Having hunted for black truffles in both France and Slovenia — on a cultivated truffle farm and in the wild, respectively — I have experienced the nature and nurture of this “diamond of cuisine.” Worldwide, it is treasured as a luxurious ingredient in many dishes. But I perceived the subtle difference in cultural attitudes towards this rare and mysterious fungus in these two countries where it grows.
Before my first hunt, in the Périgord region of France, I knew very little about truffles or truffle hunting. I had tasted truffle shavings once in a salad. They tasted ancient, arcane, grand. The substantial weight of their flavour contained hints of bitter chocolate, almond, and Amontillado sherry.
Truffles are a delicacy so enchanting that ancient Greek and Roman thinkers pondered and wrote exuberantly about them. Plutarch theorized that truffles were created by a sort of alchemy of the Earth — a comingling of water, air, heat, and forked lightning.
They were as rare and expensive in ancient times as today, and throughout much of human history. Fresh black truffles have been known to sell for more than $2,500 per pound in recent times.
I travelled two hours from Bordeaux to the village of Pechalifour. There, Edouard Aynaud, a truffle farmer (le rabassier, in French), introduced me to the art of growing truffles. Patience is the key, he said.
The truffle, a kind of fungus, grows underground among the roots of certain types of trees: oak, beech, hazelnut, chestnut, birch, poplar. It absorbs nutrients through the tree’s root system and grows slowly — it takes anywhere from five years to more than a decade for truffles to ripen.
Though the wait is hard, Aynaud loves his life, which revolves around the nurture and hunt of the truffle, all of which he called “une douce folie,” or “a sweet madness.”
“Just like a fever, the truffle consumes you with madness. It seeps into your soul, obsesses you in your sleep, deceives you, ensnares you, provokes both hope and despair, and yet, time and again you hope to tame it,” he said. “So this is my life. And all this thanks to my father, who acted for the entire truffle industry both on a departmental and a national level, when he planted his first trees back in 1968. And thus, he passed this delightful madness on to me.”
Aynaud started the truffle hunt by shouting “Cherchez!” (“Search!”) to his two border collies, Farah and Lino. The dogs rushed off to sniff along the rows of oak trees to find ripe truffles. Even though the truffles are cultivated, it’s not a simple harvest like on other kinds of farms. There’s an exhilarating search for the underground gems.
Pigs were often used in the past, and some people still use them, but they are slower than dogs, and they expect to get to eat a few truffles for their efforts.
One of the dogs, Farah, started digging. Aynaud invited me to take over and see what she had found. I dug with my hands and felt something in the soil. Taking hold, I pulled out a single truffle — a small, wrinkly black ball.
“Eh, bien! Voila!” exclaimed Aynaud. I don’t think he had expected me to find anything, and he quickly took the truffle from my hand.
The hunt in France was deliberate, cultured, and educational. A year later, I entered the hunt in the small Slovenian village of Truške, in the hills above the Istrian Coast. The hunt there struck me as more spontaneous, simple, unmediated, unmeditated.
There, the setting was a dense forest edged by vineyards. Truffle hunter Sara Kocjancic started the hunt by shouting “Isci!” (“Search!”) to her golden retriever, Liza. The dog zigzagged through the forest, tail up and nose down, searching for truffles.
We followed Sara and Liza, venturing into the deep woods, where truffles have often been found. Liza began digging near some ancient oaks, and she found a few truffles, larger than the ones in the Périgord.
Though we were now hunting in the wild, not on a cultivated farm, this hunt seemed less imbued with the intensity, the “sweet madness” of Edouard Aynaud’s. It felt like more of a fun game than a serious business.
Whereas Aynaud cultivates his soil and keeps an intense watch on his trees, Kocjancic lets nature worry about the truffles’ growth, while quietly gathering the forest’s riches.
As I left Truške, I pondered this difference, this evolution. Black truffles from Slovenia are not as well-known as those in the French Périgord, perhaps making the desire for commercial acquisition less intense in Slovenia and creating this more relaxed aura.
I wonder if the Slovenian deep-forest truffles will become as popular as the Périgord’s in the future, and how that may change the landscape of Truške and its surroundings. Will its tangled, primordial woods be replaced by cultivated orchard rows?
Such questions bear deeper speculation, but dissolve with the memory of the seductive tastes and scents of the truffles themselves, whether French or Slovenian.
Photography by Belt944; grafvision / Shutterstock.com; Susan Kime; Suzanne Edion; Bos11 / Shutterstock.com