It would be hard to underestimate the French sentiment for black truffles, specifically Tuber melanosporum, the gnarly fungi ferreted out from under oak trees by pigs and dogs in the South of France and bought and sold in village markets the way drugs are probably bartered elsewhere in the world. In the truffle-blessed town of Richerenches, in Provence, the Saturday market looks more like a used car lot than a venue where tens of thousands of dollars will trade hands in the course of a few hours. Buyers park along the sides of the street, , while anyone with a truffle to sell, professional or lucky farmer, walks from car to car looking for his best deal. It’s fascinating, and as quaint as it sounds, and it’s also big business. I got a hint of how big the business is when I attended the Truffle Mass at Richerences’s Catholic Church held at the end of January. When the alms basket was passed on that Sunday, it wasn’t coins that get tossed into it, but truffles, lots of them and some of them the size of my fist. After the mass, everyone gathered outside the Hotel de Ville (the town hall), wine and canapés were passed, and the truffles were auctioned off, with the proceeds — they topped 1,000,000 Euros — going to the church. Even people who have truffles growing in their backyards understand how rare and valuable they are and put them in the same class as caviar and lobster, saving them for special occasions or using them sparingly where their powerful aroma, dark, woodsy, slightly musky, and very sexy, can be most appreciated. If you buy a truffle (see Resources, page 514), store it in a container of rice or a jar full of eggs until you’re ready for it (it should be used in couple of days) and you’ll get a bonus: the rice or eggs will take on the flavor and aroma of truffles. The taste and fragrance of black truffles is enhanced by warmth, but it can be destroyed by too much heat, so it’s best to slice or shave the truffle into a dish just before it’s finished cooking or as you’re bringing it to the table. Truffles pair well with rice and eggs, potatoes, mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, celery root, and butter. If you have just a few bits of truffles, even little shavings, you can work them into some softened butter, and you’ll have a terrific topping for mashed potatoes, steak, or toast.

Dorie Greenspan