The Truffle Orchard

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For many years we have been asking the people who own land around us if they would rent or sell us what is here known as a 'petit bout'. This, we hastily added, was not for a swimming pool or a gite but for our potager and, eventually, a safe place for our child to play. Answers have ranged from 'I am in the cherries' to 'I do not sell'. Advice from friends locally has ranged from 'Asking a peasant to sell you land is like asking them to cut off their arm' to 'Keep asking! People die, folks go broke....'.

Two years ago we had a break through as O, son of L who had recently died, offered to lend us a corner on which to start our vegetable garden. I don't know if it was seeing me dump carload after carload of horsepoo on the land in order to enrich the soil, or the curvaceous Sicilian courgette we grew, or (more likely) Julian's paintings of the surrounding countryside of which he had become an avid fan, but about a month ago O offered to sell us some land, including a 3800 square metre truffle orchard.

The place is lovely. Yards from the red ochre cliffs of the 'Demoiselles Coiffées', hidden from the road, it consists of several oak trees, a couple of fig trees, some cane and a nearby 'bassin' of natural spring water. The local folk music is that of the woodpecker. There are signs of wild boar, fox, badger and...critically, the truffle fly.

This morning our friend Sebastian came to have a look.

'How many hours I spent playing in this field when I was a kid...!' he said, tapping his stick at the base of an oak tree. Tap tap he went over the strange grassless circle covered in dead leaves. 'Only this spring I was finding morilles here....'. Sebastian looked closely at the ground, tapped some more, looked up, to the left and back again, and planted a slim twig. Then he looked sharply right, up, down again, and planted a second twig. When I asked him what he was doing he explained that the truffle fly was the key to finding the black diamonds of Provence. With his stick Sebastian was disturbing the fallen oak leaves and therefore La Mouche. 'It is a job that demands much patience' he said 'but the fly has laid its eggs on the truffle and by observing the place to which it continually returns you can locate the truffle. Each time I see the fly I plant a stick, and gradually, day after day, I can narrow down the search.'

We walked around some more, examining the footprints of various local beasts. At each oak tree Sebastian stopped, checking to see if the grass around the base of a tree was sparse. Another good sign, he explained, as the tuber melanosporum killed grass. He stopped to take a round ball from a branch, explaining that these galls grew where the same fungus lived....

'We used to play marbles with these!' he said, rolling the ball between thumb and forefinger. 'You know, my father, who was a shepherd on the Ventoux, used to plant a seed of wheat wherever he saw the truffle fly in the spring. Then, when he came back to the garrigue' ( the scrubby woodland of the mountain) 'with his flock in the autumn, he would see that seed grown up into a bright blade of wheat and he would know where to look.'

This evening, as I drove back from Gigondas through Bedoin, there was my favourite kind of roadblock. A sheep roadblock. It is the time of year when life slows down to the pace of the autumn lamb at the back of the pack. I remembered Sebastian's words about his father, about the marker blade of wheat that would now be fully grown and remarkable. I thought about a magical truffle orchard that could be ours....

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