Worth the truffle
It's easy to get caught up in the romance of Le Cos-Piguet farm in Burgundy. A hunt for its buried delights – led by a passionate Frenchman and his adorable canine sidekick – reveals a host of delicious treasures
It's summer in Cortevaix, Burgundy, east of central France. The sun is high and blazing in an unmarred sky, and Olivier Devêvre looks like the quintessential truffle hunter. The Frenchman stands in a field sloping into the hills rising behind, at the verge of a wood. A wicker basket in hand, his 13-year-old Appenzell mountain dog, Chinook, eager at his side.
After the high-speed train from Paris to Dijon, then a drive to spend a leisurely night exploring Chalon-sur-Sâone, I've come to hunt for truffles with Devêvre, joining up with others to form a party. There's an American chef and his group of friends and clients, and then a woman who is staying nearby. We met at the 17th-century farmhouse that once belonged to Devêvre's mother and started our meandering stroll from there. Since Chinook is trained not to leave the property, Devêvre carried her in his arms as we crossed the road that separates the house and the fields and forest, charming us all.
As soon as Chinook was back on her own feet, she took the lead, running ahead with Devêvre following behind. Now freed from his canine burden, he stops to tell the story of the land upon which we stand. Gregarious and engaging, he entertains us effortlessly, and it's all-too-easy to get caught up in the romance of the place and the anticipatory thrill of unearthing buried treasure.
The farm was a long-held dream for Devêvre. In 2001, while still working in Switzerland, he planted the first three hectares of "truffle trees" on his family's land.
With a PhD in forestry and soil microbiology, Devêvre knew the conditions needed for truffles to grow. He planted saplings that were incubated with black truffle spores to encourage growth of the fungus.
By 2003, Le Cos-Piguet, the grounds now renamed after his grandmother, had three plantations. That year, Devêvre left his job and expanded the estate to six plantations, covering 29 hectares and seven tree species: evergreen oak, white oak, common hazelnut, Turkish hazelnut, European hornbeam, linden and black pine. Devêvre chose the species to increase both biodiversity and the possibility of a harvest.
The truffle, Devêvre explains, is just one part of cycle. Each is a fruit filled with spores, and each of these send long filaments into the soil, which colonize young tree-root tips to form an underground fungal network. Devêvre made sure that happened on his land. In 2006, when he pulled his first truffles from the soil, he ground them up, spread the pieces back into his forest and waited for more to grow. Then, in 2011, a decade after the first planting, he finally had his first proper harvest.
Last year, Devêvre hosted 6,000 visitors at Le Cos-Piguet. Many are tours arranged by cruise companies as an off-board activity; the general public can book as well. The Burgundy region is known for its eponymous truffle (though it is found across Europe), and similar excursions abound; yet, as a soil microbiologist, Devêvre is able to give us unique insight into the growing process.
On our tour, Chinook can barely contain her energy. In stark contrast to her patience when waiting for her ride across the road, she now sniffs and darts from tree to tree. She digs quickly, sending dirt flying onto our shoes.
Even though it is August and the truffles are still immature, Chinook unearths small specimens for show. While not to Devêvre's standard, the truffles are fragrant, and Chinook's enthusiasm for the process is nothing short of contagious. Devêvre keeps a husk of bread in his basket as her reward.
As Chinook continues to poke around the roots, Devêvre points out the particulars of his forest. The two different species he grows require different approaches. The Burgundy, which needs more shade, thrives in the wooded area we stand in. Meanwhile, the Périgord needs sunshine, so he prunes the undergrowth in other parts of the farm to allow for more light.
The two species also grow at different times. The Burgundy truffle is harvested from September to the end of December, with a peak of the season in October and November. The Périgord follows, perfectly timed for the holiday season, in late December and then through to early March.
As with all tours, we follow our hunt in the forest with a truffle tasting back at the farmhouse. We enter through a low doorway and the room is dim compared with the bright outside. Devêvre has set a welcoming scene; a wide wooden table in front of the large fireplace, with chairs in a semi-circle around. There is a local wine, slices of baguette spread liberally with salted butter and silky custards made with saffron also grown on the farm. The truffle butter has a resonant depth and savouriness.
Ripe, both Burgundy and Périgord truffles are firm and black, their surface a rough landscape of tiny, diamond-shaped or pyramidal cusps. The Burgundy is the smaller of the two, on average the size of a plum, but in a range of a nut to a small peach. The Périgord is brawnier and can grow as big as an orange. When sliced, the Burgundy truffle is medium, tawny brown, similar to milk chocolate, and holds an aroma reminiscent of hazelnuts. The flavour is delicate, and is an ideal partner to eggs or raw on spaghetti carbonara. While we are eating our baguette, Devêvre shares a favourite trick – he stores whole eggs with truffles in a sealed jar. So kept, the truffle's scent penetrates the permeable shell, perfuming the eggs. The Burgundy also works surprisingly well in desserts, as Devêvre proves with a dark, barely sweet truffled chocolate mousse he pulls from the fridge as an extra treat.
In contrast, the Périgord's interior is dark with delicate white veins. Its flavour is wild and earthy, strong and spicy. Unlike the Burgundy, it can stand up to cooking; slices can be slid under the skin of a duck or a chicken before roasting, simmered in a sauce or tucked in a pot pie. Both types are sublime when shaved thinly over a hot, finished dish, such as risotto or pasta, so that the underlying warmth sends an aromatic fug of truffle aloft.
Devêvre grows the truffles, saffron crocus and fruit trees to make juices. "I have a young vineyard, chardonnay, and will hopefully make my one wine within a few years. I also raise Highland cattle and sheep for the meat. Most of my customers are local, mainly individuals and only few restaurants."
For the future, he hopes to have guests in the wintertime to harvest truffles, then cook together and share a meal.
One can envision the fireplace lit and crackling, the dogs bristling with cold and vigour for the hunt, and the conviviality of Le Cos-Piguet in the chillier months, when the leaves are alight with fiery hues, or later, once the frost sets in. It's a beguiling place.