By Annette Gallagher Weisman
TheWineBuzz – Sept/Oct 2010

It’s late afternoon, but the sun is bright enough for me to feel conspicuous in my new yellow Hunter Wellies. I expected to be fording field and stream, up to my shins in mud, thinking the first week of March in southwestern France could have adverse conditions. But no, my boots remain pristine as I watch the grimy snout of a pig make grunting, snuffling and other pig noises as she sniffs for truffles.

Known as the “Black Diamond” or “Black Pearl,” the truffles from this area are a prized commodity sought after by gourmets worldwide.

I am in the heart of truffle country, Lalbenque, with a small group of foodies traipsing after an old man, a truffle farmer, in a raincoat. He’s carrying a basket in one hand and with the other has a large black and white sow on a leash. We are in a truffiere: basically a plantation of small oak trees, each surrounded by a brule, an area where the pig roots for truffles several inches below the ground.

Southwestern France- Truffles And Other Pleasures_internalWhile truffle hunting with a pig is not as adventurous as I’d envisioned, it is still a fascinating spectacle, not to mention a dying art. Dogs, which are trained to find truffles, are often preferred because they have no interest in eating them, while female pigs find truffles as irresistible as the “come hither” smell of a hog’s breath.

The man speaks softly to the sow as though they are quite alone, except when she devours the costly tuber before he can put it in his basket, which triggers a torrent of guttural patois. After an hour or so, the farmer says the pig is fatigué and they trundle off like two best friends at the end of a fairy tale.

Our gourmet group, mostly from Ohio, is led by Chef Sean Daly, owner of Cincinnati’s Hugo restaurant, known for its sophisticated southern cuisine.

We are staying near Puy l’Eveque, located in the Quercy region of southwest France. Our accommodations are at Domaine du Haut Baran, a sublime estate owned and run by former Cincinnatians William and Rosalie Haas. Rosalie, an interior Designer/cook, and William, a landscape architect/historian, have combined their considerable talents to create a feeling of elegance and ease throughout the estate. This is Haut Baran’s first truffle venture, but they also organize artist retreats and equine, cycling, and wine tours.

Quercy is a gourmet’s Eden producing black truffles, foie gras, saffron, walnuts, chestnuts, over 300 varieties of cheeses, and a myriad of vegetables, fruits and wine. The area around Cahors, the capital, is known for its Malbec-based wine, which accompanies most of our meals. Rich and deep-colored (historically known as “the black wines of Cahors”), it must be at least 70 percent Malbec (blended with Merlot and Tannat) though some, such as Le Paradis and Sanguis Christi, are exclusively Malbec.

Many of our meals contain truffles, beginning with a Truffle Brunch at the one star Michelin restaurant Le Gindreau in St. Medard. Flamboyant Chef Alexis Pelissou has created a six-course extravaganza including truffle sausages, foie gras with truffles in aspic and a divine pâte à choux dessert with a truffle cream sauce.

We head next to Les Arques and the restaurant La Recreation for cooking lessons With the engaging Chef Jacques Ratier.
For the next two days, Chef Ratier and Chef Daly work together as if they’ve known each other for years, while we help them prepare such dishes as potato au Gratin with sliced truffles, sea scallops with truffles, even truffle tiramisu.

The half kilo of truffles Jacques bought this week at Lalbenque’s famed truffle Auction cost about 700 Euros. I figure by now, I’m worth a lot of money!

Back at Haut Baran, Chef Daly seems at home in its relatively small kitchen. Some of us help out by washing vegetables, chopping, slicing or searching cupboards For additional condiments. The reward: perfectly cooked dishes including Cahors chicken with leeks accompanied by shitake and oyster mushrooms, polenta and Pommery crème fraiche, and a luscious dessert of Armagnac syrup over caramelized baked apples with cinnamon whipped cream.

It’s our last evening, and Chef Ratier prepares a farewell dinner for us at La Recréation. Each superb course features one of the restaurant’s popular dishes: lobster ravioli in corail sauce, duckling breast in a honey/ lemon sauce, and nougat glacé with raspberries and star fruit.

While our trip has focused on truffles, it has also been a celebration of what this bountiful area has to offer. And, how much lingering over a meal is de rigueur in France, involving not only the savoring of locally produced food but friendships old and new.