Black Gold

by Patricia Duff

A leap into the unknown France


I was in Provence in January when cloudless skies make the crisp, cold mornings give way to clear, warm afternoons. Some twenty minutes earlier, my French friend, Jean, had announced conspiratorially; "Alors! We go find black gold..." We were now in his battered van, bumping along a rutted woodland path. He had taken me mushrooming a few days before, swearing me to secrecy that he clearly felt the need to repeat. This time we were going to look for something much more valuable: the famed black truffle whose (black) market price leads it to be known as 'black gold'. I knew that truffles were traditionally hunted with pigs or dogs, but my tentative queries as to the absence of such were met with a rather perplexing; "We don't need." We left the van at the edge of the wood. Jean cut a long thin switch and stripped it of leaves. I noticed the handles of several screw-drivers poking out of his jeans. He had told me that where truffles grew on the roots of oaks and hazels, the ground would be devoid of any vegetation; and, that if the earth was freshly churned by wild boars living in the area, we should not waste our time. Clearly we were vying with other foragers. There were, indeed, wide patches of bare earth beneath the hazel trees, but few had been roughed-up. Jean paused to warn me. We were hunting a fly which lays its eggs near truffles. We must be very quiet; we must keep the sun ahead of us so our shadows did not disturb; we must watch very carefully and, when we see the fly, there would be the truffle. Jean began to creep towards the nearest tree, the switch held at arms length, seeming to tickle the ground ahead. Then he straightened up and shook his head: nothing. He pointed at another tree and we crept forward. He, bent almost double, tickled the patch of ground beneath it. Nothing again. I started to straighten up and then saw the insect in a somewhat dizzy flight. It glinted red in the sunlight. Quickly, Jean speared the ground with a couple of screw drivers at the spots from where he thought the fly had arisen; saw another fly rise and speared the ground there too, keeping a watchful eye for more. Satisfied there were none, Jean started to shift the earth with the screwdriver and his fingers. He knelt with his head close to the soil and sniffed for the odour of truffle to direct his search. Following his lead I scrabbled and sniffed too. There it was, that unmistakable pungent aroma. We looked at each other and smiled: we'd found our Black Gold.