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On the Truffle Trail - Dordogne in Winter

Rosemary Vine (Rosemaryoz)

In January I saw Farah Fawcett in South West France, leaping and bounding through the wintry forests of the Dordogne. This Farah is a border collie, and a truffle-dog-in-training. Her master, Monsieur Edouard Aynaud, named her Farah in honour of the beautiful star, because of her sunny and exuberant nature. But she sometimes gets a bit too boisterous, being only a pup still. However her scatty manners are excused by M. Aynaud because her truffle-seeking snout is pinpoint accurate.

M. Aynaud and the Truffle Hounds

M. Aynaud and the Truffle Hounds

M. Aynaud's home is truly in la France profond: a huddle of medieval stone buildings perched on a hilltop outside St Cyprien, which he shares with his extended family.

In the truffle tasting room, M. Aynaud theatrically lifts the lid of an old plastic container. Inside, three huge black truffles, the size of my clenched fist, pack a big punch with their aroma. But it is so complex to describe. The first hit is garlic and chives, then the earthy mushroom note chimes in and then there is an indefinably sweet perfume a second later.

Truffle hunting is in M. Aynaud's blood; his father harvested these oak groves before him. Today he is showing me around the farm quickly, talking rapidly into his mobile phone as he goes, for on this weekend of my visit it is Sarlat's world-famous Truffle Festival, and the Aynaud family play a major role. The whole area is teeming with tourists and ‘gastronomes’ as the French say, all salivating at the thought of getting up close and personal with Dordogne's famed "Black Diamonds."

Traditionally pigs were the heavy hitters of the truffle hunting game. But they grew so heavy by eating all the profits! So rather than constantly battling to retrieve the treasured truffle from the porker's greedy snout, truffle hunters started training dogs for the role several decades ago.

At just 10 months old, Farah Fawcett is still learning her trade, apprenticed to Titoeuf, a calmer, wiser eight year old golden Labrador.

Misty Morning in the DordogneOn this misty winter's morning, I stand in the muddy laneway of M. Aynaud's hamlet, entranced by the crumbling honeycomb stones of these ancient farmhouses. The air is icy, the valley below is bathed in a milky wash and the whole scene is strikingly still ... until Farah Fawcett starts excitedly yelping. It is treat time: M. Aynaud has produced a fat dried saucisson sec from his pocket, and Farah's nose is already onto the scent!

Rosemary has recently taken her lifelong Francophilia to its natural conclusion (i.e., massive debt) and bought a maison de campagne in Monpazier in the southern Dordogne from which she now operates two vacation rentals as well as small-group culinary tours, www.dordogne-country-house.com. When she visited in January to sign the contract, she couldn't resist a diversion to the truffle forests of nearby St Cyprien.

© Rosemary Vine, 2011

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