At first sight, January might seem a rather bleak month for a gourmet. Admittedly, seafood is on top form, there is plenty of imported fruit – blood oranges from Sicily are a particular treat – and the kale season is in full swing (what joy!), but spring is a long way off.
There is one jewel in January’s culinary crown, however: a black diamond, to be precise. This is the season when Tuber melanosporum, the black winter truffle, is unearthed from the woodlands in the beautiful French region of Périgord. In the pretty little village of Péchalifour, these include the four-hectare truffle orchard planted by Edouard Aynaud.
Aynaud is a true truffle evangelist, hosting individuals and groups all year round for truffle hunts and lunches, but it is in winter that brouillade (scrambled eggs) with black truffle is on the menu. I visited in October and Aynaud introduced me to Farah, his faithful border collie. We found a few surprisingly pungent summer truffles, but it was too early for the black diamonds.
Half-an-hour’s drive away in the village of Trémolat, Vincent Arnould – Michelin-starred chef at Le Vieux Logis and an old friend of Aynaud – has commissioned him to plant a truffle orchard in the hotel’s grounds. The young truffiers – oak saplings with truffle spores injected into their roots – will take a few years to mature, but in the meantime there will be no shortage of truffles on Arnould’s menu. The Monday morning truffle market at nearby Sainte-Alvère will take care of that.
Arnould is a superb chef, with or without truffles in his kitchen. A fresh escalope of duck foie gras – the other great speciality of the region – was topped with little sheaves of shimeji mushrooms, wrapped in raw beef, and a sparklingly clear, umami-rich broth underneath had a few drops of local walnut oil, adding an autumnal perfume.
Slow-cooked scallops were served with a watercress purée freshened with sorrel, the dish topped with a tangle of fines herbes. Zander (the best I have ever tasted, its skin cleverly covered with a crisp tuile) was paired with some little quenelles of béarnaise mousse and a chunk of bone marrow in a red bergerac wine sauce. And to finish, Paris-Trémolat – a variation on Paris-Brest – was an ethereal concoction of nuts, choux pastry, cream and praline.
The Périgord region is a beautiful place at any time of year – but in January, wrapped up warmly, striding through the woods, a trusty truffle hound at your side, it may well be the best place in the world, especially if you and the hound manage to dig up a diamond.