BY KATHERINE HARVEY
For the past 22 years, a truffle lunch and market has been held at the Bastide Saint Antoine, Jacques Chibois’s Michelin-starred restaurant and five-star hotel in the countryside of Grasse, and we have been privileged to attend many of them. Held the first Saturday after the first of January, it often rains, and this year was no exception, but the rain does not dampen the enthusiasm of the hundreds who look forward to the truffle season and the annual truffle lunch. Truffle lovers come here for tuber melanosporum, or black gold. Just outside the elegant hotel, a large tent awaits the faithful.
This year we were greeted by Guy Feraud and his truffle-hunting dog, Nola, but because of the heavy rain, there was no truffle hunting demonstration, and Nola was more interested in finding her pal Lucky than hunting truffles. Generally, truffle-hunting dogs are spaniels, beagles, poodles, et cetera, but somehow Lola and Lucky did not seem to fit that profile.
Inside the tent specialists sell their wares: foie gras, jams, fortified wine, truffled pain d’epices, truffle-decorated china, and the reason for the event, black gold itself, at an astronomical price—120 euros for 100 grams—but worth every euro. The intoxicating perfume of black gold permeates the air.
Two pretty young girls, elegantly dressed for the occasion, sell raffle tickets for a basket of truffle-related goods and wine, cheerfully working their way through the crowd. And then it is time for lunch. More distraction outside the hotel makes it difficult to decide to finally take part in the main event at your assigned table: desserts that are all truffle themed, grilled mushroom and truffle sandwiches, truffle soup, and the marvelous truffled Brie, served on the most extraordinary slice of bread imaginable. The Chibois kitchen makes the bread only once a year to pair with the truffled Brie, and the combination is beyond heavenly. The famous local charcutier and caterer, Alain Pons, sells sausages and other products at his stand.
There is, however, a very serious side to truffles, and that is the Sunday truffle market in nearby Le Rouret, where restaurateurs from all over France come and meet and exchange pleasantries, but not, I assure you, recipes. The departmental syndicate of truffle growers of the region plays a large part in the entire weekend, and none of the events could take place without their participation.
When you enter the hotel you are greeted by a staff member and escorted downstairs to the main dining room. Another staff member, whom we have not seen since the summer, greets us, and we exchange warm wishes for a happy new year and good health. Tables seat ten, and we have always been seated at one of the tables in the lower part of the main dining room overlooking the garden into the lush valley, then mountains, and finally the sea; it is an enchanting view. Our luncheon companions are always delightful and welcoming to the Americans who must seem exotic.
The meal is preceded by a glass of champagne, and then the meal service begins. . .
fine tartare of lobster, scallops, and shrimp with truffles on a flaky pastry base with citrus juices . . .
haddock enrobed in red and black tomatoes with truffles on truffled chick pea puree with olive oil . . .
veal in “Godiveau” with chanterelles, foie gras and truffled pasta . . .
apple, quince and almond compote with truffled caramel and cream of truffle . . .
and followed by coffee, tea, and, naturally, mignardises.
Just as I decided to take a lunch break while writing this dispatch, my husband informed me that we had a “friend.” There was Igloo at our living room window wishing to be part of the activity. Igloo will not be ignored. We greeted him, and he then decided to jump down to our terrace and hoped to come in through the gate as he had many times before, but it being winter, the gate and door were closed. A disappointed but determined Igloo left, only to return another day.