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Authors: Peter Mayle

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BOOK: Toujours Provence
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André woke me some time after six and asked if I was staying for dinner. There were
pieds et paquets
, he said, and
by some happy chance two or three bottles of the Gigondas had survived. With some difficulty, I escaped and drove home.

My wife had spent a sensible day in the shade and by the pool. She looked at me, a rumpled apparition, and asked if I had enjoyed myself.

“I hope they gave you something to eat,” she said.

Buying Truffles
   from Monsieur X

The whole furtive business began with a phone call from London. It was my friend Frank, who had been described once in a glossy magazine as a reclusive magnate. I knew him better as a gourmet of championship standard, a man who takes dinner as seriously as other men take politics. Frank in the kitchen is like a hound on the scent, sniffing, peering into bubbling saucepans, quivering with expectation. The smell of a rich
cassoulet
puts him in a trance. My wife says that he is one of the most rewarding eaters she has ever cooked for.

There was a hint of alarm in his voice when he explained why he was calling.

“It’s March,” he said, “and I’m worried about the truffles. Are there still some left?”

March is the end of the truffle season, and in the markets around us, as close as we were to the truffle country in the foothills of Mont Ventoux, the dealers seemed to have disappeared. I told Frank that he might have left it too late.

There was a horrified silence while he considered the gastronomic deprivation that stared him in the face—no truffle omelets, no truffles
en croûte
, no truffle-studded roast pork. The telephone line was heavy with disappointment.

“There’s one man,” I said, “who might have a few. I could try him.”

Frank purred. “Excellent, excellent. Just a couple of kilos. I’m going to put them in egg boxes and keep them in the deep freeze. Truffles in the spring, truffles in the summer. Just a couple of kilos.”

Two kilos of fresh truffles, at current Paris prices, would have cost more than a thousand pounds. Even down in Provence, bypassing the chain of middlemen and buying direct from the hunters with their muddy boots and leather hands, the investment would be impressive. I asked Frank if he was sure he wanted as much as two kilos.

“It wouldn’t do to run short,” he said. “Anyway, see what you can manage.”

My only contact with the truffle business consisted of a telephone number scribbled on the back of a bill by the chef of one of our local restaurants. He had told us that this was
un homme sérieux
as far as truffles were concerned, a man of irreproachable honesty, which is not always the case in the murky world of truffle dealing, where petty swindles are rumored to be as common as sunny days in Aix. I had heard tales of truffles loaded with buckshot and caked with mud to increase their weight and, even worse, inferior specimens smuggled in from Italy and sold as native French truffles. Without a reliable supplier, one could get into some expensive trouble.

I called the number the chef had given me and mentioned
his name to the man who answered.
Ah, oui
. The credentials were accepted. What could he do for me?

Some truffles? Maybe two kilos?

“Oh là là,”
said the voice. “Are you a restaurant?”

No, I said, I was buying on behalf of a friend in England.

“An Englishman?
Mon Dieu
.”

After a few minutes of sucking his teeth and explaining the considerable problems involved in finding so many truffles so late in the season, Monsieur X (his
nom de truffe)
promised to take his dogs into the hills and see what he could find. He would let me know, but it would not be a rapid affair. I must stay by the phone and be patient.

A week passed, nearly two, and then one evening the phone rang.

A voice said, “I have what you want. We can have a rendezvous tomorrow evening.”

He told me to be waiting by a telephone
cabine
on the Carpentras road at 6:00. What make and color was my car? And one important point: checks were not accepted. Cash, he said, was more agreeable. (This, as I later discovered, is standard practice in the truffle trade. Dealers don’t believe in paperwork, don’t issue receipts, and regard with disdain the ridiculous notion of income tax.)

I arrived at the phone box just before 6:00. The road was deserted, and I was uncomfortably conscious of the large wad of cash in my pocket. The papers had been full of reports of robberies and other unpleasantness on the back roads of the Vaucluse. Gangs of
voyous
, according to the crime reporter of
Le Provençal
, were out and about, and prudent citizens should stay at home.

What was I doing out here in the dark with a salami-sized
roll of 500-franc notes, a sitting and well-stuffed duck? I searched the car for a defensive weapon, but the best I could find was a shopping basket and an old copy of the
Guide Michelin
.

Ten slow minutes went by before I saw a set of headlights. A dented Citroën van wheezed up and stopped on the other side of the phone box. The driver and I looked at each other surreptitiously from the safety of our cars. He was alone. I got out.

I’d been expecting to meet an old peasant with black teeth, canvas boots, and a villainous sideways glance, but Monsieur X was young, with cropped black hair and a neat moustache. He looked pleasant. He even grinned as he shook my hand.

“You’d never have found my house in the dark,” he said. “Follow me.”

We drove off, leaving the main road for a twisting stony track that led deeper and deeper into the hills, Monsieur X driving as if he were on the
autoroute
with me bouncing and clattering behind. Eventually he turned through a narrow gateway and parked in front of an unlit house surrounded by clumps of scrub oak. As I opened the car door, a large Alsatian appeared from the shadows and inspected my leg thoughtfully. I hoped he’d been fed.

I could smell truffles as soon as I went through the front door—that ripe, faintly rotten smell that can find its way through everything except glass and tin. Even eggs, when stored in a box with a truffle, will taste of truffles.

And there they were on the kitchen table, piled in an old basket, black, knobbly, ugly, delicious, and expensive.

“Voilà.”
Monsieur X held the basket up to my nose. “I’ve brushed off the mud. Don’t wash them until just before you eat them.”

