It’s truffle season in the South of France and the seasoned hunters of the dark grey diamonds from the ground are out in search of the sought-after fungus that fetches up to €550/kg in the wholesale market or a retail price of €1,200/kg.
Truffles are hunted using a variety of methods. The most common ones are with a trained dog or a trained boar. Relying on their keen senses of smell, the animals can lead the truffle-hunter directly to the prize. Whilst dogs need to be trained, the boar’s innate attraction to the truffle makes it efficient at finding them but it sometimes can’t help itself and eats the fungus. Another more specialist method is using a stick and poking the ground around the base of trees to determine where the truffles are.
Truffles are so important to certain areas that there is even an annual mass in celebration of the truffle. In the little village of Richerenches in the Vaucluse department (in the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), the special mass is held on the third Sunday of every January.
The Messe des Truffes gives homage to Saint Anthony, the patron saint of the trufficulteurs – the truffle exploiters – and to venerate the Brotherhood of the Black Diamond (La Confrérie du Diamant Noir).
The mass begins at 10:30 at the church in this village of approximately 700 souls (which was part of the Papal Enclave of the 14th century), but if you want any hope of getting a seat inside the church, then you need to be there by 08:00. For the majority of those who don’t get past the hallowed doors of the church, the ceremony is relayed live onto a giant screen in the nearby Templar Hall (La Commanderie des Templiers)
The entire ceremony is held in the historically local language of Provençal. Anyone travelling across this stretch of France in recent years will have noticed the dual languages on road signs: after World War 1, the French embarked on a campaign of eradicating local dialects (Breton, Catalan, Basque and Provençal) but recent years have seen a resurgence in the usage of these native French tongues.
Apart from the blessing of all things related to the important truffle season (which has just officially begun), a unique feature of the Messe aux Truffes comes when the collection plate is passed around: Those who can donate a truffle instead of money. After the religious hymns have been sung by a specially-chosen choir, the members of the Confrérie du Diamant Noir et de la Gastronomie (whose headquarters are in the village) in full costume lead a procession out of the church, with the faithful following behind.
They assemble at the square in front of the town hall (la Place de l’Hôtel de Ville) where a public truffle auction ensues, accompanied by much noise and Mediterranean-style gesticulation. Next, there is a free aperitif for all attending, followed by the annual truffle banquet. This is a much-sought-after meal and seats at the table are naturally limited, so booking well in advance is essential for any hope of savouring this unique occasion to the full.