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Things to do in the Languedoc:   Eating:   Truffles, Fr truffes

Truffles are fungi. They belong to a group of edible subterranean or mycorrhizal fungi. The fruiting body of the truffle is prized as a food and as an aphrodisiac, though the aphrodisiac characteristics of truffles have never been scientifically established.


Truffles are held in high esteem in French cooking.

  • White truffles are generally served uncooked and shaved over steaming buttered pasta or salads. White or black paper-thin truffle slices may be inserted in meats, under the skins of roasted fowl, in foie gras preparations, in pâtés, or in stuffings. Because of their high price and their pungent taste, truffles are used sparingly.
  • Black truffles are far less pungent and more refined than their white cousins.

The Midi - Southern France - has the sweet limestone soils and dry hot weather that truffles need to grow. In 1900 truffles were used by most people, and on many occasions. Nowadays, they are a rare delicacy reserved for the rich, or used on special occasions.

Looking for truffles in open ground is almost always carried out with specially trained pigs or dogs. Pigs were the used extensively in the past - and still in the popular imagination - but nowadays farmers prefer to use dogs, which do not eat the truffles. Both pigs and dogs have keen senses of smell, but while dog's must be trained to the scent of truffles, female pigs or sows need no training . A compound within the truffle resembles a sex pheromone of boars - to which the sow is naturally attracted. It is possible that the attraction that sows have towards these fungi prompted their discovery by early human populations.

Truffles are generally found under certain trees - they live symbiotically with the trees' root system. Symbiotes of the truffle include oaks, holm oaks, hornbeam, hazelnut trees and colurna. The average life cycle of a truffle-producing tree is around 30 years

The truffle is a fungus that grows underground. It forms in Spring between April and June. When it is born it has the form of a tiny cup ( stade apothécioïde ), of which the edges will close up and form the Tuber. The interior of the Tuber will grow veines stériles then veines fertiles. This whole autonomous ensemble is the gleba (body) of the truffle, coloured white, and covered with a skin ornamented with small warts or scales which, as well as protecting the tuber, contributes to its respiration and nutrition.

After a period of inactivity, the hot periods in July ( thermal stress ) and the storms in August ( or irrigation ), will set off the growing cycle. If the amount of water and heat are optimal, the nearly finished size will be attained at the beginning of September . Inside the gleba, the number of of asques ( sacks containing the spores ) will increase. First hyalines (nearly transparent the spores, which represent the seed of the fungus, will little by little brown during the melanisation process, which will end by the acquisition of aroma and the maturity of the fungus

The zones of production of Tuber melansporum are between 4O and 47 degrees of latitude North. This species needs a temperate climate with well marked seasons. During its maturing phase it freezes underground at -7° C. The ideal climate for truffles is:

  • Winter with nights at -5°, and days between 1O° et 14°C
  • Spring with alternating periods of damp and heat.
  • Hot Summer interrupted by thunderstorms, especially between August 1 and 15.
  • An Autumn which is not too wet.

Tuber melanosporum is a resistant truffle, both against drought and flood, but it is vulnerable during its growing cycle to shortage and excess of water, either of which can be fatal.

If truffles are not harvested, they will degrade and rot, releasing asques which will set free spores. The cycle will continue with the germination of a number of spores, liberating of "hyphes" (or primary mycélium ) likely to infect the rootlets of a host tree by giving birth to new mycorrhizes.

Contrary to popular legend, truffles can be cultivated. As early as 1808, there were successful attempts to cultivate them, known in French as trufficulture.

People had long observed that truffles were growing among the roots of certain trees, oak trees in particular, and scientific research has established that truffles live in symbiosis with the host tree. In 1808, Joseph Talon, from Apt in southern France, had the idea of sowing acorns collected at the foot of oak trees known to host truffles in their root system. The experiment was successful. Years later, truffles were found in the soil around the oak trees grown from those acorns. In 1847, Auguste Rousseau of Carpentras planted 7 hectares (17 acres) of oak trees again from acorns found on the soil around truffle-producing oak trees, and he subsequently obtained large harvests of truffles. He received a prize at the 1855 World's Fair in Paris.

