Updated: Jan 23, 2021
Thinking of the Dordogne in South West France, images float gently through the mind of sun baked medieval towns and villages; rivers awash with bathers and kayaks; hot air balloons effortlessly rising over its beautiful verdant, rolling hills and sweeping valleys. However, from November to February, viewed through the eyes of a passer-by its appearance sits in stark contrast against the imaginings of a summer reverie. The sun is habitually replaced by endless rainy, grey days and it can get VERY cold.
It isn't all croissant and coffee in the village squares with the warm morning air of summer and the pleasant scent of plane trees falling upon you. It's winter. The locals are wrapped up to buy their daily bread and manage a quick 'Bonjour' before hustling on their ways back to cosy kitchens and toasty log fires. It's more of a 'heads down, let's get through this' sort of time. What is it that helps the French through these grimmer days? Food of course. Possibly the most important thing to the entire nation, it is food that brings the French family together to warm bellies, lift spirits and brighten souls. And what better way to indulge in gastronomy than with generous helpings of the king of truffles, tuber melanosporum.
The pleasure isn't only in the eating. This region is renown for it's quintessential markets. During the summer, aside from regular morning village and town markets, the marchés nocturnes are a wonderful experience. Each of the prettiest villages have their own versions. The senses are bombarded with smells pervading the air of meats barbequed on the giant communal pits; sounds of live music and friendly chatter bubbling around the medieval square and bouncing off ancient stone; tastes of freely flowing, locally produced wine and beer quenching thirst built up from a day in the heat of the sun. The villagers in attendance up the charm factor by bringing wicker baskets loaded with candelabras, monogrammed table cloths, china plates and silver cutlery to enjoy the offerings of moules, frites, fine cheeses, cep omelettes and rillettes of duck to name a few. They all leave heartily satisfied. Could it be possible that a market in the bleak midwinter could actually compete with all of this? The answer is 'Yes, the famous truffle markets!'
Like everything, some truffle markets are better than others. A small village truffle market could start promptly at 9am and be packed up and over by the time you arrive at 10am. People descend upon these markets like vultures and frantic bartering and hustling sees the precious black diamond being sold in incredibly short time frames. It's like an A class gastronomic fix that draws local food addicts to their dealers where huge sums of money pass hands in the blink of an eye. One may even wonder where the Tommy guns and getaway cars are!
Other markets are notably different, the pinnacle being Sarlat's annual 'Fête de la Truffe'. The smaller markets mentioned above are interesting to go to and experience for yourself the aroma of truffles, passion of the vendors and the typical scene of long trestle tables dressed in white cloths lined with truffle growers jostling and presenting their coveted and most prized Périgord Truffe shoulder to shoulder. It is fascinating to watch: the customers, the sellers and their interaction. The sellers, usually of a more mature vintage and so stereotypically French, dressed in dark green wax jackets, checks and flat caps are armed with wicker baskets laden with winter bounty. Sniffing away with those marvellous French noses and examining with fierce intensity, the buyers inspect every angle of the black diamonds before them. The sheer value of the harvests on display understandably create a nervous tension serving to further enhance the excitement. As a prospective customer reaches over to take a particularly large and fine truffle in their hands, the seller keeps a close eye as there is every possibility that this one truffle alone is worth more than the car he arrived in. Any suspicious edginess, however, is thankfully washed away totally by the shared appreciation that fills the air. The people populating these markets are truly kind: generous, passionate and hard working.
While smaller truffle markets have a certain appeal, they are really for the serious buyers, negotiating with serious discretion. Excepting the occasional truffle omelette to be sampled, there isn't really much else going on and the bitter cold can be rather off-putting. This is where the Sarlat market differs. Come wind and rain, you could not keep me away! On the third weekend of every January, Sarlat dedicates its stunning historical centre to the celebration of truffles. Throughout the winter season, you will find truffles in the market of Sarlat every Saturday, but this annual event goes a little further. Organised by the 'Groupement des Trufficulteurs du Périgord Noir', it attracts buyers and curious people every year. Not only are there truffle sellers in the traditional sense, but here you will also find everything and anything associated with tuber melanosporum (Black diamond truffle).
As part of the program of events, there are workshops to educate about the truffle. You will explore the subtleties of the truffle, discover how to identify it and how to handle it. There are 'cavage' (truffle hunting) demonstrations. Truffles are hidden beneath the soil around the church in the centre of the town. Highly trained dogs are then sent out to find the buried truffles. It is not as exhilarating as actually hunting for truffles in an authentic truffière, but it is fun to watch and fascinating to see how the dogs and trainers work together. There are cooking courses run by chefs to teach you to cook certain recipes as well as how to prepare and store truffles correctly. There are workshops for both adults and children. There is also a large traditional market selling alarming numbers of fresh truffles (I shudder to think how much cash is exchanged at these events!), truffle based products and other associated items such as books and inoculated seedlings.
My personal favourite attraction has to be the tasting tents. Sarladais chefs prepare a selection of 'croustous', a kind of Périgordian tapas, all prepared with lashings of truffles. There are plenty to choose from: soft cheese stuffed with truffles, truffle butter on warm toast, truffle omelettes, even truffled chocolate mousse to mention a few of the typical offerings. While you will select your own favourites, it is impossible to deny that they are all excellent and of the highest standard. The element that really propels this event from fun to truly memorable is the way that it is embraced by all with such gusto. The chefs are all dressed in chef whites, complete with toque blanche (tall chef hats). Truffle sellers can be spotted sipping champagne behind their tables whilst others mingle, sampling wedges of fois gras with truffles washed down with chilled glasses of the delicious Monbazillac wine. There is the hubub of conversation, friendly bustle and a genuine, ardent love of the food and drink being consumed. The traders, chefs and organisers are clearly not here merely to make money: this magnificent event happens in order to share the love of the truffe, the pride of this glorious town and to enjoy soaking up the ambience and wares themselves. Will it be in your diary come January 2022? It certainly will be in mine!