Our house is located roughly 30 minutes from one of the most renowned truffle markets in the France, if not the world – Lalbenque Truffle Market in the Lot. If you look up ‘Truffle’ in Larousse Gastronomique it states, “The Black Truffle of Perigord and that of the Lot are the most highly esteemed.” By all accounts the truffles were so highly rated that a railway spur was built specifically to connect Lalbenque to Paris so that the restaurateurs in the capital could enjoy this delicacy.
The truffle market is held every Tuesday from December to March and makes for very good ‘people watching’. The few times I have been it has been easy to spot those who have travelled down from Paris as they wear smart clothes and have well-polished shoes in stark contrast to the locals who are dressed in weather-beaten clothes that are better suited for the cool winter days.
The market is divided up into individual and wholesale sellers. Just outside the Mairie, two tables are set up where individual truffles are sold in small cellophane bags with the prices clearly marked. On the other side of the street the wholesale sellers line up on long wooden benches and present their bounty in wicker baskets lined with gingham material, normally a small piece of card is visible indicating the weight of the truffles inside.
At 2pm the sale commences for the individual truffles, you need very sharp elbow and a fierce determination to battle your way through the crowd in order to purchase your prize. I have watched in admiration the old ladies who beat their way to the front to get a 20g truffle for a price in the region of €17-20.
On the other side of the street it is a more serious affair. There, the proud truffle hunters stand behind their baskets fielding questions about the weight and quality of their truffles. A rope barrier separates the buyers from the sellers and creates a path for the council officials to pass ensuring that procedures run smoothly. The all-important matter of price is not allowed to be discussed until 2.30pm once the whistle has been sounded. Once this happens things turn somewhat frantic as the buyers rapidly negotiate a price to be paid in cash there and then.
The last time I went to Lalbenque was just before Christmas. At one end of the market there was a lot of excitement. As I approached it soon became clear why – there was an enormous basket, filled to the brim with truffles, said to weigh 8kg. It was estimated that the basket hamper would sell for around €7,500-8,000 – a little out of my price range… I spoke with several people and they informed me that a bounty of this size is a real rarity and is unlikely to happen again.
Sadly, I was unable to buy any truffles at this market. However, on Christmas Eve our local market at Caussade had a small truffle stand where I was able to buy 2 very small ones weighing 17g in total. The first thing I have to say is the smell of the truffles was extraordinary – having left them in the car whilst I did the shopping when I returned the car was filled with the fragrant scent of truffles.
On getting them home, I decided to use them as a garnish, firstly in an omelette (which I am pretty sure you’d all be able to make…) and then secondly on top of some smoked salmon bellinis. Truth be told, the truffles lacked taste and were somewhat disappointing as they were very dry despite having been sliced into wafer thin slithers. It is arguable that they would have benefitted from having been softened in a little melted butter, but I felt that this would have overwhelmed their flavour. However, for me, I am pleased I bought them if only for the enjoyment I got from their smell as I drove home.
Smoked Salmon Bellinis (makes – 15-20)
- 1 egg
- 3 heaped tbsp plain flour (roughly 100g)
- 1 heaped tsp butter (melted)
- 40-50ml milk
- pinch of salt
- 200g smoked salmon (cut into 1” squares)
- 2-3tbsp crème fraiche
- ½tsp horseradish sauce (optional)
- pepper (for seasoning)
- 5-10g truffle (finely chopped, for garnish – optional)
- 15-20 small parsley leaves
- vegetable oil (for cooking with)
1. Firstly make your bellinis, by whisking the egg, milk, flour,salt and butter together in a bowl – add more milk as needed until you have a batter with the consistency of thick pouring cream.
2. Heat a little vegetable oil in a non stick frying pan. Drop a small spoonful of the batter into the frying pan (so that you have small bellinis roughly 1” – 1”½ in size). Cook the bellinis on each side for 30 seconds to a minute, or until they are golden brown. Continue cooking the bellinis in batches until you have used up all of the batter.
3. In a small bowl mix the crème fraiche, horseradish sauce and pepper.
4. Spoon a little of the mix onto each of the bellinis, top with a piece of smoked salmon and then garnish with either a pinch of truffle or a parsley leaf.
[Note: You can vary the flavour of the bellinis by adding ½tsp if dill or ½tsp of finely chopped chives to the batter mix before cooking].