I mentioned at the end of December that we were going to visit the Marché aux truffes de Marigny-Marmande. We stuck to our plan, so on the Sunday after Christmas we set out (later than we wanted to, admittedly) well wrapped up against the cold, determined to buy our first truffle.
The market is held in the Salle de Fêtes, with a couple of large tents attached to the front. The real business of the day, that is, wholesalers and chefs negotiating deals with the truffle harvesters for the best quality truffles, is done at some outrageously early hour of the day. By 9.00 am, when the general market opens, there will still be a selection of top grade truffles available, but by the time we arrived, at about 11.00 am, there was only déclassée (ungraded) truffles left. The ungraded truffles are too small or too worm holed to be given a quality rating. This year they were going for €850/kilo. Top grade truffles were €2000/kilo last year and déclassée €600. They are sold at the market already cleaned up, but if you think you might find your own truffles in the woods, 'amusing' truffle accessories in the form of brushes with truffle shaped handles are available. You can also book to go truffle hunting with at least one of the more enterprising château owners and his dog, or buy a sapling with roots impregnated with truffle spoor for your own garden.
The Marigny-Marmande truffles are black truffles Tuber melanosporum, or les truffes in French, which are found in France, Italy and Spain, growing in the earth in a symbiotic relationship with broadleaf deciduous trees, mainly oak. They are harvested from November to January.
I did the rounds of the truffle stalls, looking and smelling, but not talking to the vendors much because it was very crowded and busy by then. I decided that the Chedouzeau family truffles from Maillé were the best quality for the money, and moved in for the purchase.
Once home, for a late lunch, I prepared scrambled eggs and shaved half our truffle on to the warm creamy eggs. Hmmm...smelled good, but the taste was not exactly orgasmic and Simon likened the texture to sliced almonds. Actually, the texture is curiously crunchy, but simultaneously, and more as you would expect, densely spongey just like mushrooms.
I put the other half of the truffle in a jar with some eggs. Eggshell is porous and absorbs flavours and aromas, so this is a traditional method of making your truffle go further. Several days later we ate the eggs, boiled, and mashed into fresh bread. Once again, nice aroma, but almost no flavour. By this time Simon had decided that truffles were a complete swindle, as he wasn't even getting the aroma. I should have guessed – I've bought ready prepared truffle eggs (and truffle oil, which is a similar principle) before and been underwhelmed – but it is important to do these things for oneself.
As a last ditch attempt with the second half of the truffle, I added it to a mushroom sauce with pasta. This time, the truffle revealed a nutty flavour. Perfectly pleasant, but frankly, ceps (cèpes in French, or as many people know them, porcini, in Italian) are better value and have a reliable earthy, meaty flavour that will knock your socks off. Is my problem that this is what I expected from the truffle? It's what the aroma leads you to believe the taste will be. Or is it that I simply wasn't using enough in one go (having made a two serving truffle stretch to four)? Should I have cooked them for longer (are they like vanilla and saffron, and need a bit of time as well as a gentle heat to give of their best)?
I like the idea of the ritual of going once a year and buying a truffle, and would happily do it again, after working on recipes that might enhance the eating experience and reading up on how to use truffles to best advantage. I had never prepared fresh truffles before, but had seen it done on the telly, and it looked easy. Certainly, producing the requisite wafer thin shavings was very easy and rather fun. In retrospect I think I would have been better doing a bit more research and getting les trucs ('the lowdown') from people who know their truffes, with regard to making sure the flavour develops well.