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Authors: Peter Mayle

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BOOK: Toujours Provence
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“She works well, the little one,” he said, as the picture showed a small, nondescript dog studying the base of a truffle oak, “but she’s getting old.” She began to dig, and Alain came into the shot. There was a close-up of a muddy nose, and Alain’s hands pushing the dog’s head away. His fingers probed the earth, picking out stones, scooping patiently until he had made a hole about six inches deep.

The film cut suddenly to show the sharp, alert face of a ferret, and Alain got up and pushed the fast forward button on the video machine. “That’s just rabbit hunting,” he said, “but there is something else here which is good, and not often to be seen today. It will soon be history.”

He slowed the film down as the ferret was being put, somewhat unwillingly, into a rucksack. There was another sudden cut, this time to a clump of oak trees. A Citroën 2CV van lurched into the picture and stopped, and a very old man in a cloth cap and shapeless blue jacket got out, beamed at the camera, and went slowly to the back of the van. He opened the door and took out a crude wooden ramp. He looked to the camera and beamed again before reaching into the back of the van. He straightened up, holding the end of a piece of rope, beamed once more, and began to tug.

The van shuddered, and then, inch by inch, the dirty pink profile of a pig’s head emerged. The old man tugged again, harder, and the monstrous creature swayed unsteadily down the ramp, twitching its ears and blinking. I half-expected it to follow its master’s example and leer at the camera, but it just stood in the sun, vast, placid, unaffected by stardom.

“Last year,” said Alain, “that pig found nearly three hundred kilos of truffles.
Un bon paquet
.”

I could hardly believe it. I was looking at an animal that earned more last year than most of those executives in London, and all without the benefit of a car phone.

The old man and the pig wandered off into the trees as though they were taking an aimless stroll, two rotund figures dappled by the winter sunshine. The screen went dark as the camera swooped down to a close-up of a pair of boots and across to a patch of earth. A muddy snout the size of a drainpipe poked into the shot, and the pig got down to work, its snout moving rhythmically back and forth, ears flopping over its eyes, a single-minded earth-moving machine.

The pig’s head jerked, and the camera drew back to show the old man pulling on the rope. The pig was reluctant to leave what was obviously a highly desirable smell.

“The scent of truffles to a pig,” said Alain, “is sexual. That is why one sometimes has difficulty persuading him to move.”

The old man was having no luck with the rope. He bent down and put his shoulder against the pig’s flank, and the two of them heaved against each other until the pig grudgingly gave way. The old man reached into his pocket and palmed something into the pig’s mouth. Surely he wasn’t feeding it truffles at 50 francs a bite?

“Acorns,” said Alain. “Now watch.”

The kneeling figure straightened up from the earth and turned to the camera, one hand outstretched. In it was a truffle slightly bigger than a golf ball, and in the background was the old peasant’s smiling face, sun glinting on his gold fillings. The truffle went into a stained canvas satchel, and pig and peasant moved on to the next tree. The sequence finished with a shot of the old man holding out both hands, which were piled high with muddy lumps. A good morning’s work.

I was looking forward to seeing the pig being loaded back into the van, which I imagined would require cunning, dexterity, and many acorns, but instead the film finished with a long shot of Mont Ventoux and some more
Jean de Florette
music.

“You see the problem with the normal pig,” said Alain. I did indeed. “I am hoping that mine will have the nose without the …” he spread his arms wide to indicate bulk. “Come and see her. She has an English name. She is called Peegy.”

Peegy lived inside a fenced enclosure next to Alain’s two dogs. She was scarcely bigger than a fat Corgi, black, potbellied, and shy. We leaned on the fence and looked at her. She grunted, turned her back, and curled up in the corner. Alain said she was very amiable, and that he would start training her now that the season was finished and he had more time. I asked him how.

“With patience,” he said. “I have trained the Alsatian to be a
chien truffier
, although it is not his instinct. I think the same is possible with the pig.”

I said that I would love to see it in action, and Alain invited me to come with him in the winter for a day of hunting among the truffle oaks. He was the complete opposite of the suspicious, secretive peasants who were said to control the truffle trade in the Vaucluse; Alain was an enthusiast, happy to share his enthusiasm.

As I was leaving, he gave me a copy of a poster advertising a milestone in truffle history. In the village of Bédoin, at the foot of Mont Ventoux, there was to be an attempt on a world record: the biggest truffle omelet ever made, to be
“enregistrée comme record mondial au
Guinness Book.

The statistics were astonishing—70,000 eggs, 100 kilos of truffles, 100 liters of oil, 11 kilos of salt, and 6 kilos of pepper were to be tossed,
presumably by a team of Provençal giants, in an omelet pan with a diameter of ten meters. The proceeds were to go to charity. It would be a day to remember, said Alain. Even now, negotiations were in progress to purchase a fleet of brand new concrete mixers, which would churn the ingredients into the correct consistency, under the supervision of some of the most distinguished chefs in the Vaucluse.

I said that this was not the kind of event that one normally associated with the truffle business. It was too open, too public, not at all like the shady dealings that were rumored to take place in the back streets and markets.

“Ah, those,” said Alain. “It is true there are some people who are a little …” he made a wriggling motion with his hand “… 
serpentin
.” He looked at me and grinned. “Next time, I’ll tell you some stories.”

He waved me off, and I drove home wondering if I could persuade Frank to come over from London to witness the attempt on the omelet world record. It was the kind of gastronomic oddity he would enjoy, and of course Vaughan the General-Domo must come too. I could see him, impeccably turned out in his truffling outfit, directing operations as the concrete mixers swallowed the ingredients: “Another bucket of pepper in there,
mon bonhomme
, if you please.” Maybe we could find a chef’s hat for him, in his clan tartan, with matching trews. I came to the conclusion that I shouldn’t drink
marc
in the afternoon. It does funny things to the brain.

