The breathtaking landscapes of Provence offer no hint of the precious black nuggets that lie beneath their soil. Over a weekend, Thierry Frébout, Chef at the Château de Rochegude, leads the way to this subterranean jewel with its unmistakably characteristic taste.
Beyond the defensive machicolations, the view from the Château de Rochegude ramparts is well worth the trip. The sun-soaked landscapes of Provence are spread out below, clad atypically in their winter finery. But it’s beneath the surface of these fields bristling with cypresses that, in the bosom of the earth, lies the object of all culinary fantasies: the black truffle. A delicacy that for the time being shrinks from our view and our fork.
Chef here for 20 years and an expert on the subject of truffles, Thierry Frébout believes that there has always been an air of mystery about this fungus. He also believes that it is still too often unrecognized. “How many people know that old Provencal recipes used a crazy amount of truffles?,” he asks as we arrive at the market in Richerenches.
Truffle production tumbled in the post-war years: “From around 1,000 tonnes in 1900, we’re now looking at maybe 30 or 40 tonnes per year today,” continues the Chef as we walk through the rabassières – the local name for truffle farms – planted with white oaks and evergreen oaks. The fame and reputation of this black nugget come from a combination of its rarity and its addictive taste.
Here, we are in the former papal estates not far from Avignon. “In this region, people say that the Popes adored truffles, even though they were reputed to be the devil’s work in the popular mind. People ate them when they ran out of potatoes!,” laughs our local guide.
At the truffle market in Richerenches - France’s largest in terms of volume - the social network of Chef Frébout is invaluable: he opens the door to the area of the market reserved exclusively for food professionals and closed to mere truffle lovers, lifts the domed covers to release the enchanting odor of this precious fungus, and chats to truffle growers, all of whom were born and raised here.
And these encounters filled with tall stories and not-so-tall stories lead us to the rabassière of Joël, an 8th-generation truffle grower. With Igloo, his young chocolate Labrador, he gets down to the business of truffle hunting. With a sense of smell denied us as mere humans, Igloo unearths truffle after truffle as the last rays of the sun bring a blush to the crowns of the oak trees.
Back at the château, the familiar kitchen smells waft through the ancient corridors between the coats of arms and stone statues beneath the gilded decorations and towering ceilings: a lunch of generously-filled fresh truffle omelet, with the promise of a 6-course tasting menu for dinner. With a poached egg, a creamed soup or a clear soup, “the truffle releases its flavor when warmed slightly to awaken its taste, or when it is infused, but the main thing is to avoid overcooking it,” warns Chef Frébout, now a master in truffle cuisine.
Even the château owner Madame Dochez is gripped with a passion for this flavorsome jewel of the earth, and prides herself on exalting it through cookery. She perpetuates the innovation introduced by a previous owner, who originated special truffle weekend breaks in this region. And there’s no doubt that everyone in the château has fallen under the magical spell of the black truffle.