For wine connoisseurs and serious foodies, there’s no better place to be on the first Sunday of February than Carpentras, France, home to the annual Fête de la Truffe et du Vin, or Truffle and Wine Festival.
But don’t let the name fool you. The festival celebrates gourmet food of all kinds, and Johann and I found that one doesn’t have to be a serious gourmet to enjoy spending a day tasting wine, cheese, chocolate, fine olive oil, and the numerous delicacies made with truffles. Even an amateur palate will do.
Upon entering the exposition hall, the overwhelming aroma of truffles permeates the nose, mouth, and somehow, even the ears. It’s a thick, rich, woodsy smell that fills your entire head. We were immediately hungry and sought out the booths serving various specialties for lunch.
After a quick tour, we made our decision. We started with a salad of baby field greens in balsamic vinaigrette topped with minced beets and slices of black truffles the size of a quarter. Next we indulged in a savory omelet flecked with generous slivers of truffles throughout and served with slices of the perfect baguettes that one finds only in France. We had bypassed some fancier dishes in favor of this omelet, but I’ve always believed that simpler dishes are the best showcase for the strong, aromatic flavor of truffles.
These didn’t let us down. We then shared a plate of proscuitto and smoked sausage, both made from wild boar, which came with a wedge of creamy Camembert and flat bread with chunks of truffles nestled inside.
And as we don’t consider ourselves experts on the subject of wine, we went with the house’s recommendation, which was a glass of 2003 Bacchus Côtes du Ventoux. Primarily Grenache (80%), it is supplemented with Cinsault (10%) and Syrah (10%) and has a charming, light, fruity taste with undertones of currant. Unfortunately, all of this left us too full to try the cheese ravioli in white wine, truffle and cream sauce or the equally tempting chocolate cake infused with truffle essence. Live and learn.
The next item on the agenda was the weighing-in of the season’s largest truffle. At 531 grams (nearly 1.2 pounds), the softball-sized tuber was estimated to be worth about $650. Its owner looked suitably pleased and was cheerfully granting interviews to gourmet magazines and local newspapers. The prospect of finding hundreds of dollars in fungus lurking just beneath our feet had us wondering how to go about finding a truffle ourselves. The next demonstration didn’t disappoint.
Jean-François Sénac, assistant mayor of Carpentras, guided a group of eager onlookers through the process of training a truffle hound. There is no “best” breed, according to Sénac, though small dogs are a smart choice because they are closer to the ground and easier to control. Pointers are also good bets, because it is already in their genes to hunt and retrieve.
Even a mutt can be trained to find truffles, though, as Sénac proved with a little dog called “Imprevu” (unforeseen), so named because he was found in the backyard one morning. As a pup, he had been given a whiff of a truffle, then rewarded with a treat. Soon, he learned to associate the two and was able to dig up truffles Sénac had planted in the backyard for him to find. We were advised to use a piece of wood sprayed with truffle essence rather than a truffle itself, since a dog will occasionally try to eat the buried treasure, a costly error for the owner.
As potentially lucrative as this all sounded, it seemed much easier to leave it to the experts and focus on the culinary end of
the truffle experience. Back inside the grand hall, five master chefs were competing to prepare the best truffle-based dish. With a glass of 2004 Baumes de Venise in hand, we joined the crowd angling for a view.
The dishes ran the gamut between elegant and simple to impressive and ornate. On the simple side were cream of Jerusalem artichokes with truffles and truffle soufflés. On the more fancy side was a marinade of sea scallops with foie gras and truffles from the Ventoux region. Also in this corner was the winning dish, a fennel bulb with a truffle and meat stuffing that had been assembled to look like a mushroom.
This had our appetites going again, so we went back to the expo, following the crowd shuffling from booth to booth and tasting chocolates and sweet white wine infused with truffles, decadent cheeses, orange gingerbread and rosemary-flavored sorbet. We collected a fair number of souvenirs, too, though these were to be enjoyed later at home.
This is one of the things I love most about France. A festival doesn’t need to be in honor of a holiday or commemorating an historic event. They’re willing to go to a lot of effort to organize a celebration that’s in honor of nothing more than the good things life has to offer, whether it’s wine, truffles, fruit, flowers, music, olives or really good cheese. And by the way, the cost to attend this festival: absolutely nothing. The best things in life are free.