It is, covid apart, the festive season, time to be merry, drink well and eat luxuriantly. In France it’s black truffle season and of course in Italy they go one better. In late autumn the first snows grace the Alps, MonViso looking like a white topped Fuji, the vineyards are a patchwork quilt of gold and scarlet as the Nebbiolo, barbera and dolcetto leaves turn into jewels, and dogs search under the holm oak and hazel trees for the priciest jewel of all, magnatum pico, the Alba white truffle. If you walk into any restaurant in Barolo, you will be enveloped in the aroma. But that is another story…
Over here in France it’s the slightly less aromatic black Perigord truffle, tuber melansporum, that tops the charts, though these days most of them come from the serried lines of trees planted in Spain and impregnated with truffle mychorizzae, farmed. Still delicious and less expensive.
If you think you are going to impress more cheaply, you can buy the ubiquitous summer truffle, tuber aestivum, that you find in upscale groceries and even duty-free shops. You usually get two mini black golf balls in a tiny bottle. They have quite a nice gritty texture, and I suppose a slice looks fraudulently impressive, but tastewise you’d do better with a fried mushroom. Hopeless, or at least tasteless.
But what do truffles like most, apart from friendly tree roots to feed off? Think Barolo…
…think Burgundy. Argilo-calcaire soil, or, to cut to the quick, limestone. Truffles love to grow in the same soil as chardonnay, pinot noir and nebbiolo. Could it get better?
It took us a long time to figure this out, even though a friend had a truffle dog and lived near Beaune. But it was only after watching a tv program on the beautiful medieval walled village of Noyers-sur-Serein that the little black penny began to drop. Serein. A small river. That also flows through Chablis…
A tourist visit is a must if you are in Chablis. It’s 10km away and ridiculously pretty. I can’t believe it took me 20 years to find it. You step centuries back amidst turrets, wooden gables, the river, swallows’ nests, nice cafes and restaurants (oh and the most expensive beer I’ve ever bought, tourist traps come with a warning). There’s also a fantastic artisanal pottery shop. But, and it’s a significant BUT, it also boasts..?
A marche aux truffes. On a Sunday in November and December. Well not of course in 2020, and in 2019 it was cancelled due to drought and lack of truffles, but we had invited friends over from UK so went anyway to see the village and as I was wandering up the main street a rather shifty person in a hoodie sidled up to me with a small bag clutched in his hand and muttered at me as if he had some illicit drugs to sell. In fact, he had a few rather petite, but aromatic, truffes de Bourgogne to proffer. I was rather hesitant, but they were cheap and whilst we had lunch in Chablis, the car began to smell like one large truffle. Bliss.
One last tip, if you swim a few kilometres to Isle-sur-Serein you’ll find the Auberge du Pot d’Etain. Look at the wine list and I promise, you will thank me. They also do a nice truffle dinner during the market weekend (and very kindly did one just for us even though the market had been cancelled).
A year later and I was in the much larger (& lovely) Saturday market in Beaune and what did I see? For 30 euros I bought one fat truffle generous enough for three (if it was white it’s would be more than that per head). If you can find real Piemontese tajarin pasta (just don’t ask how many egg yolks go into it), throw butter over it plus lashings of truffle and you have the proverbial last supper before you, glorious in its simplicity and taste. Tuber Uncinatum, the Burgundy Truffle. Nobody speaks about it, but it’s the best value truffle that actually tastes like truffle. Another hidden secret.
So, if you have your Burgundian truffle scattered over your pasta, it’s pretty obvious what you need to drink. But which one? I found a rare bottle of Jadot’s Chambertin Clos de Beze 2001, and what better excuse?
We don’t drink Chambertin for obvious reasons (investment bankers, tech programmers and mafia criminals don’t waste their time writing free wine blogs). When I was there a drippy November ago, tastings done, everyone else sensibly went off to warm up and drink tea, but I grabbed umbrella and like a good Brit headed out into the rain and the Route des Grands Crus, surely the best road anyone could walk along? As you head south out of the town of Gevrey, Mazis and above it Ruchottes start the song and then you crescendo along to the two stars, Clos de Beze and then Chambertin, sloping down from the tiny forest on top. Across the narrow road in the dip down towards the premier crus and village wines sit Chapelle, Griotte and eventually Charmes/Mazoyeres and on the right the litany ceases with Latricieres before you hit poor old Combottes (only a 1e cru) and then cross into Morey St Denis.
What makes each of these grand crus special, and different is beyond my knowledge, but they carry more weight and power, just a bigger mouthful, a richness and complexity (or should be). Beze received vineyards from the eponymous monastery in 630 and supposedly a Mr Bertin (field of Bertin, champ Bertin) later owned the land next door, but you have a millennium and a half of wine history under your feet. It is difficult not to be humbled when you imagine the monks working this very soil. Whatever it be, the exposition, the slope, the soil, the cooling air from the combe above, who knows, but these two small plots of land carry an extra grandeur and majesty. Perhaps those monks invented artificial intelligence a bit before Silicon Valley.
I have drunk many good wines from the Beaune negociant Jadot, but never quite at the summit. So what was the Beze like? It’s a bit scary to describe as the best known rendition of it comes from Evelyn Waugh’s Charles Ryder in Brideshead. Montrachet followed by Clos de Beze, not bad for dinner!
‘How can I describe it... For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty and had produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade...’
Indeed. The colour was quite deep and dark and at first my heart sank, it seemed brooding and rather closed. But though the Burgundians do not decant, they do like the wines to air, and I usually pour a glass out and just leave it. A few minutes later and the wine really began to sing, to bellow in fact, some coffee, then floral and spicy. The fruit was ripe cherry and now almost sweet, tooth coating, with a menthol-minty underlay, supported by long orangy acidity and an earthy-cedary finish. Creamy. Big, complex, delicious, balanced and long, everything I guess you’d expect.
Gevrey and truffes de Bourgogne. Try it next autumn.