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Black Diamonds of Poitou-Charentes

Black Diamonds of Poitou-Charentes

One man and his dog unearth diamonds from under our feet, right here in Poitou-Charentes...

The growing of the truffle - a fungus of exquisite delicacy that grows underground on tree roots - is usually associated with the Mediterranean basin. Yet Poitou-Charentes has both a historical and contemporary claim on this jewel of the earth.

King François l, who was born in Cognac, is said to have planted Cognac's François l Park in order to supply his court with the truffles growing under its oak trees. Reputed as a ladies' man, he was not only charmed by the taste of the truffle, but was also advised by his doctors to eat them for their supposed aphrodisiac properties. And it's thanks to François I's recognition of this humble fungus that the truffle was unearthed to grace the most aristocratic tables.Black truffles

From the 16th to 19th centuries, truffles gained in popularity; in 1880, 1320 tonnes were produced in France, and at the end of the 19th century, following the phylloxera outbreak and the replacement of vines by oak trees. 50 tonnes came from Charente and Charente Maritime. However; the truffle fashion died down after this, such that in 1999 only 30 tonnes were produced in the whole of France.

Yet the trend is once again rising, especially in Poitou-Charentes, where the soil and sunshine combine to make an ideal environment for the oak trees on which the Black Perigord truffle - known in French as the 'truffe de Perigord' (tuber melanosporum) - grows. The truffles and oak trees have a symbiotic relationship. in which the truffle and tree exchange nutrients necessary for them both to flourish. The Charente, in particular, with its calciferous, well-drained soils, lends itself to good truffle production.

Every Tuesday morning from December to February, the local truffle growers meet at the Jarnac truffle market to sell their fresh wares to brokers from all over France. Jean-Marie Doublet. truffle grower and president of the Charente truffle growers' syndicate. is a regular attendee of the market. Forget your ideas of the bustling local town market lasting all morning; the truffle market is an exclusive affair, taking place in a hotel room and finishing just twenty minutes after it has begun.

Although the market is open to the public, you must beware if you see a producer's truffle label sitting on top of one of his baskets of truffles: this is part of the unspoken code between truffle producer and broker; and means that the broker has chosen to buy this particular basketful of truffles. Such secrecy is part of the mystery that shrouds the truffle - a mystery that, according to Jean-Marie and his colleagues, is justified.

Truffle huntingJean-Marie has a 65-hectare farm in the commune of Bonneville, near Rouillac, of which 18 hectares are dedicated to truffle fields. His charming 17th century Charentais farm, complete with its Napoleonic eagles guarding the entrance, dominates the hillside and boasts a magnificent view. The buildings and oak plantations are also guarded by a multitude of dogs - some of which are used for hunting truffles while others warn of intruders intent on stealing truffles or truffle trees.

"Truffles are a passionate affair," says Jean-Marie. "There is passion involved at every level, from researching how and why they appear; to growing them, and then to cooking and eating them." Although truffles have a market value of hundreds of Euros per kilo- hence the term 'Black Diamonds' - the number of people who manage to make a living simply from growing truffles can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This is because the truffle is mysteriously elusive; neither scientists nor truffle growing experts can predict with certainty if and when a truffle will grow.

This uncertainty is part of the attraction of the truffle for many growers. Unlike a crop farmer who, if he plants a seed, knows that it will produce the desired plant, a truffle grower has no guarantee. In fact, it is impossible to buy a truffle oak - authorised truffle oak nurseries will only sell oaks 'à vocation truffe' (with a vocation for producing truffles). These seedlings have been grown from acorns inoculated with truffle spores, and are termed 'mycorhized'. So the truffle grower will buy these young oaks - at 12€ each- in the hope that 5-10 years later a truffle crop will grow around the trees' roots.

"A truffle plantation is considered successful if 30% of the trees give truffles," Jean-Marie says. A hectare contains about 300 trees. so if you're getting truffles from 90 of them, you're lucky. Once a truffle oak begins to produce truffles, it can continue for up to 30 years, though not necessarily producing truffles each year. "It took one friend of mine 30 years and a threat to cut the trees down before they finally started producing truffles." smiles Jean-Marie.

The complicity of the farmer with his dog is another element that brings satisfaction to Jean-Marie. Babou, his preferred truffle hound, seems to be a perfectly ordinary, woolly-coated house dog. That is. until Jean-Marie puts on his beret and wellies, picks up his truffle hook (called a 'cavadou') and canvas bag, and opens the farmhouse door. Then Babou barks in excitement and dashes along the path towards the truffle fields. A Lagotto Romagnolo, her predecessors were retriever dogs in the Italian marshes for hundreds of years and are considered to be the best truffle hounds. Jean-Marie also has Labradors and Griffons, though he only ever takes out one dog at a time. Sows are natural truffle hunters too, and were frequently used in the past. Truffles contain a compound that is similar to the sex pheromone of boar saliva. so the sow is keenly attracted to them. “Pigs are efficient, but are more difficult to handle than dogs, and you don't get the same rapport as with a dog," says Jean-Marie, stroking Babou's head.

