Stephanie Curtis - March 2014
Lirac, France—Truffle season was in full swing in this corner of southeastern France in mid-January, and the “black diamond,” a joyful obsession among the French and inevitable subject of conversation and speculation here from December to March, was weighing in at local markets in healthy quantities and at “bargain” prices.
“Wholesale prices for the tuber melanosporum are currently about half what they were at this time last year,” said Michel Beltran, whose agency, the French Ministry of Agriculture, is charged with tracking prices for agricultural products. Another truffle watcher confirmed the news: “Good rains at the right periods last summer contributed to higher quantities,” explained Sylvie Bouget-Vignot, the director of markets for the city of Carpentras, site of one of the two main truffle markets of Provence, adding that “prices are around €400 to €500 [$547 to $684] a kilo, compared to close to €800 [$1,094] last January.”
Good news for gourmets, even if both experts add that the downside of the “boom” is the mediocre quality of this year’s crop and the fact that competition from Spanish and Italian black truffles in French markets is also pushing prices down. These mysterious subterranean fungi that develop their pungent flavors and aromas around the roots of oak and hazelnut trees crown the list of France’s rare and chers agricultural treasures. The annual harvest has dwindled from 1,000 tons at the end of the 19th century to between 40 and 50 tons at the beginning of the 21st century. Since the excessively hot, dry summer of 2003, quantities have dipped further, reaching all-time lows of 12 to 13 tons per year.
There’s perhaps a glimmer of hope for a timid rebound, only to be confirmed at the end of the truffle season on March 31. Meanwhile, caveurs (truffle hunters) and their highly trained four-legged companions continue the sniff out and unearth their precious crop here in the shadow of the Sainte-Baume, a hermit’s grotto carved into the craggy cliffs overlooking the vineyards of Lirac. One of the 16 crus of the Côte du Rhône, Lirac is among the best-kept secrets of the Rhône valley. Located just across the river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and within a stone’s throw of Tavel, two “star” appellations of the region, Lirac shares the same grape varieties and very similar terroir with its two famous neighbors. Not surprisingly, the wines of Lirac, particularly the fuller oak-aged whites, marry well with the earthy pungency of black truffles for those lucky enough to take advantage of this year’s crop.