of the same three little letters, with five very different meanings!

  • Oh, that is my favorite way to do scrambled eggs, low and slow, with or without truffles (though preferably with).

    When it comes to the culinary lexicon, I would say that the French are sort of like the Inuits and words for snow — which is a legend, by the way, but you get my point.

    I am loving this series!

  • I am beginning to feel like you are just getting me all worked up to walk away with a smile on your face, satisfied you have such power. You continue to break down my defenses and I have to keep resisting the urge to go hunting for truffles to purchase. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take. I hope I see you again at this year’s Blogher Food and you have brought some of these truffles with you. However, I don’t think I can wait that long. Right now the only thing keeping me from driving all over the area in search of these black truffles is 6 feet high piles of snow. Long, deep, slow breaths.

  • Hi David, I’m a French to English translator. When I worked in a translation company, we used multipliers, as Sunny said, when preparing quotes. French documents always have a higher word count than their corresponding English translations, often as much as 25% higher. Because English has a significantly larger vocabulary, you can often find a one-word term that would require two or more words in French. For example, the document I’m working on today contains the term “dans le sens des aiguilles d’une montre,” (which can also be “dans le sens horaire”) which is translated as “clockwise” in English. Of course, you can find examples where specific French terms are shorter than their English counterparts.

    However, in my 12 years as a linguist, I have never seen an English translation of a French document that has more words than the original source text.
    When you leaf through one of those dual-language French/English books, where the French page is on the left (for example), and the English translation is on the right, you will see that the English side of the book always has less text.
    Just my two cents.

  • Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! Thanks for posting.

  • A French friend’s grandfather told me that you can find truffles without a truffle dog. You need to have a lot of patience and good eyes, however, because his method involves sitting under an oak tree until you see a very small flylike insect with a red dot on his head land on the ground. When that happens, watch very carefully to see if the insect begins to burrow. If he does, start digging, says Grandpere, because there are truffles below. I must admit, however, that your method of getting invited to truffly heaven sounds much more efficient. Thanks for the interesting post.

  • Beautiful posting. I once had truffled truffles… I love artists. You are a lucky man and we are lucky to experience vicariously your world!

  • Just one word. Sublime.

  • Hahahaha….David, I don’t know what it means to you, but over here, “hide the sausage” has definite risque meaning… :)

    Beautiful, gorgeous, delicious photos – thank you!

  • My, oh my – what a lovely snapshot; I look forward to your next book (based on these sorts of delicacies?).

  • I used to get my carnitas from La Tapatia in South San Francisco. I have literally been going there for about 40 years. We then moved to Sacramento and couldn’t find anything in comparison. Then today, I tried your recipe for Carnitas and Dulce de Leche Brownies. My husband, after tasting these, said he will never leave me. I don’t know if I should kiss you or slap you. Just read your book. I really enjoyed it.

  • Another expression that we don’t have an equivalent for in English is ‘the browned bits left in the bottom of a pan after you’ve seared meat.” When I learned this is called “fond” in French I decided, right then and there, that would be the name of my first born.

  • Thanks for the insightful post about black truffles. I have been always very curious about these little fungus.

  • “the smell that races quickly through your nose and makes a beeline for your brain”. love this description of the scent infusing your entire being.

    also.. chabrot – yet another reason exemplifying why I love France on an instinctive level without yet having been there

  • As a former court reporter, I remember the days I had to decide how to transcribe one sound — their, there, there’re, they’re. And “in” versus “and.” People, you mumble!

    Much better to contemplate truffles. Oh, truffles in scrambled eggs accompanied by black wine, the joy.

    Terrific photos, as ever.

  • 1. We lost $100 of serrano ham to Customs when we returned from Spain a few years ago. We still get sad every time we think about that.

    2. My husband’s parents dislike me for many reasons. They are alcoholic jerks. One of the main reasons his dad dislikes me is because of the way I eat bacon. I take the fat off, but it doesn’t go to waste: http://diaryofagolddigger.blogspot.com/2010/01/in-which-sly-tells-primo-that-i-am-bad.html

    3. I have a little potato scrub brush like your truffle scrub brush. Another student at vacation cooking school in France got it for me when I told the story about my maid in Chile who was scrubbing the toilet. I had stayed home from work one day and was watching her clean. She was using a hand brush to clean the toilet instead of the toilet brush. “Marisol,” I said. “I didn’t know you brought your own supplies.”

    “I don’t,” she answered. “This is the brush from under the kitchen sink.”

    “Oh,” I said. “That’s the brush I use to scrub vegetables.”

    “OK,” she answered. “I’ll put it back.”

    “Don’t bother,” I told her. “I won’t be using it for that any more.”

    I have to admit that I have not gotten sick, except for a few colds, since then. That was 16 years ago.

  • I forgot – the mie is la miga in Spanish. In Chile, that’s the part of the bread that makes you fat. As long as you rip the miga out of your bread, it’s OK to butter the heck out of what remains. Because that’s not the fattening part.

  • Wow these are beautiful great job!I have been searching forever for this and hope i finally got it..Thanks a lot!

  • Wow these are beautiful great job!I have been searching forever for this and hope i finally got it..Thanks a lot!

  • Hi David,

    Just wanted to comment on the fact that English language uses a lot of words to describe something. I’m from Finland and I’ve noticed that in Finnish language we have one word that very clearly identifies a meaning of a certain word but when I’m trying to describe the same item in English, I can meander aimlessly trying to come up with an explanation for the same thing, using tons of words. I’m not going to give examples because there are too many to mention. It could also be that Finnish people do not like to speak much at best of times and therefore we’ve made sure that we can get to the point fast and furious!

    Love your blog, by the way. I’ve been to Paris once and my dream ever since has been to move and live there. I love absolutely everything about the city – too bad that I live in Edmonton, Canada at the moment – the city that is nothing like Paris!

  • there is just something so special about truffles…..and Paris.

    I love your blog and have just discovered it. I have been to Paris and have a dream of one day living there part time and owning my own little place that I can call my own.

    I have my own blog on Paris with an emphasis on the Marais

    keep up the great work i love your site

  • Hi David,
    On behalf of all members of our company, thank you for this beautiful article….I am glad you enjoyed it so much…
    …And by the way….you’re right..I guess it would be too nice a brush for pots and pans scrubbing !! ….
    Marie

  • David, while I was researching for a recent blog article about huitlacoche, a delicacy in Mexico, I came upon this information:

    The French call it goitre du mais. It is unclear if it is eaten in France.
    (Gourmet Sleuth)

    Have you heard of goitre du mais? If so, do you know if it is eaten in France?

    Huitlacoche is known as corn smut in the US, and is sometimes called the truffles of Mexico.

    Thank you,

    Kathleen

  • If you ever wondered if the black truffle ( tuber melanosporum ) can be farmed, the answer is yes. Black truffle farms in Spain are very popular and lucrative.