Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Truffle That Almost Got Away

The Sunday morning cafe conversation was moving fast. By the time I arrived the gang was already in the middle of a heated conversation about the upcoming mayoral elections. When a politico interloper joined us the conversation abruptly switched to the French Women’s National Water-polo team and if they had any chance of making it into the upcoming summer olympics (the daughter of a local is captain of the team). Next thing I knew we were talking about a day out with one of the local hunting groups. Laughing over unloaded guns, missed shots and lost dogs, led to a question. 

“Where was the group hunting?”

“Hmmm good question. I’m not exactly sure. Across the river, up the hill. We kept crossing through truffle farms.”

“Sure hope you didn’t tramp around in my patch!”

—With that the conversation veered again. I’ll tell you a story I heard of another kind of hunting. The names , images, and locations are changed to protect The Precious Secrets of the Truffle Hunt. Be forewarned that truffle stories are like the fish that got away stories, they take on a life of their own and get more and more grandiose with each telling. I have in no way embellished my telling of this tale — who knows about the teller…..

I’ll preface this story with a little background. Truffles are not something you talk about in public. You don’t tell where you are collecting truffles, how many you have or have not found, and, if there are extras, whether or not you have sold them. To look at these ugly black blobs (tuber melanosporum, French Perigord Truffle, Black Diamonds) you would never suspect that there are some substantial sums (1000 euros per kilo) being earned by intensely discrete truffle hunters. Truffle cultivation is more like hunting than farming because the “farmer” is at the mercy of the gods, there are no proven farming skills or miracle fertilizers that are going to make gathering truffles anything but a passion of patience and luck. This is a hunt for a stinky black thing that grows in crappy soil and is either discovered and uncovered by a rooting pig, hovering black gnats, or a snuffling dog.
A snuffling dog was the highlight of this Sunday cafe tale……… 

Pierre was checking on his truffle farm somewhere between Bourdeilles and the Back Forty. The “farm” is really a grove of trees inoculated with a fungus that may lead to the production of truffles. He didn’t have high hopes for finding anything since the weather had been so uncooperative during the growing season of the region’s most famous delicacy. Too wet in the spring, too dry in the summer, and too warm this winter.. However, as he entered his truffle farm he was pleasantly surprised to see a swarm of tiny black gnats hovering just above a bare patch of earth under one of his carefully tended truffle oaks. Ahhh today was going to be the day he struck gold, black gold! Delicately he raked the cultivator directly under the swarm scattering the gnats higgledy-piggledy. Pierre scratched out a patch about a foot across and 1 to 2 inches deep, then three feet across and 3 to 5 inches deep, then five feet across. Nothing! 

“Stupid gnats! Fooled again by that ole wive’s tale.”  

As he was loading up his tools into the back of his battered white van a snazzy, dark green car pulled up, windows rolled down, accordion music blaring, a small yapping dog perched on the drivers lap.

“Spoiled rotten dog,” came out before Pierre could clap his trap. 

“And hello to you, too,” said the driver. 

The car door opened and a white squirming ball leaped out yap yap yapping around Pierre’s feet. 
The driver crawled out of the low slung door. “That frown of yours doesn’t bode well for your having found any treasure out there.” 

“Heck, I’ve dug half way to China and haven’t found a thing.” 

“Princess doesn’t seem to think you were looking in the right place.” 

Sure enough the yapping had stopped and Princess was circling around the barren circle Pierre had just scratched out. Nose to the ground, tail wagging high, the little white dog inched her way around the perimeter of the hole. Within less than a minute she stopped, back end up, tail stiff, front paws throwing up tiny climbs of dirt. Her expert nose had led her easily to her prey. That prey was a mere 3 inches to the side of Pierre’s enormous hole. 

“Gently, gently,” Pierre and his friend both said at the same time. 

There was no need for that warning. Uncovering truffles is old hat for Princess. Forty seconds later the little dog looked up for praise. Between her tiny, sort of white paws, was the tip top of a black ball - a pingpong ball sized truffle. 

“Oh hell,” Pierre sighed. 

“She’s good isn’t she?” cooed the friend as she turned on her heels whistling for Princess to follow.

Watching the luxurious Jaguar scamper down the country lane Pierre thought out loud - “Reckon it’s that dang little white puffball varmint and it’s truffle nose that bought that hot rod for Veronique.”
Now sitting with our gang at the cafe Pierre wrapped up the story by making sure we knew that so far this year he has only found enough truffles for family consumption. He has no extras to sell - either at the market or over a friendly cup of coffee - at least that what he told us last Sunday at the cafe.

