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TRUFFLES

Black diamonds are forever: The importance of the truffle trade in rural France

With the famous French truffle markets about to open, Chris Bockman explains the importance of the 'black diamonds' in parts of rural France and how the luxury industry is often marked by fakes, theft and wheeler dealing.

Black diamonds are forever: The importance of the truffle trade in rural France
Truffle sellers line up in the famous market in Lalbenque. AFP

If you are looking for a slice of genuine south western life in rural France – call it French-style Americana – then the truffle market in village of Lalbenque in the Lot département has it all.

It has the wily peasants with business sense who don’t want others to know how well they are doing – gullible tourists, plenty of dirty tricks and of course it's all linked to food.

While much of the truffle industry is located in Provence, the market at Lalbenque , which takes place every Tuesday between from December 1st until March is one of the most well-known.

In the Lot, truffles are called “black diamonds” and it’s at this time of year that they are the most valuable and sought-after. And yet unlike real diamonds there is nothing physically attractive about the truffles, which resemble shrivelled walnuts. 

But some years prices can reach more than €800 a kilo – not bad for what is basically a fungus found on the roots of mainly oak trees. 

There is a small airport near Lalbenque and it's said that the late French President Georges Pompidou ordered it to be built so he could visit his country home there and fly fresh truffles up to the Elysée Palace.

(Chris Bockman)

French farmers have been known to replace local truffles with Chinese ones

The market itself is a very serious affair and run by its own union.

There are close to 200 truffle growers in the Lot and each Tuesday morning before the market, union inspectors will check each basket of truffles a seller brings to ensure that they are the real deal – in other words, locally grown gems.

Occasionally in the past growers have been known to replace them with imported Chinese ones which cost about a tenth the price. Experts say they can tell the difference between a local truffle and an Asian one just by the smell.

There were deep concerns that the market would be closed down this year because of the Covid pandemic but the local Prefect weighed in saying truffles were on the list of essential food products and the market would open as normal.

But its not quite business as usual this year. The market usually attracts hundreds of tourists fascinated by this quintessential element of French rural life. 

The truffle owners are perched along a long row of low tables with the baskets of black diamonds placed in front of them. First a man scrutinises his watch and then blows a whistle at 2.30pm precisely and that signals the beginning of trade. 

A frenzy of activity occurs as restaurant owners, cheese shops, butchers as well as middle men traders haggle with the sellers often in hushed tones and a hand covering part of their mouth (though masks this year should make that a lot easier). 

READ MORE: What you need to know about France's truffle hunting season

AFP

Thousands of euros trade hands

Few like to say how much they paid – and deals are reached within a few minutes – it’s all cash in hand, thousands of euros changing hands. What I found amusing is that once a deal is done sellers and buyers move away from the market to somewhere discreet as the cash is handed over – away from curious or envious eyes.

It has shades of the famous films “Jean de Florette” and “Manon des Sources”. 

Curiously the tax man won’t see any of this either – its all cash in hand and local police or gendarmes are always on hand to keep an eye on proceedings.

I once bumped into a one of most prestigious local chefs Alexis Pelissou – very dandyish in his trilby hat and long coat – followed by a camera crew from the French-German TV channel Arte. He also had his own groupies  (all women) at his side as he paraded up and down the market looking to buy several kilos of 'diamonds' for a new dish in his restaurant.

Now that’s the kind of job and way of living I could adapt to. 

The market itself is over within 20 minutes and just like the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Truffle Union will announce to the assembled journalists, the going rate for this week.

(Chris Bockman)

One of biggest culinary disappointments I’ve experienced

The head of the local truffle union Alain Ambialet told me truffles are best when they are firm and must never be overcooked. He says they are best in omelettes. 

Well I tried them in the most expensive omelette I’ve ever had in one of the local restaurants and was unconvinced by the flavour.

But I said that was just unlucky – when I feel flush or am trying to impress someone for a dinner date I go shopping at the Victor Hugo market in the centre of Toulouse – it’s one of the most well known food markets in southern France and one of the most expensive.

Once around Christmas I saw truffle shavings wedged into brie cheese. It looked amazing and it was something like €140 a kilo, and I fell it for it. It was probably one of biggest culinary disappointments I’ve experienced – so let’s just say truffles must be an acquired taste.

Some of the more canny truffle growers have made lucrative spin-offs from their business. Coach loads of day trippers will pay to see a pig or dog on a leash as its owner encourages them to scramble for truffles in the woods. 

It could be a safari, dozens of cameras and mobile phones taking snaps of what seems to be a lonely farmer searching for a truffle with his or her livestock – a picture from another age.

