Black truffles -
Truffles are one of the main local specialities and Dordognians have been harvesting the prized 'truffe noire' since forever. So it's no surprise that feasting on truffled dishes is part and parcel of every day life in the Dordogne Valley. Prepare yourselves for a scrumptiously mouth-watering tour around truffle heaven!
All summer long, the Dordogne Valley is a playground for Europeans on holiday. But as winter rolls in, visitors take a back seat as local trufficulteurs head to the region's rocky woods and sun-dappled pastures for truffle-hunting season.
Every year, hungry tourists fill the lively medieval village markets and restaurants to buy and eat this subterranean fungi but few actually come to harvest these costly aromatic nuggets.
From California to Australia, there are 70 varieties of truffles cultivated word-wide with 30-odd varieties grown in Europe alone. However, the king of truffles and the only variety that any serious truffler will get out of bed for, is the Tuber Melanosporum, or better known as the truffe noire.
La Truffe Noire
With its trademark black flesh, striped with thin, white veins, the 'black diamond' is grown underground in symbiosis with the roots of certain trees, ripening over months in soft soil.
The Dordogne Valley is strewn with truffle farms, branching out from commercial settlements to little known corners of the region where select farmers nurture their plots of soil and take utmost pride in their harvest.
With the season running from December through to February, visitors can take part in these hunts and be privy to the expert's truffle-finding secrets.
So how does it work?
Whilst some vacationers spend their days exploring ancient villages and beautifully trimmed gardens, others rummage through the southern soil to uncover knobbly funghi. It’s the ultimate earthy scavenge.
Hunters (and their newly-found helpers) venture through woods ladened with oak and hazelnut trees alongside specially trained pigs and dogs who sniff out the treasured mushrooms. Contrary to past times, many modern-day truffle hunters have replaced their porcine friends with pet hounds as they are more trusted not to snaffle the precious prize for themselves.
Buying and tasting truffles
With the delicacy in pocket, visitors can head back for a quick lesson on truffle gathering and distilling which is usually followed by a cookery workshop.
If taking to the woods is not your thing, the Dordogne's spirited truffle markets offer a fine alternative to scouting through the winter woods. They are the busiest in January, when their strong perfumes successfully lure restaurant owners and suppliers from all over France and Europe to take place in the bartering of this rare product.
Like any spice or great fragrance, buying a truffle requires some precautions as the highest quality is rare, expensive and will leave you wanting more. However large or small, cultivators all gather to sell their wares in the bustling markets, where you can really get a sense of the delight this expensive goody brings.
Yet they also come with a side note of caution. Experts and specialists in these markets give lessons on how to spot the most flavoursome truffle, how they should be kept (never in oil) and what to cook them with.
Of course, diners in the region are rewarded with the finds of the harvest too and it seems no dish is complete without it. French omelette topped with shavings of the local delicacy is a must on the menu. However numerous restaurants plate up a variety of truffle dishes with classics like foie gras and pâté as well as more innovative takes using ice cream and crème brûlée.
Some of the Dordogne Valley's hottest gastronomic dates of the year are held in December and January.
The truffle fair in Cuzance opens the season mid-December with an amazing gastronomic meal and a chance to sample dishes such as truffle risotto and brouuillade aux truffes. Sarlat's Truffle Festival is held every January to celebrate the Dordogne’s ‘black diamond’ in style as locals and visitors taste, buy, cook and scoff truffles for two days solid.