Gascony: The Story of a Truffiere

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Gascony: The Story of a Truffiere
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I suppose it really all started with Fathers' Day. After years of not-even-a-card, 2001 saw two wonderful presents – a trip in a glider and the rent of a vine for a year in a Sussex vineyard plus a bottle of wine made from 'my own' grapes. At the time a buyer had just been found for Hilaire Restaurant in London's Old Brompton Road – a business in which I had a one third share – and my long-held dream of retiring to a quiet corner of France began to seem a distinct possibility. I did some rough research on possible regions, then some armchair house-hunting and finally flew over in February 2002 armed with around a dozen properties-to-view spread over four immobiliers and four days, in one of the few areas of France I had never visited – Le Gers, département 32.

Maison Truffle Tree
Maison Truffle Tree
The houses I had chosen to see all seemed to have minor problems attached – a beautifully converted mill with a glass drawing room floor and magnificent views of a huge, tatty pet food factory, courtesy of the 1999 storms; a vast mansion with innumerable rooms in execrable repair which would have cost a couple of million to render even habitable. On my final day sitting despondently in the immobilier in Auch, I was idly scanning some property details pinned to a board when a house caught my eye. It looked in reasonable repair, seemed quite imposing and, most importantly, had an affordable price tag. I asked M Brunel if I could inspect it and we rushed out there at once. It sat on the side of a gentle slope about 150m up from the minor road that ran along the valley bottom, with a field of wheat dividing its garden from the road. For some reason the idea of copying the rather old hat 'adopt a vine' concept but this time with the million times sexier truffle instead, suddenly came to me. I asked tentatively whether the field could be for sale and the answer was, "probably, yes!" Just on cue the owner of the field drove past on a wonderful antique tractor and provided the definitive positive reply I was so hoping for.

The black Périgord Truffle
The black Périgord Truffle
Perhaps I should explain at this point what a truffle is – an explanation that was only finally widely accepted towards the end of the nineteenth century. It is a kind of mushroom that grows underground in the root systems of several species of young tree, the most important genera for commercial production being oaks and hazels. The truffle is not a parasite but grows in a strange symbiotic relationship, enabling the tree to assimilate phosphorus and other minerals in return for which it receives carbohydrates to further its own development. Nowadays dogs are used to hunt for truffles and a trained chien truffier is a very valuable beast. There are many species of truffle, most inedible, but two are very highly prized by gastronomes – the white Piedmont (Tuber magnatum) and the black Périgord (T melanosporum). Both will cost you at least £2,000 per kilo in London, Paris or New York and supply is never able to keep pace with demand.

I came back in April to sign the preliminary purchase contract for both house and field and after that, ignoring the usual horrors of British house-buying chains, all was pretty well settled; all that is except the $64,000 question – was the land going to be suitable for truffle growing? I returned in July and the very first thing I did was to send a soil sample off to a specialist laboratory for analysis. Three weeks later the result came back – near perfect for truffles, needing just some phosphorous, potassium and a large quantity of manure.

Adding the manure
Adding the manure to the plot
We started in October with the manure – not something that is normally easy to lay one's hands on. But by an extraordinary stroke of luck, just fifteen metres from the boundary of the truffière, there sat a huge heap of pretty well rotted material from the bottom of my new neighbour's 6,000 bird chicken sheds. Chicken manure is not absolutely ideal as it's rather acidic but it was terribly convenient and 60 tons was duly spread over the 1.2 hectares that were to be planted with oaks. Next, in December, came the ploughing. Normally the objective in cultivating is to avoid a pan – a solid boundary between the relatively fine, airy topsoil and the subsoil. With truffles that is just what you do want. The tree roots must be encouraged to grow laterally rather than downwards so that the truffles appear not too far below the surface. In Provence a flat stone is sometimes placed just below the tree to achieve this objective.

While waiting for the soil to dry out after the winter rains I composed a very draft press release, explaining the Truffle Tree concept, and sent it off to a journalist friend for his comments. Three weeks later I had heard nothing from him and feared that he had found my idea uninteresting. Then the phone began to ring – his national newspaper had printed a small but very effective story. Meanwhile my neighbour, Serge, had been presented with three puppies by his border collie, Rumba. I would need a truffle hound eventually but it seemed far too soon, with not a single tree yet planted. I avoided visiting the youngsters for a week or two but finally I succumbed and there was Polka. She was a delight – clearly intelligent, stunningly beautiful and totally irresistible. Against all my saner inclinations she became mine...



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Gascony: The Story of a Truffiere
Page 1 of 2 I suppose it really all started with Fathers' Day. After years of not-even-a-card, 2001 saw two wonderful presents – a trip in a glider and the rent of a vine for...

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