Updated: Feb 25, 2021
Introducing my new best friend - Suillia tuberiperda.
Here’s the little fella! Sitting peacefully on a stick. Don’t reach for your fly swatter just yet, reach for your trusty truffle switch instead as this is no ordinary fly. It’s a special fly. It is a truffle fly! No, I promise you, I am not making this up. It is fairly common knowledge that dogs and pigs have been used for a very long time in order to track down these rare gastronomic prizes. However, very few are aware that even if you’ve left your pignuts and dog treats at home, you can still find what you are looking for. This fascinating insect, given the correct encouragement, can lead you right to the spot. Just two months ago, a few days before Christmas, this tiny critter gave me my first present of the holiday - a beautifully ripe black diamond.
Let me start at the beginning. It was 3pm, late December. It was one of the warmest and sunniest days we had had in weeks. I had a feeling that the local 'Truffe Chasse' would be visiting their precious patches to hunt for truffles. So I decided to go and collect our children from school a little earlier than normal, just in case I happened to pass one of these searches in action and could join in and learn a little more from these old masters. André, a true Perigordian gentleman who has a small truffière just a few hundred metres away from our plantation, was predictably strolling around under his holm oaks. I pulled over, jumped out of the car and went to greet him. Despite being over 70 years old he never seems to stop. He is always out, processing firewood for the villagers, tending to his bees and walnuts, or harvesting fruit and vegetables from one of the most enviable potagers around. He greets me as warmly as ever and is more than happy for me to join him in his forage. His beautiful Brittany Spaniel comes bounding towards me like a grasshopper on springs and barks wildly for a few moments before realising who I am. “The truffle dog?” I ask. To which André replies “No, he is only for hunting the local deer and wild boar” as he gently steers the dog off in the vicinity of an large orchard. As he takes me down towards the place I first saw him, his mood quickly changes to one of slight frustration. He explained to me that he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t found many truffles today and was pointing to an area of soil, about the size of a dustbin lid, with several small marker sticks poking vertically out of the ground. “Les mouches! Les mouches!” he kept saying. He gently tapped a long thin stick (the switch) in amongst the short grass and dry leaves and several small, reddish-orange translucent flies flew up into the air. One of these flies happened to land on one of the marker sticks that André had placed in the ground. “Les mouches à truffes” he says as I scramble to whip out my telephoto lens. You see, these truffle flies are so named due to their love of nice ripe truffles. These insects, with their incredible sense of smell, lay their eggs in the soil just above where a truffle is hidden. When the larvae emerge in springtime they go digging for the truffles and eat what is left of them, depositing truffle spores into the surrounding soil as they go.
Anyway, back to the story! André is frustrated that, despite there being 3 or 4 of these critters refusing to move away from the spot, he is unable to find a truffle. He talks of how only a week or two ago he had pulled several hundred grams of truffles out of this very same small place. He was confused as to why the flies remained despite having already harvested, what he thought, was all the truffles from this spot. As the sun was starting to drop and the shadows were lengthening, he had in fact more or less decided to head home and abandon his search as I arrived. However, I think that me being there had convinced him to have one last rummage. At this point he pulled from his pocket a most sophisticated truffle harvesting tool - an old screwdriver. He informed me that you are far more likely to damage the truffles when using a spade or garden fork and that the humble screwdriver is the perfect way to break up the soil. After around 30 seconds of breaking up the soil in a manner similar to that of someone breaking ice with a pick, he started to gently rummage around in the loosened, limestone rich earth. He rubbed the soil in a baker’s fashion rubbing butter into flour for pastry. Within another 30 seconds, “Voila” and in his hand is a muddy little truffle, a black diamond in the rough one might say of around 20g in size. Another 30 seconds later and a larger truffle of around 50g emerges. He stands up, rather amused by my very obvious excitement. “Un cadeau” he says simply dropping one of the truffles in my hands.
At this point my wife comes driving past having collected the children after I, uh, got a little distracted. She jumps out to come and share in the excitement of this brief ritual that likely has been passed down from generation to generation. As I thank André for his generosity I can’t resist asking him how many truffles he managed to harvest the previous year. When he tells me that, even without a dog to aid his hunting, he still managed to collect 2.5kg of truffles from very small truffière of just 5 trees. I am pleasantly surprised and excited for the prospects of our future yields. Naturally, I ask him if he sold the truffles. To which he replies “No, just for eating”. The true, contented French rural man who seeks not wealth nor riches but grows truffles just to bring a little magic to his winter meals. It’s incredible to think that he and his wife ate their way through £2500 worth of truffles in just a few months. I suppose that’s one way to get through winter. There's little doubt that the French place food above all else but I must say I couldn’t believe it. I do hope that on those special bumper crop years that we too will go a little crazy and spoil ourselves. Truffles on chips anyone?