IN just a few more days, on Tuesday, 6 December the main street of an otherwise undistinguished town in south west France will be magically transformed by one of the most exciting, adrenaline-pumping and important events in the entire French culinary universe - the opening day of this year's truffle market in Lalbenque, writes Vino Veritas.
The usual rusty, fifteen year old Citroens normally found in Lalbenque will on that day be displaced by shiny new Mercedes and Beemers with 75 (Paris) and 69 (Lyon) plates, all herded through town by whistle-blowing traffic control officers who will never be present the rest of the year.
Truffle brokers and speciality restaurant supply buyers from all over France, the UK and beyond will flock to Lalbenque on market day, momentarily swelling this small town's population by up to a thousand.
Lalbenque, 25 kilometers south of Cahors, is the largest truffle market in south western France, and from early December until early March, hundreds of kilos of France's 'black gold', botanically known as Tuber Melanosporum, will be sold in Lalbenque's weekly truffle market. (It should be acknowledged that another truffle market, somewhat larger then Lalbenque, is held at Richerenches in the Vaucluse, but the author's experience is with the Lalbenque market.)
All the fuss began in the 18th century, when the French gastronome and author Brillat-Savarin described these truffles as "the diamond of the kitchen".
Exactly how Lalbenque assumed such an important culinary role is not altogether clear, although the scrubby calcareous soil of the surrounding area abounds with the twisted small oak trees whose roots have a symbiotic relationship with and host the growth of truffles.
The market itself is simultaneously picturesque and unusual. Most markets bring buyers and sellers together for extended periods, to foster continuing relationships, trust and ongoing commerce. Not so at Lalbenque.
On market Tuesday, beginning around 2pm, sellers stand shoulder to shoulder behind benches running in a long line along the main street, displaying the truffles they are offering that day in a basket set on the bench in front of them.
Some sellers have but a few truffles, while others have a bounty exceeding several kilos. About a metre in front of the benches is a strategically positioned rope that prospective buyers dare not cross.
The buyers, usually numbering in the several hundreds, stand in front of the rope and engage in discreet conversations with the sellers. Most conversations revolve around weight, since sales prices are calculated in grams and kilos, but occasionally a forward buyer even asks to have a basket handed to him across the rope for a brief inspection, requests that are often declined.
Nervous smiles are exchanged on both sides of the rope, because both buyers and sellers know very well what is about to come. At exactly 2.30pm (with wry comments occasionally heard about this being the only time French are known to be on time), a rapid fire series of events very quickly ensues.
Not a moment before or after, a loud police whistle is sounded, the rope drops to the ground, the buyers charge forward, earnest and somewhat frantic negotiations ensue, and five minutes later, the market is over for that week.
Yes, its all over in a few fast paced moments. A buyer who dithers, is indecisive, or offers too low a price goes away empty handed. And a seller who initially drives too hard of a bargain is often forced to accept a bargain basement price minutes later if a prospective buyer's offer is rejected and that buyer turns away.
What is remarkable is that even though all sales have truffle weight, as well of course quality, as key value drivers, you will never see a scale at Lalbenque. Sellers will tell you what their basket weighs when you ask, but verification is considered an insult.
The sellers, who are looking for repeat business in following weeks, consider it dishonourable to not state a very accurate weight. This author has participated as a buyer in many Lalbenque markets, and has never experience a short weight. If anything, the sellers slightly understate the weight of their truffles as a matter of personal pride.
Opening day at Lalbenque, always the first Tuesday in December, is of particular interest because the elders of the organization that runs the market, the Syndicat des Trufficulteurs, parade through Lalbenque in long black ceremonial robes and plumed Three Musketeers-type hats, with golden medallions hanging around their necks.
With much ceremonial flourish, the Mayor of Lalbenque then declares the market to be open. Lest one thinks that this is mere French pagentry, it should be acknowledged that the syndicat provides a vital function that is critical to the market's success - truffle authentication.
Prospective sellers at the Lalbenque market are required to arrive early, and are ushered into a back room at the Marie where syndicat experts sniff, poke pinch, examine and otherwise take steps to assure that this particular batch of truffles are genuine Tuber Melanosporum, and not Chinese counterfeits. The Chinese truffle, Tuber Sinensis, is a decidedly inferior culinary product that is often passed off as a Perigordian black truffle.
It is frequently joked in culinary circles that half of the Perigordian truffles sold in London, Tokyo and New York are Chinese. But not at Lalbenque. The syndicat verifies Tuber Melanosporum botanical correctness, which gives comfort to buyers and presumably emboldens bidding.
And bidding at Lalbenque is not for the faint of heart, or those with shallow pockets. In 1900, France produced 1,000 metric tons of Tuber Melanosporum a year, but incessant demand and the resulting over-harvesting has reduced today's annual harvest to a mere 20 to 40 metric tons.
The laws of supply and demand have driven the price of Perigordian black truffles to stratospheric heights. On 6 December, you can expect to pay upwards of €500 a kilo for good quality truffles at Lalbenque, and considerably more if summer weather has not been conducive to truffle growth, as may have been the case in 2011.
If you are successful at a truffle market, either Lalbenque or any one of a number of smaller truffle markets held in southern France, northern Spain, or Italy, you are in for quite a treat indeed.
While entire cookbooks are devoted to the myriad culinary applications of truffles (I even saw a recipe for truffle ice cream), Vino Veritas will offer a few brief suggestions here.
The biggest mistake a would-be truffle chef can make is muddling the delicate and subtle nuances of truffles with other flavours. The food applications that show off truffles the best, in my humble opinion, are those made with eggs, rice or potatoes, and very little else.
Very little preparation of the truffles themselves is either necessary or desirable. You want to maximize the surface area of the truffles you are using and then heat them for just a bit to bring out the volatile odour elements.
Take a one euro vegetable peeler (the expensive truffle shavers are a rip-off), place shavings of truffles in a small saucepan with butter, heat under very low heat for just a few moments, add the truffles to the balance of your chosen dish, and be prepared for oral ecstasy.
The truffles you buy at Lalbenque were about four inches underground a couple of days before they are sold, and the shelf life of fresh truffles is about three weeks.
Store them in a tight-lidded container in the refrigerator submerged in aborio rice, which allows a little air circulation but not too much, and facilitates the most delicious risotto long after the truffles themselves have been consumed.
Hope to see you at a truffle market soon, but if you go to Lalbenque, please do not covet the same basket as Yours Truly. Truffles, available only during the shortest, darkest and coldest days of winter in France, will bring a broad smile to any food-lovers face despite the season's other gifts.
Vino Veritas is a pseudonym for a passionate Francophile, wine collector and foodie currently living in southern France.