Even though we live in a globalized world, I’m always surprised by how many people want to make or eat anything, and everything, no matter where they live. Whether or not it makes sense.
Take Parisian macarons. In the last year or so, they’ve become the new cupcake and not a week goes by when I don’t get a message about someone freaking out and wondering why the top of someone’s batch of macarons cracked, or where someone can get real, honest-to-goodness French macarons in Podunk.
Like a Parisian baguette or a croissant, if you want any of those things, you should just come to Paris and have it. If you want Texas chili, you should go to Texas. If you’re craving Kentucky fried chicken, well, then you should go to Kentucky.
Same with bagels. There’s no sense in going to Pyongyang and trying to scout out an authentic-tasting New York bagel because you won’t find a better one anywhere else in the world except in la Grande Pomme. (With apologies to the folks in Montreal; you are truly one of the best food cities in the world, but your unsalted bagels need salt.)
I’m always amused when I go to places like New York City and people say, “You absolutely have to try the croissants at _________. They’re amazing!” And I’m thinking, “Why on earth would I come to New York and have a croissant?” I would not take someone visiting Paris, from New York, to a bagel place.
But lest you think I’m a culinary curmudgeon, I’m guilty of a bit of culinary mondialisation myself, and have on various occasions scoured with streets and boulevards of Paris searching for good coffee and hamburgers. So there. But you really need to go to the source to get the true hamburger américain (pronounced ‘amburger, in French, without the ‘h’) or a true pain au chocolat français.
There are various places around the world where black truffles sold, but certainly one of the most famous is Lalbenque, where a weekly market takes place for the few weeks in mid-winter, the season when black truffles are unearthed. And after hunting truffles and roaming through the forests, I was delighted to find myself at ground-zero, where les truffes noires, change hands.
Around 2pm, the folks with their wicker baskets, customized with various tea towels and pieces of fading cloth, begin to collect and position themselves in the main square, just in front of the town hall, which is fitted with the “official” scale for weighing the pricey tubers. With something so valuable, roaming pigs and charming baskets are one thing, but the bottom line is that you also want to make sure you’re getting what you paid for.
The sellers line up behind a long wooden bench, with their truffles tucked under towels in their baskets before them. Next to each, or tucked within, are small signs letting buyers know only the weight of the knobbly truffes.
At precisely 2:30pm, the rope guarding the sellers is lifted and the crowd surges forward. Unlike other markets in France, it’s up to the buyer to name the price, to make an offer. Since these people have just two months to make their money, they’re not all that willing to let them go for too cheap. But compared to prices anywhere else, these truffles are a major bargain.
(A friend suggested I snap up as many as I could to bring back to Paris and re-sell. But I was worried both about stinking up the train with the fragrant truffes and eating them all myself. Now that I’m home, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t bring one perfect specimen back with me. Which might have violated my own crazy culinary rules, but so be it.)
For nearly fifteen minutes, the town square, which looked rather sleepy otherwise, was complete pandemonium. Men surveying the scene, chewing on stubbly cigars, women gossiping in small groups and laughing, folks huddling in groups, clustered around something unseen in a vaguely sinister way, and wary buyers lifting baskets of truffles right under there nose to inhale the raunchy, explosive smell of the goods were all part of the mix. I was weaving in and out of the action, snapping pictures and eavesdropping on the rapid-fire transactions that were taking place in the particular style of French, spoken with the local accent.
When the action finally subsided and a good portion of the crowd left, there was one woman standing, dearly clutching a lone basket of gorgeous truffles against her chest.
She was carrying on a highly-spirited ‘discussion’, as my mother used to call it when I asked her if she and my dad were arguing, with a potential customer. But since she knew she had something that he desperately wanted, and in the end, he likely willing to pay whatever, the banter went on for a while, providing a spectacle for the crowd gathering around them. Still, neither was planning to let the other have their way without a highly-spirited fight.
They both knew they’d meet somewhere in the middle. But in France, the resolution is never as important as the chemin (path) to getting there; the weaving around, chatting, and occasional bickering that accompaniments almost any transaction, is part of the ‘sport’ of everyday life. (Which is why I often feel like a kickball around here.)
They finally settled on a price, which was somewhat upwards of €400. But the exact amount I’m not sure of, because—as they say, what happens in Lalbenque, stays in Lalbenque.
And after spending a week in the Lot, one might become jaded and a little basket of dirty spores covered in earth could become a bit ho-hum. So it was on to the truffle conditionneur…
….where I was blown away by the sheer quantity of black truffles in one place. I wish I could describe the indescribable: the smell of a room filled with probably at least a thousand, highly odorous, truffes noires.
(To be continued…)
Truffle Hunting (Part 1)
Black Truffle Extravaganza (Part 3)
Cahors (Part 4)