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Tricked out of truffles in rural France


‘You know you’re supposed to have truffles on your land, don’t you?’ says Babette, as she dumps my first course of terrine aux truffes unceremoniously on to the plain paper tablecloth in front of me.

There is no sign yet of the colourful Provençal cotton from the market but, looking round, I see numerous fellow lunchers composing shopping lists and other doodles on the current alternative. Nathalie from the shop, for instance, seems to be sketching out some kind of business plan for a man in a suit who looks as if he could be her accountant. So I wonder whether Babette’s intended upgrade will ever find favour.

The truffle news, however, could hardly be more welcome, as I scrutinize the microscopically small speck of black set into the middle of my slice of paté and compare it to the size of the supplement that this luxury commanded on the café’s lunchtime menu. (Babette and I have graduated to hand-shaking terms by now but, sadly, the rising warmth of welcome still stops short of greater munificence on the truffle-shaving front.)

‘Trouble is,’ she explains, as she leans against the billiard table for a cigarette, ‘when Manu’s brother, Ignace, sold your uncle the land, he promised to tell him where to find the truffles before he died. But then he was up cutting branches off a cherry tree – Ignace, that is – and he made the mistake of cutting the one he was sitting on. Lost his memory in the fall, poor chap.’

‘So Uncle Milo never knew?’ I ask.

‘I’ve always suspected Manu knows but you’ll never get him to admit it.’ She returns to the bar, leaving me to speculate about the untold riches that may lie buried beneath my oak trees.

As it happens, I’m already considerably the poorer for knowing the street value of a truffle. I was having some tea at Virgile’s after our pruning session when a small, shifty-looking young man called Luc turned up to confirm that he was on the track of a truffle.

Apparently Virgile had ordered one for the weekend – proving, not for the first time, the high priority given to gastronomy in his domestic economy – and I heard myself recklessly surrendering to temptation when Luc offered to add me to his client base.

‘You know where to find truffles?’ I asked rather obviously.

‘I know where to find a man who knows where to find them,’ Luc answered, with the crafty wink of a middleman who had no intention of being cut out.

‘Finding a truffle would be much too much like hard work for Luc,’ laughed Virgile.

‘We’re nearing the end of the season,’ the young entrepreneur continued, ignoring Virgile’s jibe. ‘I can probably get you one for the end of the month but it’ll be around two hundred francs, for a reasonable size,’ he added, making a tight little circle with his forefinger and thumb to forewarn me of his disappointing notion of reasonableness.

—-

‘So, you think I should invest in a truffle pig?’ I ask Babette, when she comes to monitor my appreciation of the precious particle adorning my starter. It was meant to be a joke but she draws up a chair to advise me in earnest.

‘Pigs are all very well but a dog would be more companionable,’ she counsels solemnly. ‘Although actually, you could manage perfectly well with a fly. You’ll always see them round the foot of a truffle oak. Just as good at sniffing them out and no overheads.’

‘If somewhat less easily led on a lead,’ I can’t help thinking.

But the arrival of the village postman with his family of five to occupy the last available table denies me any more practical explanation of the low-cost option. Anyway, where would I start in my twelve overgrown acres? I can hardly trail from oak to oak with my tracker insect in a matchbox, waiting for a crescendo of buzzing to home me in on my gourmet target. Unless Manu could be persuaded to spill the beans … Perhaps when even less than usually sober? … But no, there are some prices that should never be paid, even for truffled self-sufficiency.

[Then the author goes wine-tasting with his neighbour, Manu. But that’s wine and grape talk: for that you’ll have to buy the book]

It is already dark by the time we round the last of the bends to see the welcoming sight of our respective post boxes, perched on their poles at the bottom of the shared drive. It is not, however, too dark to notice an unfamiliar dark-coloured Deux Chevaux parked in the shadows beside them, or the glow of a cigarette from the driver’s seat. It is a couple of days since I checked inside my box and I really ought to do so now but Manu is strangely unwilling to stop the van. He hurries twice as fast as usual, up over the pits and bumps of the rough ascent, as far as Uncle Milo’s parking area. He would normally drop me at the point where my part of the drive forks away from his, but tonight he seems to want to usher me all the way to my door and see it safely closed behind me. However, he underestimates my stubborn desire to audit my mail. Having counted to a number high enough to allow the van to speed back down to the fork and up to Manu’s ramshackle garage, I steal outside again.

The moon is fuller and brighter than I realized when we were returning in the van. From the corner of high land overlooking the stream that divides our properties, I am rewarded with the intriguing sight of Manu tiptoeing delicately down his garden path, with many a nervous glance in the direction of my house.

Instinctively I conceal myself in the shadow of the big Mediterranean pine near the maset, as my neighbour scuttles furtively out of his gate and down the main drive towards the post boxes and the mystery car. Every so often he stops and listens and casts a secretive look over his shoulder but he fails to see me following him.

‘In other words, you’ve been had,’ laughed Babette the next evening.

She had seen that I was in a bad mood as soon as I arrived. After all, I didn’t usually complain about the awkwardness of the billiard table filling the centre of the room or the fact that the plat du jour was always coq aux olives whenever I called in for a meal. But with the café nearly empty tonight, she had time enough to spare to puff her way through half a packet of Gitanes at my table and uncover the underlying cause of my grumpiness.

‘But now I want the whole story,’ she insisted, so I started reluctantly with the unexplained car.

I told her how it had still been down there in the shadows beside the post boxes and how its driver had emerged as soon as Manu came close enough to be identified. I was too far away, I explained, to hear much of their exchange, except when the driver unwrapped the tiny parcel that Manu extracted from the pocket of his overalls.

Et alors?’ pressed Babette, serving me one of her less ambitious desserts in the shape of a banana. ‘Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit?

‘ “A beauty!” was his exact response,’ I told her bitterly and she laughed some more. Then I related how the driver had started counting notes into Manu’s outstretched hand.

Et combien?’ she urged.

‘I couldn’t see. But it wasn’t as much as Manu seemed to expect, so the driver reluctantly added another and that seemed to satisfy him. Then they said a quick goodnight and I just had time to beat a retreat before Manu started panting up the gradient behind me. He made a last check that no one was watching and vanished inside his own front door. Then almost immediately there were car lights bumping up the drive. A dark grey Deux Chevaux was paying me a visit and it was driven by Virgile’s friend – Luc, the truffle-man.’

Oh, j’adore!’ giggled Babette.

‘He said he’d “just made it”. The end of the month, that is. Like he’d promised. And no extra charge for delivery to the door.’

I winced at the memory, as I told Babette how Luc had produced a little loosely screwed-up ball of newspaper and immediately started justifying his pricing policy. The small black lump nestling inside was much bigger, he emphasized, and therefore (he knew I’d understand) much more expensive than his estimate – at this end of the season, an absolute bargain for 400 francs.

‘Exactly twice the sum I’d budgeted,’ I lamented.

‘But twice as good for being home-grown,’ chuckled Babette.

Extracted from Patrick Moon’s new book ‘Virgile’s Vineyard’, an entertaining account of a year in the Languedoc winelands. Buy it here.

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