Its all in the nose, I discovered, when I spent the day with truffle hunters Max and Jean-Claude. A well-trained dog and noticing the smallest clues in the landscape, vegetation and insect behaviour all help a hunter locate a truffle’s whereabouts. But once the digging starts, it is the scent that leads a trufficulteur to his trophy. And boy, does a truffle smell strong.
Provence is not as well-known as the Périgord region for its truffles, but actually 80% of French production of the black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) comes from southeast France.
It wasn’t easy to make this shoot happen. The conditions required for the growth of truffles remain mysterious in part, and given the increasingly high monetary value of truffles,the knowledge of where they are found is kept closely guarded. So there is some reluctance to have a photojournalist discover and document truffle spots. However, after over a year of becoming a regular fixture at country truffle fairs and persisting in spite of a number of false starts, I was finally able to set off ‘à la truffe‘.
Over-protective truffle dogs
We spent the morning in Jean-Claude’s plantations, where he cultivates his land for truffling. Nonetheless, the tubers remain elusive, and it was definitely a ‘hunt’, not a ‘harvest’. Climbing over high fences (that protect plantations against unwelcome human and wild boar intruders) and constantly dashing after the dogs was a test of physical endurance. I narrowly missed getting bitten in the face by one of the dogs as I rushed in tight to photograph the moment a truffle was unearthed.
“Watch it – this dog will attack anyone who isn’t his truffle master if they get too close to the goods” Max cried, as he grabbed a snarling mutt by its collar.
I wasn’t to be discouraged though, and the two hunters decided I was worthy of seeing the real deal in the afternoon – la truffe sauvage (truffling in the wild). After a perilous drive along a snowy mountain track and a long walk through the woods, we reached the truffles grounds that Max and Jean Claude believe only they know about (with the exception of my good self now, of course. Though I’m sorry to say that I’m not sure I’d find the way again).
The thrill of the chase
Here on the north-facing slopes of a mountain, the ground was rougher, and snow was still lying in places.
“In all the books I’ve read on truffle hunting, I’ve never seen photos of truffle spots in this kind of rugged terrain. You are probably the first photographer to witness this“, enthused Jean-Claude.
I’m not sure if he’s right, as my experience of truffle-hunting literature remains limited. But I certainly did witness a real thrill of the chase, which was heightened by the remoteness of this harsh Alpine landscape.
“Its not about the money“, said Max, as he later weighed the result of the hunt. “Its about connecting with nature and the land that has been in our families for generations. And the ongoing quest to find that elusive truffle.”
Still, at 1,000€ per kilo, a day’s pickings can’t be bad.