August Book a Month: Ten Trees and a Truffle Dog

TenTreesAs part of our 2014 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions about the featured work—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. You may use the questions to reflect back on each book once you’ve finished it or to guide you as you read. Either way, we hope these features will enrich your reading experience. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)

For our August Book a Month feature we’re taking a different tack than usual. This month’s selection, Ten Trees and a Truffle Dog: Sniffing Out the Perfect Plot in Provence, is the entertaining real-life account of British ex-pats Jamie and Tanya Ivey, who set out to find their own little corner of heaven among the picturesque vistas of Provence. When the Iveys learned that the oak trees on their new homestead were ripe for truffles, Jamie decided to train their new puppy to hunt the prized “diamonds of the kitchen.” So in lieu of discussion questions this week, we thought you might enjoy learning a little bit more about these esteemed culinary treasures from the Iveys themselves.

What are truffles and where do you find them?
Truffles are a form of edible fungus. Certain species of trees, particularly oak, carry a disease which causes them to grow. They develop underground when climatic conditions are right, attached to the tree by a fine thread. As well as being found wild, truffles are cultivated by planting saplings infected by the disease. The science is imprecise. Not all trees that have the disease will produce truffles. Trees that have produced truffles previously are not guaranteed to produce again. Hence the need for a dog to hunt down these precious black diamonds.

Can any breed of dog be trained to find truffles?
Opinions differ. The Italians insist on using only specific breeds, but the French view is that any dog can be trained as a truffle dog. In fact they believe mutts rather than pedigree dogs make better truffle dogs.

How do you train a truffle dog?
Start young. Training commences by rubbing a truffle on the teat of the mother dog. A feeding puppy therefore begins to associate the odor with a pleasurable experience. As the puppy grows, he is given a toy, perhaps a sock or cuddly animal with a truffle hidden inside. The toy is hidden and gradually the puppy is taught to search it out. Each time the toy is found the puppy is rewarded with food. The dog learns that finding the odor of a truffle results in a treat.

Can truffles be found year round?
In Provence the main truffle season is December until mid-March. This is when the most gastronomically prized truffle—the tuber melanosporum, or black diamond—can be found. Summer truffles, which have a less strong flavour, can be found from May until September.

How can I cook with truffles?
Truffles do not respond well to high temperatures. Most classic recipes are based on infusing ingredients such as rice and eggs, with the flavor of truffles. A truffle is left for a week in a jar with the ingredients and gradually the other ingredients take on its flavour. Eggs treated in this way can be turned into a gastronomic delight by simply scrambling and then grating fresh truffle on top just before serving.

How much does a truffle cost?
Price varies according to the year’s harvest. Spring rain, followed by a hot summer and a cold winter promises a bountiful crop. A mild winter leads to a dramatic fall in the number of truffles, and a steep rise in prices. Most years truffles cost around 900 euros for a kilo, which works out at about 50 euros to purchase a truffle the size of a golf ball.

Where can I find out more?
Visit www.provenceguru.com, where you can find information on all things Provencal, including an article about Franco/Americans who farm truffles in Provence.

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