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The finest black truffles come from France, particularly the southwestern region known as the Dordogne. Historically as well as currently, the most famous black truffle of all is from a specific part of the Dordogne called the Périgord. In fact, fresh French winter black truffles are often called the "Diamonds of Périgord." They are simply exquisite, and from December to March, French truffle markets feature delectable Périgord black truffles characterized by a subtle aroma and an earthy flavor reminiscent of a rich chocolate. They reach their pinnacle of fragrance and flavor in January and February.
Like other varieties of truffles, the Périgord black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) grows beneath the surface of the soil among the root systems of specific types of trees and develops a symbiotic relationship with those trees, which primarily consist of oak, but also beech, hazelnut, chestnut, birch and poplar. With the exception of the white Alba truffle, Périgord truffles are scarcer, more desirable and higher-priced than other truffles. Within the last 100 years production of these almost incomparable delicacies has significantly diminished from previous levels, but demand among discerning epicures remains justifiably strong.
Although experimentation has resulted in the successful cultivation of some types of truffles, results are mixed and the finest black truffles are still the fresh, wild truffles discovered by rabassiers (French truffle hunters) amid the woods and forests of the Périgord region. The centuries-old traditional method used by rabassiers to locate and unearth a Périgord truffle is essentially identical to the technique used by trifolai (Italian truffle hunters) when hunting Alba white truffles in northern Italy. In short, the truffle hunters use pigs or dogs to locate and uncover the wild truffles growing beneath trees. Female pigs have an innate ability to detect truffles beneath the ground by using their acute sense of smell. Sows are naturally attracted to truffles because they contain a compound very similar to a pheromone secreted by boars. Unfortunately, truffle pigs also have a tendency to eat the truffles they unearth, and as a result, more and more truffle hunters are now using specially-trained truffle dogs to find their quarry.
The highly prized nature of the Périgord winter black truffle makes truffle hunting with a dog or pig something similar to a woodsy treasure hunt. Rabassiers claim nothing is better than hunting for (and finding!) fresh winter black truffles on a cold, crisp December day accompanied and assisted by an eager truffle pig or dog sniffing and rooting in the earth.
The truffle-hunting process is time consuming and labor intensive, factors which are partially responsible for the high prices fresh winter Périgord black truffles so easily command. Truffle markets can be found throughout many regions of France, but the largest French truffle market, located in the tiny village of Richerenches in southeastern France, is almost certainly the largest truffle market in the world. Southwestern France's largest truffle market is located in Lalbenque, not far from Périgord. The perfume of a winter black truffle is at its height in January and February, and that is when truffle markets are at their busiest. Fresh winter black truffles have been known to sell for wholesale prices of €1,000 per kilogram in these "farmer's markets," but prices in a retail setting easily approach €4,000 per kilogram.
Fresh winter black truffles from Périgord are prized by chefs and epicures throughout the world for their incomparable flavor and aroma. They are an exquisite blend of "chocolate and earth" and richly deserve being referred to as the "Diamonds of Périgord."