The truffle-hunting part of truffle growing is known as the 'cavage'. For Black Perigord truffles, this takes place from December to February, when the truffles - which begin growing in May or June - are ripe. Man and dog work systematically, line by line, for between four and six hours per day. When Jean-Marie has chosen a tree, Babou sniffs around the base and starts digging as soon as she smells a ripe truffle. At this point, Jean-Marie stops her and continues digging with his cavadou. A few centimetres under the surface, he digs out an unprepossessing Jump of spherical reddish-brown earth. After giving Babou a lump of cheese as a reward, he crumbles off the mud and reveals the telling grainy surface of a Black Diamond. He slips the truffle into his canvas bag to be taken back to the farmhouse laboratory and washed in preparation for selling at the market.

Truffle hunting

Fresh truffles aren’t the only product that Jean-Marie sells. Along with his colleagues in the association Charentes-Truffes, he also sells whole preserved truffles. And a few years ago he conceived the award-winning 'Granite', a chopped truffle preserve that won the 'Prix de l'Academie National de Cuisine' in 2003. These products can be seen during me paying visits to the farm that Jean-Marie runs for tourists as part of the 'Bienvenue a Ia Ferme' scheme.

The family farm was the trigger that allowed Jean-Marie to discover his passion for truffles. An agricultural engineer, he worked in me tobacco industry all over the world until, at 48 years old, he was offered an early retirement in 1988. This was the opportunity to come home and take over me farm from his ageing father.

The original vines on the farm had been pulled up during the 1982 cognac crisis and replaced with maize. Yet the use of chemicals bothered Jean-Marie, and he decided to replant me whole farm to create a natural environment. He replaced the maize with alfalfa, left many hectares to grass and took advantage of the set-aside scheme. These changes attracted flocks of Little Bustards, an endangered bird species, and he was able to receive a grant to keep 20 hectares for their nesting purposes.

Once all these changes had been made, he was left with a spare piece of land, and a friend suggested he plant some truffle oaks as they depend on an entirely natural environment. Little by little he became intrigued by the truffle world; he attended a training course and planted his first trees in 1993. In 2000 he had his first significant harvest, and each year his passion grows as he discovers more about the lifecycle of the truffle and the needs of its environment. 

DogAccording to recent studies, one of the results of climatic change is that truffles are being found further north than ever before. Poitou-Charentes is one of the most favourable areas for the future growth of the Black Diamond, and the Conseil Regional supports the installation and upkeep of truffle fields as part of its agricultural diversification scheme. In 2008 it financed 6300 truffle oaks, most of which were planted in the Charente. Because of this, increasing numbers of young landowners are considering growing truffles on their farms.

And what does the future mean to Jean-Marie? With a wait of up to 15-20 years before seeing results from a plantation, the truffle business is anything but short term. Although his daughters might be interested in taking over the farm later, he didn't create the plantation with them in mind. "The truffle is a natural product that needs a healthy, balanced environment in order to survive. This plantation is my contribution the environment and the rural heritage of the region," says Jean-Marie.

Choosing black truffles

Be careful when choosing truffles. The 'Truffe Noir' refers to both the Tuber melanosporum and the Tuber brumale, but the latter is of inferior quality; it costs less because it grows more easily. Check that your truffle carries the name 'melanosporurn'.

There are several categories of Perigord truffle: The best is the Extra, followed by Category 1 and then Category 2; the difference is in the number of imperfections.

Fresh truffles have more flavour than preserved ones, and as Poitou-Charentes is a truffle-producing area, why not take advantage of fresh ones while they are in season from December to February? The only advantage of preserves is that they can be eaten throughout the year.

For preserved truffles, pay attention to the weight. As they are sold in a liquid, you should check the drained net weight (poids net égoutté) rather than simply the net weight (poids net).

Check also that the preserved truffles bear the words 'premiere ébullition' (first sterilisation) as sometimes truffles are sterilised twice. This is done to extract the truffle juice, which is sold separately, so the doubly sterilised truffle obviously has little flavour left.

Prices are highest in December, though quality is often better in January - assuming that heavy frosts don't kill the harvest before January arrives.

Fresh truffles will keep for 10 days in the fridge.

Preparing truffles

Tasting fresh truffles

The best way to discover the flavour of a truffle is to cut it into slices, place a slice on a piece of toast with a little salt and a drizzle of olive oil, and pop it in your mouth. A glass of Pineau makes an ideal accompaniment.

Eggs with truffles

Jean-Marie's tip: when you buy a fresh truffle, put it in a glass jar with some whole eggs for 2 days to give the eggs a truffle flavour; eggshell is porous and the eggs will absorb the aroma of the truffle. You can make two omelettes or two lots of scrambled eggs before actually using the truffle itself. The third time, you should cut up and use the truffle; either grate or cut the truffle into small pieces and put to one side. Make your scrambled egg or omelette, and sprinkle on the chopped truffle at the last moment.

Jean-Marie Doublet's details and products

Jean-Marie Doublet, Les Truffieres de La Brousse, La Brousse, Bonneville, 16170 Rouillac. +33 (0)5 45 21 61 88. Website 

Guided visits (out of harvest season): By appointment and in groups only. 8€ per person for a visit of 2-3 hours including explanation, a film and a truffle hunt with a dog. A tasting session with Pineau can be organised for an 8€ supplement. In French only.

All Jean-Marie's truffles are melanosporum and the preserved ones are only sterilised once

Jarnac's truffle market: Hotel Renard, Quai de I'Orangerie, 16200 Jarnac. From 9:30am to 9:45am every Tuesday morning from December to February. Open to the public.


Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes magazine. Words by Gail Brennan. © Living Magazine