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The Black Diamond of the Rhone-Alpes
The black truffle is one of the most exclusive culinary delicacies in the world, and the Rhone-Alpes region in France is one of the rare locations where this fungi king can be found. An extremely fragrant mushroom-like tuber, the truffle has long been shrouded in mystery and scandal due to its rarity. In fact, theft, fraud, and even kidnapping are not uncommon during the high season.
Truffles are quite difficult to find, as they are grow slightly below ground at the base of oak trees. At one time pigs were used to sniff them out; however, the greedy beasts too often celebrated a find by devouring the precious treasure before their master could get his hands on it. Therefore, pigs were eventually replaced by specially trained dogs that could scout just as well, but with a bit more self control.
The secretiveness that accompanies the truffles is utterly fascinating. To understand, one only has to go to the weekly market in the tiny village of Richerenches, known to be the largest black truffle market in the world. The main street of the village is lined with vendors, but further down the road, from behind the parked cars is where the real sales occur. It is not rare to see three or four people, their heads bent over the trunk of a car, whispering together as they barter prices for truffles. Although one must be wary of imitation Chinese imports, some of the best truffles can be found from this less than legal checkpoint.
Yet another captivating experience is to visit one of the many local truffle traders, where much of the buying and selling takes place. They usually live on a truffle farm, meaning they have a forest of row upon row of oak trees. Here you can meet their truffle dogs, although don’t get too close, as the owners are highly protective of their valuable (one might say priceless) animals. Some traders offer tours, where you can do a little truffle hunting of your own. See for yourself how challenging it is to find these mysterious little black orbs.
Truffle trading usually happens in the cool, damp cellars of the truffle farm. People arrive with their sack of truffles clutched closely to their chests, their dogs following closely behind. They look furtively left and right to size up their fellow hunters’ cache. They wait patiently while the trader lovingly cleans and weighs each black diamond before pronouncing his final offer. Money and truffles change hands, and the hunters leave as quietly as they arrived. The entire hushed process lasts not longer than five or ten minutes.
Once you’ve finally obtained a truffle or two, one might wonder what to do with these strange looking lumps. The key is to use them quickly and simply. Although they can be frozen, they are best fresh and must be used in about eight days. Because the truffle taste is so strong, a little bit can go a long way to transform a simple dish into a mouthwatering feast. The truffle should either be very thinly sliced (a razor blade works well) or grated. One of the most divine recipes starts with a basic cream sauce. Add a few truffle shavings, and pour everything over linguini. It will be the most memorable pasta you’ve ever experienced.
Should you prefer to forgo the whole do-it-yourself process and skip right to the taste test, the majority of local restaurants offer various truffle dishes during the season. These can vary from a simple but delicious omelet at the no-frills Restaurant L'Escapade in Richerenches, to steamed sea bass with a luscious leek fondue, dressed with a grating of fresh truffles in the nearby Michelin-starred Les Cèdres.
Throughout the season, truffle themed activities abound in the Rhone-Alpes. Many hotels and bed and breakfasts offer special packages, while restaurants often present truffle tasting menus. Hunting with a truffle dog, cooking classes, and the truffle museum (Maison de la Truffe et du Tricastin) in Tricastin are also possibilities.
Not to be outdone by this magnificent organic treasure, the Rhone-Alpes region is also renowned for its powerful wines, charming hilltop villages, formidable mountainous backdrop, incredibly rich history, and culinary expertise. Attractions include the picturesque hilltop villages of Grignan, la Garde Adhémar and Mirmande; pottery classes offered by local artisans in Cliousclat; the fascinating World War II Resistance Museum in the Vercors Mountains; skiing or snowshoeing in the nearby Alpes; even local Christmas markets. Of course, one should never leave the Rhone-Alpes without a visit to Lyon, the culinary capital of the world.
Jeni Matthews operates Red Balloon Travel and Consulting, a travel business that offers spectacularly unique holidays for those interested in a completely original French adventure. Having lived in the Rhône-Alpes for more than nine years, she uses her first-hand knowledge and close business relationships to provide clients with an intimate and ultimately unforgettable experience.