These successful attempts were met with enthusiasm in southern France. In the late 19th century, an epidemic of phylloxera destroyed most of the vineyards in southern France. Another epidemic destroyed most of the silkworms in the area, rendering the fields of mulberry trees useless. Large tracts of land were set free for the cultivation of truffles and thousands of truffle-producing trees were planted. Production reached peaks of hundreds of tonnes at the end of the 19th century. In 1890 there were 750 km² (185,000 acres) of truffle-producing trees.

In the 20th century, with the growing industrialisation of France and the subsequent rural exodus, many of these truffle fields (champs truffiers or truffières) returned to wilderness. The First World War also dealt a serious blow to the French countryside, killing 20% or more of the male working force. As a consequence, newly acquired techniques of trufficulture were largely lost. Between the two world wars, the truffle fields planted in the 19th century stopped being productive. After 1945 the production of truffles plummeted, and the prices consequently rocketed.

In the last 30 years, new attempts for a mass production of truffles have been made. Eighty percent of the truffles now produced in France come from specially planted truffle-fields. Production has yet to recover its 1900's peaks. The countryside in southern France is largely depopulated, with a lot of the lands in the hands of the descendants of the farmers. These descendants live in towns and cities and feel mostly unconcerned by the countryside. Local farmers are also opposed to a return of mass production, which would decrease the price of truffles. However, prospects for a mass production are immense. It is currently estimated that the world market could absorb 50 times more truffles than France currently produces. There are now truffle-growing areas in Spain, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia.

The Tuber Aestivum summer truffle is harvested from May until December, while two lesser-used truffles include the Tuber Macrosporum black truffle and the Tuber Mesentericum scorzone truffle.

Soils for truffles

It is clear that T. mélanosporum can prosper in certain types of chalky or lime soils, in a fairly wide range, however.
mélanosporum is found in the limey gréseux of Maestrich ( Ste Alvère-24 ), as on the Turonn chalks (crétacé sup.-37), as in the recent calcareous alluvions fluviatiles ( Carpentras ). Section of a truffle-bearing soil.

Soil analyses on these different sites known to be good producer show constant factors in physical characteristics, structure, water retaining capacity balanced elements ( clay, lime, sand ), drainage capacity.

Among the chemical characteristics, it can be noticed that there are slight variations of PH ( water ), of C/N and of exchangeable CaO and a possibly of wide variation in phosphorus, potassium, organic matter. If the physical characteristics can changed little, the chemical attributes can be compensated for easily.

Ecology of truffles

The life and death of the roots in the soil take part in its permanent transformation. The living roots enter the cycle of organic matter and help improve the fertility of of the environment necessary for the development of the fungus. The mésofauna will do its indispensable work of chopping up, digestion, aeration and nutrition where the mélanosporum will prosper.



Technical Information

Truffles belong to a group of edible subterranean (mycorrhizal) fungi of the genus Tuber, class Ascomycetes, and division Mycota.

Mycorrhizes are the organs of symbiose (symbiosis) between the tree and the fungus The link between the fungus and the roots is established from a a intercellular network called the Hartig network. The mycorrhizes emit colonising hyphes which pass the infection on to to other root apices and, replacing the absorbing hairs, will explore the soil, looking for mineral elements. Mycorrhize

It is at the level of the mycorrhizes that the nutritional exchanges of the symbiosis take place. The tree gives sugar to the truffle (carbon hydrates) resulting from photosynthesis, while the fungus provides mineral salts (phosphorus) for the tree. It helps the tree to support high calcium levels and better manage its water supplies. If the hyphes stay outside the cortical cells of the root they are ectomycorhizes the case of the truffle Inside they are endomycorhyzes.

These symbiotic organs are called mycorrhizes. As soon as they are formed they emit colonising hyphes which transmit the infection to other apex roots; which propagate by the root cortex.

