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Le Marché aux Truffes

Lalbenque is no ordinary little French village. Squirreled away in the hillsides of an empty part of the Lot department, it’s also the world capital of the black truffle, and its winter truffle market has to be seen to be believed.

Everything about the market is odd: the produce, the prices, the people, but most of all the rules and the ritual. On one side of the street are vendors selling individual truffles, or truffles by the kilo, at pretty much set prices – this is the easy bit. On the other side of the street (pictured) are those who sell their truffles in lots – and therefore at better prices, but in bulk. That’s where the fun is, and the action, and the tension so thick you could cut it with a knife, smother it in truffle sauce and call it a plat du jour. For this is where the biggest buyers of truffles, for all the world’s markets and restaurants, assemble to buy in bulk and ship to Paris and beyond. Chances are, if you’ve ever eaten a half-decent truffe noire, it’s passed through one of the gnarled hands here. Because now we’re right at the source.

Before the market opens, the vendors line up behind a wooden bench that runs the length of the village. They put their little basket in front of them, still covered, and wait for the clock to strike 2:30 pm. Meanwhile, two metres away, kept at bay behind a rope, the buyers assemble, and start scoping out the wares. You can tell the pros by the hungry look in their eyes. Every now and then a vendor will open his basket, and a thick smell of truffle will waft across the scene. The power-politics at play are astounding; the conspiratorial glances are so sharp they’ll have your eye out. Some insider trading clearly takes place – you’ll see famous chefs behind the bench (before the start! mon dieu!) sniffing around like hogs and getting in early.

A whistle blows! The rope falls! We rush forward, and the devil take the hindmost and the timid. There’s an initial rush as those who’ve already selected elbow everyone else out of the way and secure their purchase. Then we all fall in to sniffing, prodding and squeezing, and within 20 minutes or so, most of it is all sold. Not without furious haggling, though. And a lot of very gallic humour.

Bearing in mind that 10g of truffle will do per person for a fine meal, since it’s really a flavouring not an ingredient per se, the quantities that are changing hands here are astronomical. Each basket may contain enough for a restaurant for a week. The smallest I could find was enough for the whole family for all of Christmas, and even then we were truffling everything we could, and we eat a lot. Prices are incredibly low (this is a relative term) – barely a third of what you’ll end up paying in Paris and proabably a tenth of what they’d fetch in the USA. For the savings, you can fly over, rent a house, buy a goose, and eat truffled omelettes all week long.

Jack always has a hungry look in his eyes. Get in touch to hear more about truffling. 

You can tell the pros by the hungry look in their eyes.

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