It was winter in Provence when I was introduced to the secretive world of les trufficulteurs, the truffle growers of the area near Carpentras. This isn't about hunting wild truffles in the woods with a pig – this is about cultivated oak groves, with the oaks interspersed with olive trees; insiders introduction to the low-key growers; trained truffle hunting dogs; nighttime raids; and murder.
I was given directions to the unsigned farm of a trufficulteur I'll call J.G. to learn about the art of growing these black diamonds. There was no sign on the gateway of this small operation – it was just Joel, his dad, his young son, and Lisette, the truffle dog. The oak groves, I learned, were planted by JG to exacting standards. Truffles require the specific conditions of an oak forest bordering on meadowland, with a delicate balance of humidity, sunlight, and soil conditions. No one knows why the truffle grows only under certain species of oak trees. It takes at least five years before truffles may start to grow around a tree's roots, but not every tree will ever produce truffles. Many of the oaks I saw in the grove were decorative duds.
While I was there a couple, man and wife, came into the cobbled-together shed next to the grove. JG asked if they had an appointment. “No,” they said, looking down at the floor, “They told us at the truffle market to come to see you.” JG disappeared into a back room to emerge a moment later with a tiny sack of three or four jet-black truffles. Weighing them on a cheap kitchen scale he said, “200 grams, 180 Euros, s’il vous plait.” At 900 Euros per kilogram he was giving them the wholesale price. In a gourmet shop they might fetch two or three times that.
While JG was taking the couple's money the three of them were talking in low tones. The only word I could catch was tué – killed. Later I learned that in the dark early morning hours of that day a trufficulteur had shot and killed one of a gang of culinary thieves digging up his truffles. Farmers told me about rings of professional truffle thieves who came at night and raid private orchards. The frequency of the raids had increased with the price of truffles. Given the work involved to produce even a single truffle it’s no wonder the producers were up in arms. While no one said our loud that the thief should have been shot, no one condemned the farmer.