Perigord Truffles

More common on the black market than in the supermarket, their mysterious elusiveness adds to their allure. A Perigord farmer has devoted his life to producing truffles, Anna Tyzack goes to meet him...

By Anna Tyzack

It is common for women in South-West France to be missing a couple of fingers, according to an age-old legend. For pigs are just as unwilling to hand over a priceless Perigord truffle as the next person and will not think twice about biting the hand that feeds them. Thus today's truffle hunters use dogs rather than pigs, preferably small ones so their paws do not damage the truffles.

'A single basket of truffles can be a whole month's income,' Perigord 'trufficulteur' Hugues Martin explains seriously. We are standing in a field completely filled with neat rows of oak trees. 'Truffles are hidden by nature so farmers like myself must hide their truffle hounds so thieves cannot use them to find them.' There is no specific breed of truffle hound. Martin uses a black Labrador, Louisiane, and a mongrel, Mickey. The dogs are trained to mark the truffle by putting a paw over it until the owner arrives and using a scraper, extricates it from the ground.

Hugues Martin has devoted his life to farming black perigord truffles

Martin has been plagued by thieves since he started farming truffles ten years ago. 'The thieves would wait for my car to leave the drive,' He says, 'Or for my wife to take the children to school. They would come at night with their car headlights switched off. I did not sleep for three years, I would just lie in bed and listen'.

On one of these nights, Martin was sure he heard someone arrive and crept downstairs, fearing for his precious truffles. But outside there was no sign of movement so he returned to the house. But just as he had finished undressing and got into bed, he heard the sound of a car engine. 'It was the end,' he explains, 'I picked up my gun and headed outside. When I could see the thief I fired the trigger and heard him yell. He ran and ran and ran''

Three gun shots did the trick. 'When I became known as the local cowboy the poachers stopped visiting,' Martin proudly explains. On the final occasion Martin foiled the poachers by driving off in his car whilst leaving his wife to patrol with the gun. 'She is a professional pistol shot ' she does not miss,' Martin tells me. 'Last December, there were three days of heavy fog ' like cotton,' Martin's eyes widen, 'And afterwards all the truffles in the area had been visited'but not mine'.

Mickey, truffle hound