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Monday, March 05, 2007

Marthe Delon, the legendary truffle hunter and her pig Kiki

(If you are reading this post on an RSS reader, you might want to click through to Chez Pim for the slideshow.)

This is Madame Marthe Delon. The name is Delon, comme Alain Delon, she said, flashing a big smile and her one remaining brown, crooked tooth. Next to her is Kiki, the most recent in the long line of Kikis. She's a truffle hunter and a pig trainer. Kiki is a truffle pig. And they are both legendary.

Though looking ever-so-perfect for the part of a French country woman she could have been cast out of Hollywood, Mme.Delon is hardly a guileless peasant. She's been interviewed on television and in magazines the world over. I watched her hold court in front of journalists and a gaggle of curious visitors, witty and unflappable, even with Kiki pushing her trying to get into her skirt and apron where she hid the truffle scented cat food she used to train the piggy. She's one remarkable woman.

By the time Kate and I arrived, Kiki had already finished showing off by digging up truffles hidden in the ground. We waited for everyone to leave and followed Mme.Delon to the house for a chat and some prunes. I should tell you: this is why I've fallen head-over-heel in love with Southwest France. Here people don't invite you to their house for coffee. They tell you to come for pruneaux. And by prunes they actually mean a little bit of prune soaked in a lot of Armagnac, or better yet, that positively flammable Eau de Vie.

You might wonder how we managed this visit. By pure luck, I'd say. Kate and I had lunch at the famous café called le Lion d'Or, where everyone comes for omelette aux truffes (truffle omelette) before the Lalbenque truffle market opens. Sitting at the table adjacent to us were two local men: a nut merchant who also does some business in truffles and his friend. They are both called Bernard. We call them les deux Bernards, the two Bernards. We struck up a conversation, and they ended up taking us around in the market for a truffle-buying lesson. They told us about this old mamie who trains pigs, and agreed to take us there for a visit.

That's how we found ourselves chez Monsieur and Madame Delon, sitting around a table covered with a plastic tablecloth in cheery green punctuated by red ladybug prints. She went inside and brought out a tray, on which sat coffee cups and a large glass jar filled almost to the top with round local prunes macerated in Eau de Vie. Serious stuff, that.

We had a lovely conversation. Though I mostly had to strain my ears trying to understand the really harsh local accent, with every single syllable pronounced and each vowel forced and elongated. Luckily Kate was there -when my head cocked just a little too far to one side- to whisper a quick word or two in translation.

From what I gathered, Mme.Delon got her first pig the year she was married, and over sixty years later she is still hunting truffles and training generation after generation of pigs –one each year, and each one given the same name, Kiki. She said she couldn't be bothered remembering the names of them all, so she just called them Kiki. Easy enough, yes?

Kate, who just took home a darling little pup called Bacon, wanted to know how to train a truffle dog or pig. How many truffles must we sacrifice to train a dog, she wondered? Flashing yet another big smile, Mme.Delon revealed to us her secret. No, she doesn't feed her Kikis real truffle, silly. She keeps some truffles with cat food, so that the nibbles take on the scent of truffles. That's what she uses to train the pigs. Cat food! Mon Dieu!

Then the conversation got a little bit grim. Everyone in the truffle business is now concerned with the invasion of Brumale, an inferior but much more vigorous specie that is taking over the natural habitat of the Melanosporum, the specie we know as the real black truffles. Truffle oaks sold with spore-impregnated roots must have introduced that inferior specie into the environment, and now they are sadly everywhere. More and more Brumales show up at truffle markets every year, they said. And it's almost impossible to differentiate Brumale and Melanosporum when still covered in dirt. As we would find out the hard way just a bit later.

So what do you ladies do, Mme.Delon turned the table, and we found ourselves at the receiving end of the interview. I write about food on some silly site on the Internet, I said, and Kate is a cookery teacher and food writer. Food. Wonderful. We have something in common: she spent thirty years cooking the famous omelette aux truffes at Le Lion d'Or. Did we have the poule au pot, by chance, she asked? That's her recipe too.

(to be continued)


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