Saturday, 25 April 2015
For a start, I would have presumed that this sort of event would be by invitation only – after all, the reputation that truffles have in Australia is that you only ever eat them at exclusive restaurants, paying through the nose for them and then barely discerning them in your dish other than, well, through the nose.
But no – in Noyers-sur-Serein, where we were staying - we saw the discreet little advertisements at the walled entrance to the town announcing that there would be pedestrian-only access on Sunday during the festival. We were curious and put it on our long list of things to do for the week which also included visiting caves with drawings from 35000 years ago, roman sites where Vercingetorix (Asterix readers you’ll recognise him) and Julius Caesar fought and unsurprisingly where Roman organisation won out over French passion, an abbey built in the 1100s by Saint Bernard and of course vineyards in their thousands.
Most markets start at the crack of dawn but curiously this one had a 10.00 am starting time listed. Punctuality has never been this family’s forte but, as we had other things to do in the day, we happened to be there on time and for the start of proceedings – luckily.
Anticipation gave way to disappointment as we wandered around the very small market with empty trestle tables. Wine, jewellery and local produce were on sale, truffle plants were for purchase (I had no idea that you could buy such a thing presuming that it was just a naturally occurring mushroom-like phenomena and that the critical component was your capacity to train your pig, or your dog, to find them) and there were some very expensive chocolates made with truffles available – but no truffles.
I consoled myself by buying a hand-made ring – pretty, sparkly pink glass - and taste testing the local Burgundy. The children went for the macaroons. So absorbed were we with the choice between peach, lemon, raspberry, vanilla and chocolate that we nearly missed the announcement that the count-down to the official truffle selling would begin at 10.30am. Like the Biblical wedding feast at Cana the empty trestles had magically become laden and as the lids were lifted on the black nuggets the air became thick with the earthy smell. Barricades, which had been erected around the stalls, were now 5 or 6 deep with people. I felt the nervous excitement within me building and watched and waited to see what would happen, as had become my standard practice in new situations.
Trois, deux, un, partez! - and the mostly middle-aged men and women surged through the gates and towards the 20 m long sales area. I watched aghast as 2 kgs of the black gold, at 350 euros (nearly AUS $500) per kg was ordered, paid for in cash, carefully placed in a paper bag and held up protectively by my nearest purchaser as he rescinded his spot in the queue. I was keen to give it a go but knew that I only had 25 euros in my pocket and wasn't at all sure that I wouldn’t embarrass myself by ordering black gold that I couldn’t pay for. I chose a couple of kind-looking truffle sellers before stepping up and admitting to them that it was my first truffle market. With my hand hovering over their tray of nuggets, I was told that the small were just as good as the big and was invited to smell the truffles to see for myself. Of course, I could have done like I do with wine tasting and followed their advice and nodded knowingly but decided to just smile and place my chosen ones onto the scales. With the first weighed truffle registering 10 euros I knew that I could afford two. I was given a recipe sheet, instructions for storing the truffles, an encouraging "bonne dégustation" and it was my turn to emerge triumphantly from the crowd with my paper bag aloft.
Thanks to my more-culinarily-competent-than-me husband we sat down to a dinner that night of duck with truffle sauce and baked endive purchased later in the day at the market in Chablis along with a glass of ... Chablis. Another ordinary day in France filled with yet more extraordinary sensations.