The allure of black gold: an exposé of the truffle world

In Provence, France, there is an old legend. Late one night, a landowner discovered a couple trespassing in search of truffles. Knowing that it was a repeated offense, he insisted they return all previously stolen goods immediately. The husband willingly agreed and headed home to retrieve them. As an incentive to come back, the landowner requested he leave behind something else of value: his wife. As they tell it, she is still waiting.

From cultivation to market, truffle trade is dirty – literally and metaphorically. My introduction to it was a lucky coincidence; during a spout of research for an upcoming trip, I stumbled across a blog post featuring Johann and Lisa Pepin, owners of Les Pastras, a truffle hunt tour business in Cadenet, France.

Unfortunately, truffle season ended prematurely, making a tour impossible by the time I arrived, but they offered to meet and talk truffles as a consolation. Wonderfully bittersweet, our conversation had me hankering for a tour and beside myself with gratitude that they suggested we connect.

My first lesson – the golden rule of truffle hunting – was surprisingly straightforward: never admit to having or hunting for truffles. Even a little bar bragging can be deadly – eavesdropping competitors might uproot and kill your trees. This cut-throat mentality efficiently explains why Les Pastras only offers tours to foreigners and also why they keep their address under wraps until reservations are confirmed.

The complexity of the picket fence is equally quirky. For decades, the small village of Cadenet stood unfenced. Installing a fence traditionally offends neighbors, but more importantly, it is a direct violation of the golden rule: it is a red flag for truffles.

Trespassing for truffles is not uncommon, and in these parts, it isn’t always tame.

A dedicated friend of the Pepins slept in the country with his truffles to prevent thieves, returning to town only to sell them and visit his wife. Time after time, he returned to find truffles missing. It was time to investigate – cartoon character style. Clad with a pair of $13,000 night vision goggles, he was able to see cars parked at the perimeter, waiting for him to abandon the field so they could advance. Pretending to leave, he waited by the side of the highway until the intruders left with their bounty. A heated chase ensued, complete with ramming and light running before coming to a halting stop in a dead end. The landowner confiscated the trespassers’ truffle dogs – which are often valuable themselves ­– and discreetly placed a tracking device on their car. The next morning, he nonchalantly returned the dogs, along with a box of fresh croissants and an equally flippant threat: “If anything happens to my dogs or trees, you’re dead.” Needless to say, his truffles were temporarily safe.

Between anecdotes, the Pepins introduced another crucial aspect of the truffle code of conduct: trust, the foundation and lack thereof in every aspect of the industry, from purchasing truffle trees to selling cultivated goods.

Most restaurants in the United States buy truffles from French distributors, as it is less risky than buying from a particular vendor – private truffle trading is less than transparent, and oftentimes lucrative for frauds. Largely a cash market, no receipts, papers or checks are exchanged. This lack of regulation means vendors can sell counterfeit goods – often fake truffles from China – for full price, with fake or nonexistent identities.

The Pepins primarily sell through distributors, but also directly to nearby restaurants. All transactions must be hand-delivered, as restaurants refuse to carry large bundles of cash or fragile products themselves.

A long-distance truffle relationship is even more delicate. Sending truffles from afar is fickle; un-refrigerated morsels can go bad in as little as two days. Even packed in dry ice and pre-registered with the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), any holdup in customs or otherwise can taint the freshness.

Les Pastras has done its best to create a streamlined process to avoid catastrophe. After a successful Sunday hunt, FedEx picks up a carefully packed cooler on Monday morning. If all goes smoothly, the truffles arrive in time to be served for Tuesday lunch at RedFarm, an upscale Chinese restaurant in New York City’s West Village.

But tasting truffles in New York is pale compared to the on-site tours Les Pastras offers. For a nominal fee, the Pepins invite adults and children alike to their home for a small taste of the truffle world.

Truffle-HuntingTours begin with a hunt at the base of an oak tree, a sacred spot for truffles. Traditionally, sows were used to detect the truffles because their scent resembled the hog’s sex hormone. Sows’ affection for truffles, however, complicated the process, making dogs a safer choice. The dogs are commonly bribed with Pavlonian conditioning: a truffle equals a treat. Small dogs are ideal because their noses are already closer to the ground.

A very small percentage of hunters, including the Pepins’ neighbor, use a much smaller method: flies. Probing the grass with sticks, hunters keep their eyes peeled for Suillia flies, which are notorious for laying their eggs near truffles. If the uprooted flies return to the same vicinity, chances are the hunter has struck gold – black gold, that is. Weather conditions must be just right for this tactic, however. Flies are more active in warmer months and the process is too difficult with rain or wind.

Somewhat of a dying art form, “you need to be very patient and practice a lot,” Lisa explained.

During the hunt, Johann explains the process of finding and cultivating truffles – down to the science of pH levels, sunlight, distance between plants and soil composition – among other truffle trivia.

Apéro hour is next, as the ingredient of the day makes its debut with a champagne toast as Lisa lifts a lid from the toast platter, releasing the rich truffle aroma.

Johann describes it as a “rich and sexy smell.” A true partner, Lisa finished his thought, “Maybe musky is the word he’s looking for.”

Truffles are best served with small portions of both salt and fat, making simple toast with salted butter and grated truffles a staple apéro. Other hors d’oeuvres include: truffles on toast with whipped cheese and Guerande sea salt, truffles with Bethmale cheese from the Pyrennes on a bed of fennel and chocolate brownies with truffle crème anglaise, raspberry and lavender. Guests also have the chance to taste Les Pastras’ own olive and truffle oils.

During the tasting and apéro, Johann and Lisa entertain with informational tidbits and dramatic anecdotes.

-1But Les Pastras is about more than just sharing stories – it shares a portion of profits as well. After reading Blake Mykoskie’s book, “Start Something That Matters”, Johann and Lisa became inspired to give back. When their friend Kelsey Remple moved to Haiti and began working for One Family Orphanage, they decided to donate fifty percent of their olive oil and truffle oil profits, along with five euro per kilo of truffles sold, to One Family.

With previous proceeds, Les Pastras sent them hundreds of kilos of books donated by French families, and most recently, donated a laptop for their library-in-progress. Future proceeds may go towards building a garden. “[It’s like] using one fungus to teach how to grow vegetables,” Johann explained.

“It’s hard work, but it means a lot to us now that we know it’s going to something meaningful,” Lisa added.

The truffle industry belongs in an elusively eclectic club: the greed of the mafia, secrecy of Skull and Bones and charity of The Red Cross all rolled into one. But rest assured: it yields better-tasting products than all of them combined.

For more information or schedule a tour, visit http://www.lespastras.com, or email Johann and Lisa directly at pepin@lespastras.com.

Photo credit: http://www.lespastras.com

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