There are two rules to a truffle hunt—well, a truffle hunt with Édouard Aynaud, that is. One: forget everything you thought you knew about truffles. And two: don’t play with the dogs.
La Truffière de Péchalifour
It’s hard not to play with the dogs. Farah, at seven years old, is Édouard’s trusted truffle-hunting companion. Lino, at two years old, is in training. The two Border Collies are friendly and endearing, dropping pine cones at our feet for a game of catch, until Édouard intervenes. “They become obsessed,” he says, “And, really, they have work to do.”
Édouard welcomes us into the classroom and gift shop he uses for his truffle tours, attached to the home he shares with his wife Carole, in the 17th century hamlet of Péchalifour. It is Édouard who now holds our attention rapt, through his humor, his ease speaking in front of a crowd, and his expertise in all things truffe.
For decades, Édouard has farmed truffles—in the summer, the white truffle, and in the winter, the black truffle, or “Diamant Noir.” He leads truffle hunts (“le cavage” in French), teaches others to hunt truffles, and works with visiting cruise ships to offer tours during the summers.
Édouard’s truffle presentation is a lively, sensory learning experience. We smell the earthy, musty beetroot-smell of the black truffle. Every member of the group is asked to guess the cost for a truffle the size of a golf ball. Given the lavish reputation of the truffle, our estimates are in the hundreds, even thousands, but this truffle is actually worth six euros. “The image has been overblown,” Édouard says, “The summer truffle is a scandal, because prices rise for tourists. It’s a scam! No smell, no taste, only the image. I want to make a documentary to reshape the image.”
There are three ways to hunt truffles—using pigs, dogs, or tapping the soil with a stick to find where a fly lays her eggs. Édouard walks us through four types of truffle, writing their Latin names on a chalkboard and expounding on the ways to identify each. We should not be fooled, he says, by the Tuber indicum, the Chinese-grown black truffle with no taste or smell, the very antithesis of the robust, pungent black Perigord truffle, or Tuber melanosporum.
The Dordogne is particularly rich in truffles due to the phylloxera epidemic of 1873, which decimated the area’s vineyards. Rather than replanting vines, local farmers instead planted oak trees, or “chêne” in French, and truffles, which grow in the soil below the oaks.
When cooking with the truffle, Édouard says, simple is best: “One truffle, fresh eggs, soak one week, et voila—truffle eggs. Simp, simp, simp. Oil, cream, fat, absorb the flavor of the truffle. Bread, truffle butter, hard boiled eggs, salt—” He clasps his hands in prayer.
We head outside, where our classroom expands to Édouard’s certified organic truffle orchard. With Farah as our guide, we will hunt the elusive truffle; with any luck, we’ll bring some back for our lunch. Holding up a palm, Édouard promises, “I swear on the Bible I didn’t put one out there for you to find.”
At the first sign of a truffle, Farah points her nose and paws the soil beneath the oak. Aimee digs the first one out with a trowel, but as it emerges from the ground Édouard gives one sniff and deems the truffle rotten, having spent too long underground. The second one: good. Also the third. With these baseball-sized black truffles in Édouard’s basket, we return for lunch, to discover the gastronomic delights of cooking with truffles. Inside their kitchen, Carole is already at the stove, preparing our “truffle meal.” We drink Rosette wine from Bergerac and eat an hors d’oeuvre of truffle butter toast. Carole is preparing brouillade, made with only butter, truffles, and eggs; she narrates her recipe in French, while a buttery, sweet smell wafts from the silver pot and fills the room. “This is not scrambled eggs. Not omelette. You eat this with spoon and bread,” Édouard says.
“There are two rules to a truffle hunt. One: forget everything you thought you knew about truffles. And two: don’t play with the dogs.”
We are welcomed into the dining room, where we sit at a large table and drink Pécharmant, a red blend from Bergerac, as Édouard serves us dish after dish of truffle delicacies. After the first course of brouillade, we eat goose foie gras with truffles, truffled mashed potatoes, sweet potato purée, and salad. For the cheese course, Édouard brings out a cake-sized wheel of creamy brie layered with truffles and mascarpone, and for dessert, vanilla ice cream drizzled with truffle caramel sauce.
As the table is cleared amid joy and laughter, we applaud Édouard. We mill around Édouard and Carole’s house, admiring the paintings on the wall by Carole’s father, noting the shelves of books devoted to truffles. There is something about a meal not only shared together in our hosts’ home, but discovered together, that makes the day particularly rewarding.
With the help of Édouard, Carole, Farah, and Lino, we seem to have found not just the truffle, but la truffe au coeur—the truffle heart, or the culinary heart of the Dordogne.