Then there was the thick morning fog rolling in like brush strokes of soft gray paint giving the town of Chinon and my deep sleep a dream like feel.
The shill sound of a phone broke the silence into unidentifiable pieces. Who could be calling—me? I somehow found the phone in my deep dream (unearthly) like state.
“Madame, they are leaving in 5 minutes for the truffle hunt, with or without you” and the high pitched voice went silent and the phone went dead.
In seconds, I pulled on my clothes from the evening before, jumped into my shoes and grabbed a mint. Down the long carpeted stairs I ran, tussled hair and all. I was the last person in the last seat of the multi car caravan as we watched the other two cars fishtailing in the soft pebble driveway.
I never oversleep. I could blame it on the thick stonewalls of my hotel room, it was so silent and my dreams were wonderfully engaging as I built stories about life in the castle overlooking the village. Or, I had turned down the volume on my phone and never heard the alarm.
The empty morning road was glazed with frozen fog and every few yards it sparkled in a hint of struggling sunlight. We drove 15 minutes following the obscured red taillights of the cars ahead. I pulled myself together, brushed my hair and made caffeine deprived, small talk.
The road turned to dirt in front of a limestone chateau, a majestic pitched roof and of course, a turret as a bright sunrise won over the fading fog. A golden light bathed the building in bright yellow sunlight. The occupants of the other cars directed us where to park signaling our truffle hunt was moments away.
Our group gathered inside the large stone turret room with its ancient castle like feel but instead of typical tapestries covering the walls there were family pictures, a long inviting dining room table and the air still held the waning aroma of last evening’s dinner. It was a real home in all the best ways.
Our truffle hunt guide, Louis, greeted us warmly with kisses on each cheek as the French do so well. He explained he and his parents cultivated truffles and were very successful at it. Once outside again he continued to talk as our group followed behind him in single file like he was the Pied Piper leading us into the magical truffle underground kingdom of Chinon.
He led us across a dirt road and up the hillside, stopping to show their latest planting of truffle inoculated oaks laid out neatly in rows with withered fall colored leaves and barely three feet tall. We continued up the hillside to see the mature wild oaks and Louis continued with more details of what the process entailed to cultivate truffles successfully. As he explained the process of inoculating the acorns with a truffle spore medium- oak acorns are soaked and start to sprout in a slurry of pulverized truffles and water. Once inoculated, the acorns would then encourage their roots to grow truffles, symbiotically. As the truffle spores come in contact with the sprouting roots it develops a long microscopic filament that wraps itself around the newly formed roots. There was not a single acorn to be found on the ground anywhere, these precious acorns had all been gathered to be future truffle inoculated oaks waiting to grow into seedlings in the family’s large greenhouse.
Louis asked us if we were ready to find truffles and indeed we were. They have 2 pigs in training but the preferred scent trained, foraging animal is a dog, a border collie to be specific. A smart energetic breed that trains easily and most importantly, they don’t consume truffles like a pig does. The truffle hounds are happy to be rewarded with a dog bone and warm hug. Once ‘Tuktuk’, the dog, was released from her outdoor pen, Louis suggested we follow at least 15 feet back and be totally silent to not distract her. She ran in circles, clockwise and counterclockwise as we watched, row by row, her nose held high sniffing for a scent of her prize. Suddenly, she stopped and started digging. Louis ran to her side and gently took over the digging, a little deeper, a little more until he unearthed a golf size, black truffle from amongst the gnarly roots of an oak. Even with the soil clinging to the black orb he knew right away it was over mature.
Louis took out his pocketknife to cut a section off so we could see the inside. It was dark gray and white. To his trained eye it was past its peak. A good truffle is a dark black with white veining and its fragrant aroma is heady and unmistakable. When they are fresh, meaning less than 3 days from harvest, the scent of a sliced truffle is blinding, an intense misty fog of euphoria blankets your whole being and lingers in your nose as you pray the scent never stops. After that first encounter, the word ‘truffle’ will always elicits a recall in your mind and sensory soul for the rest of your existence. The woody, earthy, intense garlic, the memory evoking scent plays a solo to your heart like a Stravinsky violin.
After the hunt we returned to the turret room where we started. Mr. and Mrs. Houette, Louis’ parents, shared their homemade truffle butter spread on slices of baguette giving us a chance to warm up and time for a few more lingering questions. That is, if we weren’t distracted by the truffle butter scent dancing in the air.
Louis’s parent graciously joined us after they placed the platters on the table. After a small conversation with my challenged French vocabulary I wonder how would I ever be able to pull enough words together to ask how often they ate truffles. Madame looked at me knowingly and assured me that her English was quite good. Madame, I asked, how often do you prepare truffles, she laughed, ‘every day, the season is short’.
After a single bite of the truffle buttered bread it was easy to understood why they all had a sparkle in their eyes…
by Alex Rader
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