Calling all Truffle Hunters
Calling all Truffle Hunters
Ever wondered where’s the fastest getaway for a weekend break? Where would you go - with the least fuss - to transport yourself into a another world with an exotic ambience, great cuisine, food, wine and architecture, nature and culture?
It can’t be too far away - more than two hours on a jet and you’re already cramped and with a lungful of recycled air. Then of course, there is that whole sardine routine of the airport, which often requires you to check in three hours early, followed by the endless stop starts of baggage dumping, security, waiting in line at the gate, queueing to get on. A short plane ride would get you to Scotland, Ireland, Holland, or Northern Germany - but how exotic will that be? And then there’s the whole palaver of leaving the airport - transfer buses, hire cars, and another couple of hours before you’re really out of the swirl of plastics and plane fuel. Sometimes it hardly seems worth the bother.
Don’t despair. I think I’ve accidentally stumbled across a solution. Flights from small compact airports like London City are amazingly stress-free. Public transport to the airport is a cinch, and being so close to central London, even cabs aren’t expensive. There are no queues, no endless buses and long walks to distant jetways and you can check up to 15 minutes before the flight. A subsidiary of Air France, City Jet have an array of destinations, all within a short 1-1.5 hour flight because of the range of their short take off aircraft. And all are reasonably priced, around that of an average low cost airline when all the hidden extras are added up, and with the added bonus of a booked seat and the ease of access. To cap it all, City Jet have opened up a route to a lovely small, modern airport which is right in the centre of one of the most beautiful and underpopulated parts of France: the rolling hills and forests of the Lot and Dordogne valleys.
I’ve been through the area many times in summer, where it’s too busy with tourists for my taste, and the shady forests just make me long for the pines and cypresses of the Mediterranean coast. But in winter the real beauty of this part of the world is revealed behind the leaf-fall. The bijou new airport at Brive-La-Galliarde, high on the plateau of the Correze, is connected to the city in a few minutes with a typically wide and empty French motorway. Brive itself a little gem of fine golden limestone buildings, cobbled streets, a bustling but friendly market, and the best of French Provincial cooking and regional hospitality. It earns it’s reputation: Brive... riant portail du midi.... Brive, smiling gateway to the south
The limestone hills, covered with dwarf oak forests, are not only attractive and inspiring - a kind of Cotswolds on stilts - but with the two rivers of the Lot and the Dordogne carving spectacular valleys through the historic heartland, there is much more to do and see. Cahors is the biggest town - but only relatively big with a population of 20,000 in Winter - and the great wine producing areas of Bergerac and Bordeaux are not so far away. It’s here that you feel you’re finally in the South, with a history which stretches back to the Romans and their legacy of vineyards and sturdy old villas, often converted these days into hotels, gites, or chambres d’hotes. Indeed, you can’t actually find a place in Europe with a deeper artistic legacy: the Lascaux caves are hidden in these hills, with spectacular cave paintings which (along with Chauvet not far away) mark the dawn, tens of thousand of years ago, of human culture.
Many Brits have holiday houses here - indeed Aquitaine was once claimed by the English Crown and mercenaries pillaged the place for centuries. But though this has left a legacy of impressive fortified towns (the craggy pilgrimage site of Rocamadour being the best known) there’s no lasting resentment against interlopers: indeed I’ve rarely been to a be more welcoming part of France. Out of season, the conviviality and charm of the region comes to the fore. And winter is also the time to look for one of the most precious culinary delights in the world.
The ‘black diamond’ truffles of the Perigord region are famed for their delicate but unique flavour, and can only be found between December and February . A form of mushroom, they grow in the root systems of Oaks and nut trees (either naturally occuring or deliberately infected them with spores). Forming a foot or two below the surface, they used to be sniffed out by pigs, but they are slow and easily tired on the slopes, and have the tendency to snuffle up the truffle, unless whacked with a stick. So dogs are the preferred hunting method these days, and there are plantations dedicated to truffles. I visited two of these truffle growing orchards, and both dogs - a border collie and a labrador - quickly dug out large black truffles, worth between 50 to 100 pounds in the local market. A noted aphrodisiac, black truffles have an evanescent unique aroma which dissipates if cooked at too high a temperature. They are living things, and soon begin to decay and rot; you can tell by squeezing them, dead truffles are either completely hard or too soft. Unless frozen or stored in oil, they have to be eaten within a week. The locals have a variety of delicious but simple recipes for them; grated into a porridgey form of scrambled egg they call ‘brouillade’: thinly sliced and laid between fresh brie and allowed to infuse the cheese overnight: or grated on toast with the ubiquitous local foie gras.
Like so many culinary adventures, the real taste of truffle has to be appreciated in situ rather than at home. As the French say, “la saveur viens du terroir’ - flavour comes from the area/the earth - and it’s hard to translate or transpose the ambience of Perigord cooking; the black wine of Cahors, the pays de campagne bread, grape mustard, local butter and cheese all accompanied by the aroma of an oak fire and the chill smell of old limestone. Such a feast is best followed by a local armagnac or - even better - one of the many local liqueurs. My favourite is the walnut based La Supreme Denoix, which you can see being made and sold at the wonderful old distillery in Brive, along with a variety of other herbal and fruit liqueurs. It’s been in family hands since 1839, and hardly anything has changed.
For real gourmands, there’s even a dedicated Fete de la Truffe in the delightful old town of Sarlat in mid January. There - apart from endless tastings and local produce - some of the best chefs in France demonstrate their recipes, and you can even book classes in truffle cooking.
There are plenty of other ways to dive straight into this historic other world: within a few minutes from landing at Brive airport, you could be at a boutique hotel such as the Manoir de Malagorse - run by a bilingual English/French couple - who have not only restored a lovely old manor house, but will cook for you in the manor’s large friendly kitchen and unlock some of the secrets of local cooking. But don’t expect to discover them all. It’s taken thousands of years to perfect the combination of smell, taste, nourishment and alcohol Perigord cooking to mull and mature, and you’re better off just relaxing and imbibing the atmosphere, than trying to take any of this home.
CityJet flies to Brive twice a week from London City - London's most central airport. One way fares start from as little as £79, including all taxes. To book flights visit www.CityJet.com or call reservations on 0871 666 50 50.