Mists drift past the dripping hills, shrouding the oaks and walnuts in their delicate, damp veils. As they shift and part shafts of topaz light pierce the scene and a breathtaking world emerges. The countryside is spiced with cinnamon and saffron, peppered with cayenne. Autumn has finally arrived in all her blazing glory. I drive down through the valley passing gilded vineyards of breathtaking beauty, line upon line of flame haired maidens swaying to the rustle and rhythm of the leaves in a vast Celtic dance.
The end of the year is a dramatic time in this land. October is warm, fruitful and summery, but November ushers in the first hard frosts and heralds the march of delectable seasonal treats, thousands of glossy chestnuts, walnuts all over the roads, mushrooms to be foraged and of course the legendary truffle. By the time the month is out winter will have set in and the log piles that surround every house will be gradually diminishing. Our world shrinks in November. It’s that transitory month between the outdoor, easygoing life that visitors adore and presume we live all the time, to the lesser known but equally precious time of warmth and solitude, strictly behind closed doors and stone walls, holed up in front of roaring log fires. There is time in the winter months, time for reflection, time for a little indulgence in the kitchen and time to change the menus. Winter in the Quercy means duck and sticky onion confit, farm-reared pork spiked with fresh truffles, new walnuts, wine from our own hillsides and of course mountains of mushrooms
Wild mushrooms are a bit like home-made puddings, you get to know a few really well and whenever you’re put on the line it’s safest to stick to those half dozen or so well-tried stalwarts. For me the well-tried stalwarts are ceps, girolles, parasol mushrooms, field mushrooms, shaggy ink caps and a little grey specimen that grows on a patch of moss in my front garden and whose name I’ve entirely forgotten. I fry it every other morning for breakfast. Everything else is considered but usually rejected. I find parasol mushrooms frequently, field mushrooms too, but ceps are becoming a little rare. Not, I suspect, because there are fewer of them, but because one has to be quick off the mark. They are not only delicious, they are fatally fashionable and the stall holders will go to unprecedented lengths to get their hands on a goodly haul for market day. As a general rule this means plundering the countryside on a regular basis. And one can’t blame them, ceps can fetch up to €25 a kilo, as much as fillet steak, but it means pickings are slim for the rest of us. The other little treasure trove that any paysan-with-a-van and possibly a trained hound, will be after from now on, is the truffle hoard. I have never found one myself, though I’ve accompanied those who have. It’s an exciting business unearthing a truffle, but it’s undoubtedly a bit hit and miss. So for me the best way to acquire a good fresh truffle is to attend the weekly truffle market at Lalbenque, held every Tuesday from November to March.
A long line of muddied locals stood behind a trestle table that seemed to run the length of the street. In front of them their little baskets, carefully lined with red and white tea towels or handkerchiefs and in front of that a long rope to keep out the press of buyers. There were the big men in their rich overcoats and gold watches, down from Paris or buying for the big foie gras companies. Then there were the little men, buying for the local restaurants and cafes, and then there was me, littlest of all, waiting until the frenzy of activity that always starts promptly at two-thirty, had died down, biding my time, waiting my chance. By three o ‘clock most of the business was over. The fat cats slid into waiting and appropriately fat cars. The restaurateurs slipped away, pleased with their bargains and my turn had arrived. I took the initiative, fixed a little man with a wobbly beret with my very best engaging smile. He was a bit down in the mouth anyway because his small offering hadn’t sold. He only had four truffles and they weren’t large, not impressive enough to attract the big money. I offered to buy two – this isn’t done, one should buy the whole lot – and he winced accordingly. But if I bought two perhaps another like-minded gastronaut would buy the other two.
‘S’il vous plais?’ I wheedled disgracefully. He eyed me impassively. I tried another tack. ‘I’ve got a whole loin of pork at home, people coming for dinner…’ His eyes lit, I had struck the usual chord, the one no true Frenchman can resist.
‘Free range pork?’ He asked me anxiously, ‘From a farm?’
‘Of course!’ I assured him. That’s to say I actually bought it in the market in Cahors, but it’s farm-reared. I endured a short but intensive interrogation as to the pork’s provenance and assured him I would not over-cook it. He then demanded a rundown of the menu, satisfied himself that the truffles would be used to their best advantage and gingerly held out the two largest. I surrendered an unholy amount of money and the deal was done.
I danced back to the car, parked in a ditch on the outskirts of the village, almost whooping with joy. I’d done it! I had a truffle – two truffles. The fact that I’d paid a small fortune for them seemed totally irrelevant.
That night I conjured up my November feast. I warmed my guests with wild mushrooms, foraged that morning and quickly fried in olive oil and garlic, then tossed with wild rocket. The loin of pork was liberally studded with black slivers of truffle and roasted in my wood fired oven. It was accompanied by spiced red cabbage and followed by poached pears, blue cheeses from the high causses and the new walnuts. Just a jug or two of last year’s wine finished the menu.
The essence of autumn in the Quercy.
© Amanda Lawrence 2010