If there’s one reason to visit the South of France in winter, when despite the brilliant sunshine, it’s freezing cold from the Camargue to the Cote d’Azur, it’s truffles. Fittingly for an area associated with luxury travel, this – particularly the area surrounding the picturesque town of Uzès – is one of the most prolific hunting grounds in the world for tuber melanosporum, as the black truffle of winter is known.
This pungent fungus, which commands a whopping €1000 per kilo, grows all over Southern France, but the focus from November till March is on Uzes, home to truffle plantations and one of the most fabulous food markets in the country. Every Saturday and Wednesday, farmers descend on the beautiful 15th century Place des Herbes with their produce, and there is an annual Sunday market selling truffles alone in January, at the peak of the hunting and gathering season.
Piglets were present at the 2017 Uzès truffle market, but although they effectively demonstrated “cavage” – the art of digging out the precious tuber – to the crowds, porkers have these days been replaced by extremely clever dogs, truffle-hounds of various species. We went out with Jack, an innocuous-looking white poodle cross, to a truffiere (truffle plantation) near Uzes, where Jack, imported from Alba, home of the world’s finest white truffles, had within the space of half an hour sniffed out three of the precious tubers collectively worth hundreds of pounds.
Later, we bought our own; it costs about €8 per person to get enough slices to perfume a dish lavishly – ideally eggs scrambled with cream, a creamy soup or root vegetables mashed with cream, as fat is vital to bring out the pleasantly pungent fragrance. We bought with confidence, knowing that every truffle brought to market has to be inspected and certified by experts before it can be released for sale – important when the unscrupulous might field truffles with red interiors which are not good to eat at all.
Truffle weekend in Uzès is a great place to explore how the tuber works best in cooking, given special truffle menus fielded by the two top hotels, the Michelin-starred Maison d’Uzès and the four-star Hotel Entraigues, which despite its more casual setting offers an extremely fine table. Here I loved home-made bread sticks plunged into butter perfumed with truffled shavings atop a little pond of runny steamed, smoked egg yolks, while at Maison d’Uzes the star dish was truffle slices topping creamed Jerusalem artichoke mash in a bowl of truffled veal jus.
The next day, chef-ambassador for the region, Thomas Clament, gave us a class in how to slice truffles thinly and chop the offcuts, which he threw into a Champagne reduction laced with cream which formed the sauce for a dish of sliced skate wings sauteed with leeks. Before that, we had a creamy pumpkin soup garnished with a truffle slice, while the remaining slices had been used to sandwich a fresh sheep cheese cut through the middle. In fact the most delicious dish on sale at the Saturday market the day before was well-truffled Brie – a lot of bang for your buck at €10 for a large, pungent wedge.
Hotels and restaurants are booked up weeks ahead for the January truffle festival, but Uzès empties out in February, when the biting cold slowly thaws, the skies continue to burn bright and blue and truffles remain on sale every market day in the Place aux Herbes until the season’s production comes to an end in early March.
Tell me more about Uzès and truffle hunting in the South of France
How do I reach Uzès? Uzès is 45 minutes from Avignon, served weekly by direct Eurostar from £99 return from London St. Pancras available from www.Voyages-sncf.com . For more information on Uzes and nearby attractions including the Pont du Gard, visit http://www.gardtourism.com/