AFP

(Chris Bockman)

Truffle farmers have been known to steal from each other

Neither pigs or dogs actually like truffles but they are trained early on that if they sniff one out under the soil – they will get a sugary treat in return. 

I once went out with old peasant woman called Madame Delon who was going to receive a coach load of tourists in the afternoon.

She planted a bunch of truffles next to the tree just under the surface a few minutes before the buses arrived – her pet pig Kikki ‘found’ them instantly to everyone’s delight and amazement.

It turned out there was little in it for Kikki. Madame Delon told me her pig would end the year in a Toulouse cassoulet replaced by a younger one. 

But if the farmers love the tourists, they are more wary of each other.

Truffle farmers have been known to steal from each other rather than look for their own in the woods.

Gendarmes check on suspicious behaviour on private land and one gendarme once told me thefts usually occur when it's misty, which makes sense, and more surprisingly when a funeral is taking place. 

At one point it seemed truffles were going to go out of fashion, but in recent years there has been a surge in production as farmers diversify their crops.

If you are tempted you can go on a course as there are plenty of experts down here who will train your dogs (or pig) to sniff them out.

Chris Bockman is based in Toulouse and is the author of “Are you the foie gras correspondent? Another slow news day in south west France.”

 

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EDUCATION

Fees to class sizes – what you need to know about private schools in France

In many countries, private schools are the preserve of the wealthy elite, but France has a wide network of private schools that are well within the financial reach of ordinary families - James Harrington explains more.

Fees to class sizes - what you need to know about private schools in France

The education system in France has its problems – at the start of the new school year some 4,000 teaching posts were unfilled and the government has launched an ‘emergency plan’ for English language lessons – but there’s no doubting there are wonderful schools and wonderful teachers making every effort to ensure children from aged three to 18 get the education they deserve.

However the country also has a sizeable network of private schools and around 15 percent of French children go to a private school. While some are undoubtedly expensive and elite, others are surprisingly affordable and provide an extra option for parents when deciding on  a school for their children.

Here’s what you need to know; 

Different types

There are two types of private school – sous contrat and hors contrat.

Sous contrat schools, of which there are about 7,500 in France, are part-funded by the state – teachers are paid by the Department of Education, for example – but also charge fees. France’s numerous Catholic schools, or regional language schools are usually sous contrat.

Hors contrat schools – which number about 2,500 – must still meet general education requirements but can choose their teaching methods and have no state funding. Private international schools found in most big cities, such as the American School of Paris, are hors contrat, but still follow mainstream teaching methods.

For comparison, there are around 60,000 state schools in France.

Prices

Yes, there are expensive private schools in France. Sending your child to the exclusive Ecole des Roches Private Boarding School, for example, will set you back more than €12,000 a term – not quite Eton or Winchester-level fees, but still well out of the reach of a large portion of the population. But, like Eton and Winchester, they’re not the norm. 

On average, fees for a day pupil – one who goes home at the end of the school day, rather than one who boards at the school – are in the region of around €2,250 a year. Meals are not included, and are generally charged at a slightly higher daily price than at state schools.

Financial aid, including scholarships, may be available for less well-off families.

READ ALSO French school canteens to cut cheese course as inflation bites

Boarding and hours

A large number of state and private schools offer Monday-Thursday boarding. It is not uncommon for pupils who excel at certain subjects or sports to attend collèges or lycées some distance from home, and board during the week.

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Daily school hours, meanwhile, are broadly similar, with children generally starting their school day at around 8am and finishing soon after 4pm on school days. Collège and lycée pupils also go into school on Wednesday mornings, and some may have classes on a Saturday, too.

Popularity

Smaller class sizes and a reputation for “better” results means that private schools are increasingly popular. The number of French private schools has increased steadily over the last decade, and now 15-20 percent of pupils go to a private establishment of some form. 

On the whole, private schools tend to do better in results league tables – perhaps in part because of the additional investment from parents, but also because class sizes tend to be smaller, which allows for more one-to-one education. Smaller class sizes and more individual attention mean they may also be a better option for children who struggle in big schools.

READ ALSO What kind of school in France is best for my kids?

Qualifications

State schools and sous contrat schools teach to the national curriculum, which leads, in turn, to brevet and baccalaureate qualifications.

In contrast, some hors contrat private schools offer different qualifications, including American High School Diplomas and SATs, British GCSEs and A-Levels, or the international baccalaureate.

Religion

Although many sous contrat schools are Catholic, most readily accept non-Catholic children and are not allowed to indoctrinate the Catholic faith. Hors contrat schools, on the other hand, may include a religious element to their teaching.

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