Take the case of Christian Etienne, Maître
Cuisinier de France, from Avignon. Amid the modestly understated
elegance of his eponymous restaurant adjacent to the Palais des Papes, he
prepares his cuisine with an intense pride, cultivated in the kitchens of his
mother and grandmother and developed in the restaurants of Paris, that has
earned him one Michelin star already.
During the summer months, his menus favour the colours,
perfumes and produce of Provence – sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, Provençal
herbs – and the fish of the Mediterranean – monkfish, red mullet, sea bass,
lobster and cuttlefish – but in winter his stage supports quite a different
act, for then it is the time of the truffle, or la rabasse as
they call it here. Throughout France, and much further afield, Christian
Etienne is regarded as a master of the truffle, a culinary wizard for whom la
magie de la Rabasse is simply spell-binding.
‘The truffle,’ he told me, ‘is an object of intense desire,
like a nugget of gold.’ He paused: ‘Non’, he said on reflection, ‘to the rabassier or
the gourmand, the truffle is more precious than gold.’
I looked for the mischievous twinkle in his eye, but there
was none. He was serious.
In his book, La Magie de la Rabasse, Christian
describes the ritual of the gourmand as a dish containing truffles is laid
‘First, he uses his nose to gauge the aroma of the truffle,
half-closing his eyes in order not to distract his senses. Then, still with his
eyes half-closed, he leans forward over his plate inhaling deeply and wrinkling
his brow in a gesture of delight before smiling approvingly to the other
guests.’ This single appreciative act is reward enough for the chef: ‘It’s an
involuntary thing, something you are not aware of doing’, Christian told me.
I know he’s right, because that’s exactly what I did.
In A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle portrays the
secretive world of the truffle and the truffle hunter (the rabassier or
the caveur), where ‘men stand in tight, preoccupied groups looking,
sniffing and finally weighing wart-encrusted, earth-cover lumps that are handled
with reverential care.’
In Carpentras, the market is held from 8-10am each Friday
from the Friday before the beginning of the Saint-Siffrein Fair (27 November)
until the end of March, in Place Aristide Briand opposite the Hôtel Dieu, a
usually peaceful square surrounded by plane trees. In summer, there’s no clue
to its winter identity; just another delightful square in another lovely
There are no loud colours here, no-one stands out, Hessian
sacks, panniers, bowls and other vessels are full of black lumps of
earth, and within minutes the air is laden with the distinctive aroma of
truffles – you can’t describe it, but once experienced it is never forgotten.