Napoléons
   at the Bottom
      of the Garden

At one end of the swimming pool, arranged in a long, low pile, our builders had left an assortment of souvenirs of their work on the house. Rubble and cracked flagstones, old light switches and chewed wiring, beer bottles and broken tiles. It was understood that one day Didier and Claude would come back with an empty truck and take the debris away. The strip of land would be
impeccable
, and we could plant the alley of rosebushes we had planned.

But somehow the truck was never empty, or Claude had broken a toe, or Didier was busy knocking down some distant ruin in the Basses-Alpes, and the souvenir pile remained at the end of the pool. In time it began to look quite pretty, an informal rockery softened by a healthy covering of weeds and splashed with poppies. I told my wife that it had a certain unplanned charm. She wasn’t convinced. Roses, she said, were generally considered more attractive than rubble and beer bottles. I started to clear the pile.

In fact, I enjoy manual labor, the rhythm of it and the satisfaction of seeing order emerge from a neglected mess.
After a couple of weeks, I reached bare earth and retired in triumph with my blisters. My wife was very pleased. Now, she said, all we need are two deep trenches and 50 kilos of manure, and then we can plant. She got to work with the rose catalogues, and I patched up my blisters and bought a new pickax.

I had loosened about three yards of hard-packed earth when I saw a gleam of dirty yellow among the weed roots. Some long-dead farmer had obviously thrown away a
pastis
bottle one hot afternoon many years ago. But when I cleared away the earth, it wasn’t a vintage bottle cap; it was a coin. I rinsed it under the hose, and it shone gold in the sun, the drops of water sliding down a bearded profile.

It was a 20-franc piece, dated 1857. On one side was the head of Napoléon III with his neat goatee and his position in society—
Empereur
—stamped in heroic type opposite his name. On the reverse, a laurel wreath, crowned with more heroic type proclaiming the
Empire Français
. Around the rim of the coin was the comforting statement that every Frenchman knows is true:
Dieu protège la France
.

My wife was as excited as I was. “There might be more of them,” she said. “Keep digging.”

Ten minutes later, I found a second coin, another 20-franc piece. This one was dated 1869, and the passing years had left no mark on Napoléon’s profile except that he had sprouted a wreath on his head. I stood in the hole that I’d made and did some rough calculations. There were twenty more yards of trench to dig. At the current rate of one gold coin every yard, we could end up with a pocketful of
napoléons
and might even be able to afford lunch at the
Beaumanière
at Les Baux. I swung the pickax until my hands were raw, going deeper
and deeper into the ground, watching through the beads of sweat for another wink from Napoléon.

I ended the day no richer, but with a hole deep enough to plant a fully grown tree, and the conviction that tomorrow would produce more treasure. Nobody would bury two miserable coins; these had obviously spilled out of the bulging sack that was still lying within pickax range, a fortune for the reluctant gardener.

To help us estimate the size of the fortune, we consulted the financial section of
Le Provençal
. In a country that traditionally keeps its savings in gold and under the mattress, there was bound to be a listing of current values. And there it was, in between the one-kilo gold ingot and the Mexican 50-peso piece: Napoléon’s 20 francs were now worth 396 francs, and maybe more if the old boy’s profile was in mint condition.

Never has a pickax been taken up with more enthusiasm, and it inevitably attracted Faustin’s attention. He stopped on his way to do battle with the mildew that he was convinced was about to attack the vines, and asked what I was doing. Planting roses, I said.

“Ah bon?
They must be large roses to need such an important hole. Rose trees, perhaps? From England? It is difficult here for roses.
Tache noire
is everywhere.”

He shook his head, and I could tell he was going to give me the benefit of his pessimism. Faustin is on close terms with every kind of natural disaster, and he is happy to share this extensive knowledge with anyone foolish enough to hope for the best. To cheer him up, I told him about the gold
napoléons
.

He squatted at the side of the trench and pushed his cap,
stained blue with antimildew spray, onto the back of his head so that he could give the news his full attention.

“Normalement,”
he said, “Where there are one or two
napoléons
, it signifies that there are others. But this is not a good place to hide them.” He waved his large brown paw in the direction of the house. “The well would be more safe. Or behind a
cheminée
.”

I said that they might have been hidden in a hurry. Faustin shook his head again, and I realized that hurry was not an intellectual concept that he accepted, particularly when it came to hiding sacks of gold. “A peasant is never as
pressé
as that. Not with the
napoléons
. It is just bad luck that they dropped here.”

I said it was good luck for me, and with that depressing thought he went off to look for catastrophe in the vineyard.

The days passed. The blisters flourished. The trench grew longer and deeper. The tally of
napoléons
remained at two. And yet it didn’t make sense. No peasant would go out to work in the fields with gold coins in his pocket. A
cache
was there somewhere, I was sure of it, within feet of where I was standing.

I decided to ask for a second opinion from the self-appointed expert of the valley, the man from whom Provence held no secrets, the wise, venal, and congenitally crafty Massot. If anyone could guess, merely by sniffing the wind and spitting on the ground, where a sly old peasant had hidden his life savings, it was Massot.

I walked through the forest to his house and heard his dogs baying with frustrated blood lust as they picked up my scent. One day, I knew, they would break their chains and maul every living thing in the valley; I hoped that he would sell his house before they did.

Massot ambled across what he liked to call his front garden, an expanse of bare, trodden earth decorated with dog droppings and clumps of determined weeds. He looked up at me, squinting against the sun and the smoke from his fat yellow cigarette, and grunted.

BOOK: Toujours Provence
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