Travel: Digging for truffles in the Dordogne

truffle142.jpgThe temperature was struggling to rise above freezing as the fog swirled in and dusk approached - not the sort of day to hang around a remote hillside in deepest France.

But if what you're after is worth its weight in gold a little bad weather is a small sacrifice.

The black Perigord truffle is the thing, and hunting out these "black diamonds" is not just a source of income, it's a matter of pride for every man and his dog - or occasional pig.

truffle480.jpgGenial guides Laurent Fage and Jean-Pierre Vuajour are straight out of French central casting and full of knowledge of the fabled fungus, which grows under oak trees in limestone soil.

There are tell-tale signs the connoisseur will spot, leaving the dog to do the rest.

trufflelaurent.jpgLaurent said: "Around the base of the tree the ground is brulée - burnt - because the truffle has sucked the goodness out of the soil.

"Not every tree will yield truffles, or it might for a few years and then not. You never know what the tree will give.

"A dog can smell the truffle from 30 metres, and unlike a pig it won't eat the truffle when it finds it."

An hour's walk in the woods with Bif the dog was lucrative, yielding a small basket of black diamonds.

Prices at Brive market can be anything up to 1,500 euros in a scarce year, although this winter it's been around 900 euros.

Who says money doesn't grow on trees, or in this case under them?

The French have even developed a process, mycorrhize, to propagate trees on truffle farms, such as La Ferme de la Truffe in Martel, which are now responsible for about 60 per cent of production.

truffledig480.jpgThe black Perigord, or tuber melanosporum, is the most prized. There's also the brumale - stronger of scent and better cooked - as well as the summer truffle, a pale imitation of its earthy cousin. Beware cut price deals - it's often how dealers get rid of sub-standard or rotting truffles to unsuspecting buyers.

So what to do with the precious ingredient? Keep it simple according to Abel Congratel, patron of the stylish Manoir de Malagorse chambre d'hote in Cuzance.

He said: "The truffle works best with things like eggs and butter. It mixes well with fats, like oil, which bring out the flavour. Here we like it with foie gras, but it works well stuffed under the skin of roast chicken or in a simple risotto. And the truffle is best eaten young, they won't keep more than 15 days."

trufflemarket.jpgThe French are clearly still in love with food. Festivals such as the Fete de la Truffe in Sarlat celebrate the best in local ingredients. Every January it attracts Michelin starred chefs demonstrating truffle-inspired recipes, while the coveted Trophée Jean-Rougié for young chefs was won last year by English girl Lexine Hepworth.

You can even try cooking under the tutelage of a chef, although you'd probably need to remortgage to serve up foie gras and black truffle backeoff at a dinner party.

Wash this fine fare down with excellent Bergerac, Cahors or the local sweet Monbazillac wine.

The truffle season ends in March, but there's plenty more to see and do in this fascinating region, often bypassed by tourists heading to southern France. It's never been easier to get there from Canary Wharf. City Jet flights from City Airport take just 90 minutes before touchdown in Brive.

Sarlat.jpgIn Sarlat, a beautiful medieval town, take a trip in the glass elevator in the ruined church of St Marie for a fine view of its higgledy piggledy rooftops.

Visit the neighbouring Manoir de Gisson for a gruesome display of torture instruments, or just imagine yourself as Cyrano de Bergerac while wandering the town's charming streets.

denoix142.jpgWalnuts might be synonymous with Christmas but Denoix distil the juice of fresh green Perigord ones in traditional copper stills at their distillery in Brive.

Aged for five years in oak barrels, the result is a sweet, rich liqueur that's a pleasure to drink. The distillery also makes a famous violet mustard (denoix.com).

Rocamadour.jpgThe ancient village of Rocamadour, carved into the side of a limestone gorge, is part of the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela and is still an important religious centre.

Avoid the overcrowded summer months and visit in April or September, when the atmosphere is at its best.

Troglodyte living was all the rage 20,000 years ago and the region boasts some of the best preserved cave paintings in the world. Lascaux II is the most famous, but also worth checking out are Le Pech Merle and Le Thot.

Go to tourisme-lot.com and vacances-en-correze.

Getting there:

CityJet flies to Brive twice a week from London City Airport. One way fares start from £79, including all taxes. Go to cityjet.com or call reservations on 0871 666 50 50.

Accommodation:

Chateau de Lacan (chateaulacan.com) in Brive is a quirky hotel featuring a fine restaurant and warm welcome. Rooms from 150 euros per night.

For a homely but classy stay the Manoir de Malagorse chambre d'hote (manoir-de-malagorse.fr) is run by Abel and his English wife Anne. It's a luxurious retreat in the country. From 130 euros per night.