It’s a strange phenomenon, but as winter loosens its iron grip and the first spring bulbs begin to feel their way into the exhilarating air of a Quercy February, my mind takes a retrograde step. I start to think of truffles.
I imagine it happens this way. November is too early and often still warm. December is the usual frantic stuffed-bird, fat pudding, vast quantities of everything, festive season. January is devoted to repairing the ravages of the festive season, lean, calm and frugal. By February my usual buoyancy has returned and I’m ready for a little deep, dark, intensely indulgent deliciousness. I don’t think I’m alone either, but whilst most do it with chocolates – around about Valentine’s Day – I do it with truffles.
It all started for me this year when I went to visit a couple of friends of mine – a pair of particularly wise old owls. Their knowledge of botany is a constant source of delight, and I sat in their sunny conservatory sipping my Lapsang Souchong and entering gamely into a profound discussion on a reliable organic cure for Codling Moth. We chatted about this and that, watched a tree creeper mousing its way up their giant oak and thrashed out the probable chances of success for my maiden apple trees.
It was at about this point that Charles suddenly remarked,
‘Have you told Amanda about the fly?’
Now I’m as interested as most in the animal kingdom, and more than many, but I draw the line at flies. I’m not a fly fan. They bite, sting, spread disease and are generally a bit of a nuisance. However one thing that generally distinguishes them is their preference for warmth – and I’m certainly with them on that one – so a fly that was around at the frozen end of January had to be of peculiar significance. And indeed it was; the insect in question was a truffle fly.
‘Would you like to come and hunt – it’s not far.’ Ellie encouraged me. I had come straight from Cahors, and was dressed for the weather in elegant black and a fur coat (no, not real, but equally warm). It was not a truffle hunting outfit, but I couldn’t resist the invitation.
We trekked through a small vineyard, through a wood and across a frosty patch of mossy turf,
‘Careful,’ Ellie warned, ‘it’s round here somewhere.’
Surely if she saw it that morning it wouldn’t still be around, I thought, but decided not to voice – prudently as it turned out.
‘There it is!’ cried Ellie, ‘stand still, bend down, don’t move!’ I tried to comply with all three instructions at once and almost fell on the subject under discussion. It was a long, khaki-coloured fly, sitting on a dead oak leaf of a remarkably similar colour.
‘There’s something there.’ Ellie said, nodding wisely. ‘When they’re really interested like this you can get right up close, even point a stick at them and they won’t move.’ She poked the creature with a bamboo bean pole she’d brought along for the purpose. It took grave exception to this unwarranted interference in its contemplative sojourn under the oak, and flew away.
‘Follow it!’ Ellie cried, ‘it won’t go far and it keeps low – see?’
I saw. The hapless insect had moved about two metres, to another dry leaf, leaving Ellie free to excavate the spot.
She did this with a table fork. I bent low and watched her. She was huddled on the mossy ground like a two-year old playing a rabbit, and very carefully she scratched the loose, stony earth with her fork. The atmosphere was tense – and cold – Ellie scratched on; I peered and held my breath. She had excavated a patch the size and depth of a dinner plate. Suddenly she gave a small squeal of triumph and held aloft a disreputable object that resembled a turd.
‘Oh! It’s dead.’ She remarked in disappointed tones. I was a bit out of my depth here. ‘Look.’ She pointed to little white threads like vermicelli, hanging from the truffle. ‘Maggots, you see – the fly has done its work, but that’s what he was after.’ She sniffed cautiously. ’Hardly any aroma, completely dead.’ She looked up jauntily. ‘Never mind, another time, it’s a bad year for truffles anyway, there was no rain in August was there?’
‘No, there certainly wasn’t.’ I conceded, it had been the driest summer since the heat wave of 2003, and I had been thrilled about it. I hate even a few wet days in summer. But I had learned something that day. What you lose on the swings you really do gain on the roundabouts.
So if it rains in August this year, my mind will take a positive leap forwards to the cold days of late winter and the promise of delectable feasts to come.