Truffle Statistics

The Tuber melanosporum black truffle comes almost exclusively from Europe, essentially France (45% of production), Spain (35%), and Italy (20%). Small productions are also found in Slovenia and Croatia. In 1900, France produced around 1,000 metric tonnes (1,100 short tons) of Tuber melanosporum. Production has considerably diminished in one century, and nowadays production is usually around 20 metric tonnes (22 short tons) per year, with peaks at 46 metric tonnes (50 short tons) in the best years. 80% of the French production comes from Southeast France: upper-Provence (départements of Vaucluse and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), part of Dauphiné (département of Drôme), and part of Languedoc (département of Gard); 20% of the production comes from southwest France: Quercy (département of Lot) and Perigord.
The Tuber magnatum pico white truffle is mostly found in northern and central Italy while the Tuber Borchi, or whitish truffle, is found in Tuscany, Romagna and the Marche.

Methods of culture

After having chosen the land, analysed the soil, fixed the planting density according to richness of the soil and the method to be used, a productive variety of plant should be selected. Carefully studying the milieu and associated vegetation will give clues as to the closest truffle bearing plants and certain physical characteristics of the soil such as water retention. To be mistaken in the choice of plants can be severely handicapping for future production. When ordering the plants a minimum of 3,5/5 of mycorrhization should be required together with the appropriate proof.

If a high density system is chosen, planting in less rational square formations should be avoided. 6m x 4 m, 6 m x 3 m, 5 m x 3 m are suitable for infertile soils. North-South slopes are preferable. After ploughing and use of tines according to the depth of the soil, staking and must be carried out. Planting must be carried out carefully, without damaging the root balls. If the rootballs are Melfert ®, make slight cuts in the cellulose. The plants should be planted one abed of fine earth, and the holes filled in and beaten down gently. Protection should be provided against rabbit damage.

1st year. Alternate cultivate with disc-harrows and tines (15cm deep) close to the rows. Hoe around the plants. There is an implement (the Cultimatic) for keeping the rows clean.

2nd year, same requirements, but staying 30cm from the rows.

3rd year, continue but reduce the depth to 10cm and increasing the distance to 70 cm. The rabbit guard should be removed but an electric fence should be put around the plantation. If deer are plentiful, use four wires at 20, 50, 110 et 180 cm. The first brûlés will be visible.

4th year, Only one cultivation with vibrating tines at 6/8 cm in March. Weed growth can be dealt with at an early stage by Round-Up (1litre/ha) + L I 700.

5th year and following: First truffles, one harrowing per year in March on dry ground.

With a slightly lower density (6 m x 6 m for example). Same planting precautions using Tubex. The orientation is less important but plant with the slope. 1st year Alternate use of discs and harrows with the slope to 1,5 to 2 metres on each side of the rows. Roll the middle and mow often.

2nd year, stop all mechanical cultivation, keep clean with Round-up 1m each side of the rows. Leave the protection while the trees cannot take close weedkilling and mow.

3rd year and following: stop weedkilling and mow.

Fructification of Truffles

The fruiting is preceded by the phenomenon of "brûlé", due among other things to a phytotoxic process which inhibits the germination of certain seeds. The fructification begins by the modification of the arrangement of the mycéliens filaments which will gather together in a special structure with a cellular appearance. A typical brûlé Several possibilities may be at the origin of the fructification from endogenic or exogenic causes: the degree of mycorrhizian colonisation (glomérules stages), accumulation of nutritional reserves sexual processes between mycéliums, stress. The suddenness, brutality and force of certain stresses can often be beneficial at certain stages of its biological cycle it is possible to say that truffle is the daughter of change.

The Nutrition of Truffles

Recent observations show that the mycélien filaments in tufts on top of the warts are capable of exploring the surrounding soil, absorbing and distributing the nutritive elements of the by the veines fertiles; the veines steriles playing their role in gaseous exchanges (respiration).

Even if they are frequently cut by the mésofaune which feeds on them, these filaments regenerate permanently. The faecal balls take part in the aeration of the microclimate and the creation of a beneficial macroporosity around the fungus. The decompaction of the interface truffle/soil diminishes the constraints on the fructifying bodies and favours their development.


The present Languedoc and Provence, together represent the area covered by the ancient Roman's first province outside Italy. The two areas share a long history and even today have much in common (culture, food, passtimes, Occitan, bull running and so on). One of these shared interests is truffles. For more on Provence and Provençal truffles, click on the following link which will open a new window to Beyond the French Riviera


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