A mild November afternoon and I’m in Bad Bodendorf near Sinzig in the Rhineland-Palatinate, wondering if Colette ever asked herself where truffles came from before they found their way onto her dinner plate. The small road that snakes up from the Ahr River, silver in the distance. once ran from Frankfurt, where German emperors were elected, to Aachen, where they were crowned. Imperial retinues, soldiers, merchants and pilgrims are the shadowy travellers that walk uphill on hollow paths with myself and Jean-Marie Dumaine, French owner and chef of the le Vieux Sinzig restaurant in Sinzig. Jean-Marie has brought Alba, his dog. We’re pilgrims of a kind ourselves. Half way up the hill we stop in the shade of an old oak. A makeshift gate leans into the hedgerow. We pass through into a steep field of small, scraggy trees: a truffle plantation. The holy grail of the latter-day hunter-gatherer.
Sinzig is the self-proclaimed truffle capital of Germany. It was here, amongst the Ahr valley’s vineyards, that Jean-Marie and two truffle experts from the Lorraine spontaneously hunted and found 45 truffles (800 grams) of Burgundy truffles in the year 2002: a eco-systemic sensation that delighted but did not surprise Dumaine. Having long gazed skeptically at neighbourly enthusiasms in France, German princes and bishops developed a passion for truffles that lasted from the late 18th to the early 20th century. And where truffles have grown, they’ll likely still be dozing: dusky sleeping beauties entranced under (if not beyond) a fairy tale forest of hazels and oaks whose root systems favour truffle production – especially if the soil is calcareous and well-drained and the microclimate mild.
All truffles are the fruiting bodies of a subterranean mycelium: a web-like vegetable structure that develops from the truffle spore. Since time immemorial, preconditions necessary for the spore-mycelium-truffle trajectory depended on pigs, boars, and sheep to seek, eat and digest truffles, dispersing spores via their digestive systems so that the whole cycle could start anew.
As befits truffle cultivation in the Anthropocene, man has replaced beast as the prime mover in this process. In the late 18th century French cultivators were first to join the dots between trees and truffles when one Pierrre Mauléon began sowing acorns in an area known to produce truffles. In 1885, the procedure was taken one step further by the German botanist Albert Bernhard Frank. Charged with exploring truffle cultivation on behalf of the Prussian court, he discovered and named the process of mycorrhization to describe the symbiotic relationship between some fungi and the roots of a host tree, opening up the way to controlled injection (mycorrhization) of root systems with truffle spores – a zoological variant on artificial insemination.
In 2006, Jean-Marie Dumaine and his truffle association (www.ahrtrueffel.de) imported and planted 150 such mycorrhized saplings, injected chiefly with spores from the indigenous Burgundy truffle. Its nut-woody tang is less versatile and valuable than the refined flavours of its noble relatives the white (Italian) truffle and the black (Périgord) truffle respectively. But the dry summers of climate change in traditional truffle regions are chipping away at the collective health of these varieties, and leveling the field for the cheaper and more widespread Burgundy truffle.
Yet commercial truffle cultivation remains a hit and miss affair. Worldwide, an average 25% of micorrhized trees yields a truffle, five to ten years after planting. This year, ten years on, two summer Burgundy truffles have been sniffed out in Sinzig and the search is now beginning for its autumnal cousin. As Dumaine and his truffle-hound Alba – “cherche, Alba, cherche” – step carefully through the speckled shade, the ghosts of M. Mauléon and Herr Frank are surely keeping their fingers crossed for this new variant on Franco-German cooperation.
Is it the merchant in Dumaine who is gently poking around under the trees, or his devotional avatar, the pilgrim? Maybe it’s the poet in Jean-Marie. Truffles, he says, are like brides dancing at many weddings. Skittish and unpredictable, temporary tenants of in-betweenness but desirable and desirous, like truffles, of being found in these no-mans lands between sunlight and shade, forest and field.
A simple creature, la truffe de Bourgogne can’t stand the high heat of imperial kitchens and gastronomically complex procedures suffered by her black and white peers. All the better for the pilgrim, who can safely indulge in some freshly grated Burgundy truffles on a slice of lightly buttered white toast without rousing the pangs of a glutton’s conscience. Pilgrim’s progress of a special variety.