He went to a cupboard and took out an ancient pair of scales, which he hung from a hook in the beam above the table. One by one, testing the truffles with a squeeze of his fingers to make sure they were still firm, he placed them on the blackened weighing dish, talking as he weighed them about his new experiment. He had bought a miniature Vietnamese pig, which he hoped to train into a truffle-finder
extraordinaire
. Pigs had a keener sense of smell than dogs, he said, but since the normal pig was the size of a small tractor he was not a convenient travelling companion on trips to the truffle grounds below Mont Ventoux.

The needles on the scales hovered and then settled on two kilos, and Monsieur X packed the truffles into two linen bags. He licked his thumb and counted the cash I gave him.

“C’est bieng.”
He brought out a bottle of
marc
and two glasses, and we drank to the success of his pig-training scheme. Next season, he said, I must come with him one day to see the pig in action. It would be a major advance in detection technique—
le super-cochon
. As I was leaving, he gave me a handful of tiny truffles and his omelet recipe, and wished me bon voyage to London.

The scent of the truffles stayed with me in the car on the way home. The following day, my carry-on luggage smelt of truffles, and when the plane landed at Heathrow a heady whiff came out of the overhead locker as I prepared to take my bag past the X-ray eyes of British Customs. Other passengers looked at me curiously and edged away, as if I had terminal halitosis.

It was the time of Edwina Currie’s salmonella alert, and I had visions of being cornered by a pack of sniffer dogs and thrown into quarantine for importing exotic substances that might endanger the nation’s health. I walked tentatively
through Customs. Not a nostril twitched. The taxi driver, however, was deeply suspicious.

“Blimey,” he said, “what you got there?”

“Truffles.”

“Oh, right. Truffles. Been dead long, have they?”

He closed the partition between us, and I was spared the usual cab driver’s monologue. When he dropped me at Frank’s house, he made a point of getting out and opening the back windows.

The reclusive magnate himself greeted me, and pounced on the truffles. He passed one of the linen bags around among his dinner guests, some of whom were not at all sure what they were sniffing, and then summoned from the kitchen his domestic commander-in-chief, a Scotsman of such statuesque demeanor that I always think of him as a General-Domo.

“I think we need to deal with these at once, Vaughan,” said Frank.

Vaughan raised his eyebrows and sniffed delicately. He knew what they were.

“Ah,” he said, “the bonny truffle. This will do very well with the
foie gras
tomorrow.”

Monsieur X would have approved.

It was strange to be in London again after an absence of nearly two years. I felt out of place and foreign, and I was surprised at how much I had changed. Or maybe it was London. There was endless talk about money, property prices, the stock market, and corporate acrobatics of one sort or another. The weather, once a traditional English complaint, was never mentioned, which was just as well. That
at least hadn’t changed, and the days passed in a blur of grey drizzle, with people on the streets hunched up against the continuous dripping from above. Traffic barely moved, but most drivers didn’t seem to notice; they were busy talking, presumably about money and property prices, on their car phones. I missed the light and the space and the huge open skies of Provence, and I realized that I would never willingly come back to live in a city again.

On the way out to the airport, the cab driver asked where I was going, and when I told him, he nodded knowingly.

“I was down there once,” he said. “Fréjus, it was, in the caravan. Bloody expensive.”

He charged me £25 for the ride, wished me a happy holiday, and warned me about the drinking water that had been his downfall in Fréjus. Three days on the khazi, he said. The wife had been well pleased.

I flew out of winter and into spring, and went through the informalities of arriving at Marignane, which I never understand. Marseille is reputed to be the center of half the drug business in Europe, and yet passengers carrying hand baggage stuffed with hashish, cocaine, heroin, English cheddar, or any other form of contraband can walk out of the airport without going through customs. It was, like the weather, a complete contrast to Heathrow.

Monsieur X was pleased to hear how welcome his two kilos had been.

“He is an
amateur
, your friend? A true lover of truffles?”

Yes he is, I said, but some of his friends were not too sure about the smell.

I could almost hear him shrug over the phone. It is a little special. Not everyone likes it.
Tant mieux
for those who do. He laughed, and his voice became confidential.

“I have something to show you,” he said. “A film I made. We could drink some
marc
and watch it if you like.”

When I finally found his house, the Alsatian greeted me like a long-lost bone, and Monsieur X called him off, hissing at him in the way that I had heard hunters use in the forest.

“He’s just playful,” he said. I’d heard that before too.

I followed him indoors to the cool, truffle-scented kitchen, and he poured
marc
into two thick tumblers. I must call him Alain, he said, pronouncing it with a good Provencal twang:
Alang
. We went into the sitting room, where the shutters had been closed against the sunlight, and he squatted in front of the television set to put a cassette into the video machine.

“Voilà,”
said Alain. “It is not Truffaut, but I have a friend with a camera. Now I want to make another one, but more
professionnel
.”

The theme music from
Jean de Florette
started, and an image came up on the screen: Alain, seen from the back, and two dogs walking up a rocky hill, Mont Ventoux and its white crest in the far background. A title appeared—
Rabasses de Ma Colline
—and Alain explained that
rabasses
was the Provençal word for truffles.

Despite the slightly shaky hand of the camera operator and a certain abruptness in the editing, it was fascinating. It showed the dogs scenting tentatively, then scrabbling, then digging hard until Alain nudged them aside and, with enormous care, felt under the loosened soil. Every time he came up with a truffle, the dogs were rewarded with a biscuit or a scrap of sausage and the camera would zoom jerkily in to a close-up of an earth-covered hand holding an earth-covered
lump. There was no recorded commentary, but Alain talked over the pictures.

BOOK: Toujours Provence
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