We all know what the French, bless them, think of their food and their wine. In my time I’ve countered asides about the British and their baked beans with sly digs about the native 25-course Christmas Eve specials. I’m sure, though, that neither they nor I have ever spoken from personal experience. Now I can.
At the beginning of last week, a commission for an article took me down to Cahors, the capital of the Lot and the supposed gateway to the Midi. My theme was trufficulture and my presence coincided with the last days of the truffle season. As a horse’s doovers, I was cordially invited to attend some kind of tasting event at the Villa Cahors Malbec. I’m not quite sure what I imagined, as I stepped out with trepidation into the frigid evening air. All I knew for sure was that I might be some time.
Walking briskly through the deserted streets of after-hours Cahors, I arrived at the appointed hour. The place was already teeming with the bourgeoisie in their finery. My heart duly sank. I guess I must have pictured a kind of stand-up affair where you can sample a few exquisitely delicate canapés, sip a glass of dark brooding wine from the vicinity, exchange a few pleasantries, jot down a few notes and then slip out unnoticed.
I felt like a sardine that had just been plopped into a brightly lit tank of tropical fish. Where do you go? Where do you hide? The maître d’ took me to a table where there was a free chair. The introductiona all went straight in one ear and out of the other. Gradually, I pieced together their identities. Opposite, a man who manages a château and vignoble owned (I think) by the Prince of Denmark. To my left, his elegant wife, who runs chambres d’hôte for the well-heeled. To my right the vineyard’s analyste. His job, I learned, was to make the very most of the terroir. In other words, to grow the best vines and to produce the best wine possible given the available soil.
Given how charming everyone seemed, I surely had no right to feel quite so uncomfortable. But just watching the analyst at work when the first of many bottles of wine arrived underlined my total ignorance. So that’s it: swish the wine around like you’re spinning socks in a washer, thrust your nose deep into the glass, swish it around another time and then tip some into your mouth, swish it around internally and then swallow. Being of the sip-admire-and-swallow school, I realised the need either to keep a low profile or to make out that I was a total naïf. With nowhere much to hide, I opted for the latter option. After all, I was English. We can be excused all manner of improprieties, because we don’t know any better.
Once the menus were distributed… let the speeches commence! Not only was this clearly a long-distance sit-down affair, but there would be no choice. To take my plate up to the bar and ask if it would be possible just to make me an omelette à la truffe with some nice fresh vegetables, well… I could imagine the ensuing silence and the glances of horror. The two chefs who had created this menu for our delectation took the mic to announce what we were in for: the first a local chef and the second an old chum of his from Issoudun in the Berry, whose restaurant was based in the very house where Honoré de Balzac wrote one of his novels. The sommelier then introduced us to the next wine as an intense and complex vin de Cahors. My eyes glazed over. Being just a little peckish by now, I popped a canapé into my mouth – only to realise with a rush of embarrassment that it was a chi-chi butter pat, designed to be spread and not eaten. If anyone witnessed the faux pas, they were kind enough to stay schtum.
The first two and the last two of eight plats were fine for a faux vegetarian, but the four in between were Meat City. Since my vegetarianism represents a flag of domestic convenience and a stand against factory farming, I decided that tonight I would just go with the flow. Join in; take what the chefs offer without a word of protest. Two more men arrived at our table and the conversation took a turn for the machismo: from wine to the terroir to the chasse. Rather than stand up and sweep everything off the table to make clear my antipathy to hunting, I did what I normally do. I turned to the opposite sex, in the person of the elegant woman to my left, and engaged her in rather more interesting conversation for the rest of the evening.
After the crème de lentilles vertes du Berry aux truffes and the soft-poached egg à la purée de truffes, the first of the meat courses arrived: a saucisson de pieds de veau et foie gras de canard à la vinaigrette truffée. If I were going to make any kind of stand, this was surely the moment. Anything to do with veal or foie gras would normally find me astride my high horse. However… the thought of all those tedious explanations in the face of utter disbelief orientated me towards the coward’s option. Eat it.
Wash it down with another swish of another wine. In all, eight different wines were brought to our table. The label was shown off each time and the wine tested by someone other than me before being poured into glasses. I put my hand up in a futile gesture to suggest that I couldn’t drink too much because I had to walk back to the hotel. Nevertheless, it behoved me to taste each one lest I had to write about them in the article with any degree of conviction.
There were two desserts. I hadn’t realised that you could add truffle to a dessert, but then again I hadn’t known much about truffles. My sole experience was care of a small bottle of oil given to us by a friend. The first was a massepain d’Issoudun aux truffes: a marriage – according to its creator at the microphone once more – of vanilla, almonds and truffle. And then a crème cuite truffée, which was… simply extraordinary. So yea, I say unto the disbelievers, one can indeed add truffle to a dessert.
Resisting any temptation to shake the hand of each and every diner, each and every tropical fish in that very bright aquarium, I said my goodbyes to the immediate strangers who had been good enough to share their table with an ignoramus, joined the throng to take a quick photo or two of all those responsible for the evening’s entertainment, and slipped out into the night.
It was even colder than earlier and I walked back a little less steadily. It had been an ‘interesting’ experience: uncomfortable, but revelatory. At least I knew a little now about the flavour of truffles. It’s earthy and fungal, but neither immediately obvious nor overpowering. There’s a subtlety you can’t miss. A truffle stamps its character on everything it touches. Rich but not dominant, it is I suppose a little like the soil or terroir in which it matures. I wouldn’t, however, pay over a thousand euros a kilo for it.
In the early hours, I woke up to find that, to my horror, my head was spinning. Yes, I had tasted each wine out of obligation, but I honestly hadn’t felt that I had drunk that much. I suspect that it was also something to do with the opulence of the food. All that cream and all that butter (with hardly a fresh vegetable in sight).I understand much more about truffles now. I also understand why the French suffer so from liver complaints.