Here some facts about truffle dogs that were shared at the cafe:

  • any dog can be trained to hunt truffles
  • smaller dogs are often better because they are less likely to damage or gobble up the truffle 
  • truffle oil is massaged onto a nursing dog’s teats so the puppies learn the smell
  • training starts with hiding items smeared with truffle oil then moves onto broken bits of truffle hidden in a known location
  • small dogs are easier to push away from an unearthed truffle than are 300 lb. pigs

Sunday, February 2, 2020

L'art de vivre

Quite a few years back I was given a Christmas gift. Like a child I tested the weight of the neatly wrapped package, guessing what it was. I didn’t know it yet, but this was one of my best ever gifts. The wrapping paper torn, the cover revealing itself, it was obvious that I was going to like this book.

The gift giver watched as I opened the treasure. She explained how it had been hard to pass on this mail-order, used copy book, signed by the author (inscribed to a Monsieur Roland in 1996).
The title and cover photograph were already enough to tell that I held a world of ‘frenchiness’ in my hands. The title flows sing song to the rhythm and elegance of french, the syllables stringing out to a soft conclusion. 

L’art de vivre au fil des jours       

The Art of Living to the Rhythm of the Days  — or —- The Art of Everyday Living

by  Victoire de Montesquiou 

what a name! In her elegant photo on the cover she is wearing a casual straw hat and a simple country dress.  The clincher is her overflowing armful of lavender and wild flowers.
This treasured gift now has a second inscription, this time to Madame Vieth Christmas 2016. My friend wrote - “a Suzanne, Pour l’aider a être française plus que les françaises…..” (Here’s a book to help you become more french than the french.)  I couldn’t wait to dive in.
My friend’s copy sits out on a shelf in her busy kitchen, the spine of the book broken, the pages loose and held together by ever larger rubber bands. Her book is well loved. It is pulled out to be referenced for reflections on daily life or consulted for classic recipes to satisfy the demanding crowd that is so often at her table.

My copy sits on the shelf next to the sofa. This is not a coffee table book. I turn to it evenings when I am curious about what a french household might be “doing” in the month of January, February, or maybe July, October… With each reading I find new and old ideas to think about. Madame de Montesquiou describes her monthly household chores, work to complete in the garden, suggestions on how to take care of yourself, thoughts on living with others, and of course recipes for the seasonal produce one will find at the market.The book is organized to be a meditation, a confirmation, an exploration of the monthly rhythms of life. 
Over the years what I read means new things to me. Behaviors that I used to perceive as formal and complicated, too ‘frenchified’- now seem more everyday. Instead of greedily looking for ways to be French I treasure the parallels of my upbringing and of the perspectives to this french woman’s way of approaching life. (One thing I have learned over the years is that I will never be French. Sure some french expressions and physical behaviors are seeping into my everyday comportment, but overall it is obvious that I’m all American and always will be.)

Victoire de Montesquiou’s style is old fashioned and in spite of her claims of being a liberated woman the language is probably too sexist for many of you. But then I’m not the most radical of women - ha far from it!  I find good sense in these reflections. My hope is that we are all intelligent enough to filter out the old stuff and hold onto the gentle encouragement of kindness and the life gently lived.

Victoire’s purpose for the book is quickly evident in the few short paragraphs of the prologue. “From the turns and detours of my life I regret nothing. I have learned from each experience and I know now that these events are the price of a life. Life is the taste and art of bonheur, a good life is the willingness to make of each day a moment of exception, offering a wondrousness to those that one loves.”

She briefly explains that she was indeed born with a silver spoon into a family that cultivated curtesy, elegance and entertaining. Circumstances changed "de n’avoir plus la possibility materiel de vivre sur le meme pied”* and she was forced to rethink things, to focus on what she felt was important. She was released from tedious formalities, gone were the decadent luxuries and banished snobbisms. Her focus is on warmth, politeness and simplicity, on home, and self. Sounds like today’s mantras…..”less is more”, “keep it simple”, “only keep what brings you joy”. What I appreciate in Victoire’s perspective is that she is honest about wanting to keep a lot of her old fashioned notions too.

Without the luxuries of life just being handed to her, Victoire found she was more curious, more creative. Mix and match old and new, be frugal —sneakers from the discount store — but once in a blue moon splurge on a wonderful dress from the stylish boutique in town. Carefully select your purchase so that it is a source of jubilation and not culpability. Little by little you find yourself in experiencing your own creativity - not creativity decreed by outside forces. Enjoy the pleasure of actively observing, being yourself, loving and risking being creative.

Victoire concludes the prologue stating her montra, “avec plaisir “ (with pleasure).
This is a well used french phrase of gratitude, generosity and zest! 

The prologue leaves one with plenty to hold onto, but I’ll continue to dip you into her monthly observations throughout the year.

Here’s to grand things in 2020!

*She “no longer had the financial possibility to live on the same foot.”