I am installed in understated and effortlessly chic Provençal style at the 16th century Relais & Château Hôtel Crillon le Brave, a sleepy cluster of seven elegantly rustic stone buildings in a tiny Roman hilltop hamlet overlook vineyards and olive groves in the heart of the Rhône valley. In this stunning place I begin my truffle hunting for the earthy nuggets, the diamants noirs, so highly prized by gourmands. Leading the way is Provence's truffier extraordinaire Eric Jaumard and his exuberant, but expertly trained, truffle hound Mirette.
A more obedient servant to their master than pigs as Jaumard explains, and, undoubtedly easier to handle when it comes to extracting the truffles from the earth. They are fed truffles as puppies and trained by hunt-and-reward to sniff out the black treasure from the inoculated roots of the oak fields. It's a task which Mirette clearly relishes, and the bond between man and dog is evident. Every flick of her tail, every twitch of her nose is vital in detecting just when to jump in. No sooner has Mirette started to scratch eagerly at the pebbly soil than the cry 'Allez! Allez!' goes up and Jaumard is on his knees gently chipping away at the earth with a small pick while Mirette is swiftly paid in kind. On this bright November day, warm but not hot, the countryside is dressed in flame oranges and reds of autumn. There is something strangely moving about this simple ritual, and as Jaumard pulls the knobbly fungus the size of a golf ball from the earth, there is a collective sigh of wonder from youngest to oldest in the group.
Truffles are a serious, if precarious, business. Once the food of the poor in the nineteenth century, today's market black truffles command prices anywhere from approximately USD $1,132 to $2,425 per kilo (2 lbs); while the rarer white truffle commonly sells for around USD $8,085 a kilo (2 lbs).
With luck, some can weigh as much as two pounds, but only 10-15 percent of the trees produce truffles; and they are unlikely to grow on the roots until the trees are at least 10 years old. Jaumard has farmed black truffles on his 45-acre estate in the shadow of Mount Ventoux for over 20 years and La Truffe du Ventoux supplies restaurants across France and the UK, including the Roux's legendary Waterside Inn in Bray. Security at Jaumard's beautifully restored farmhouse La Quinsonne is a reminder of the shadier side of the truffle business. Aside from the need to protect the truffles from poachers, well trained dogs are valuable, and as such, vulnerable to dog napping.
After the thrill of the chase, we (man, woman, child and of course, Mirette) made our way back through the fields of white and green oaks to the comfort of La Quinsonne for a rustic and decadently truffle-fuelled five-course lunch. The high-ceilinged dining room is dominated by a baronial-style wood fire and set as if for a large family get together, the gingham-clad tables presided over by vintage photographs and agricultural ephemera.
After delightful truffle-laden toasts, an amuse-bouche of pumpkin soup the color of autumn follows before a rich, creamy dish of scrambled eggs, with generous slices of the black stuff served with thick-cut toast and ham. Next the divinely-rich truffled brie was gorgeously gooey and intoxicating, leaving you weak at the knees. The pièce de résistance was a fabulous truffle-laced crème brûlée – this has to the ultimate in truffle hedonism – and each course was washed down with generous glasses of a robust local red.
Back at Crillon, a laid-back cookery demonstration by one of the hotel chefs showed how to conjure up one’s own truffle creations. This was followed by a taste test to compare the intense aroma and flavor of tuber melanosporum (also known as the Périgord truffle or black winter truffle), with its less intense cousin tuber uncinatum. In the evening, a tutored wine tasting at the hotel was led by the charming Philippe Danel and ex-fashion designer Marie Pirsch of Domaine du Tix. Their small winery in the heart of the Rhône valley and Ventoux hills uses traditional methods of picking, sorting and stripping the leaves by hand.
It was the perfect introduction to three decadent days of quaffing in which we took in everything from the Garagiste varietals in the Ventoux to the finest estates in Châteauneuf-du-Pape where, at Domaine du Grand Tinel, I toured the vineyards and learned about the requirements needed for a bottle to earn its coveted label. A tour of Hôtel Crillon le Brave's own cellars is also a must. Unsurprisingly, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and other Rhône varieties abound. Among the fine southern Rhône vintages were fabulous Syrah-based wines from the north, and vertical collections of Château la Nerthe, and the so-called La La's, the exceptional single vineyard wines of Côte-Rôtie, by the outstanding producer Guigal. These are wines to make oenophiles weep for joy. This truffle and wine fest culminated on the last night with a six-course extravaganza in which, naturally, la belle truffle is the star of each course.
The recent arrival of Chef Jérôme Blanchet and launch of the fine-dining Restaurant Jérôme Blanchet alongside Bistrot 40K signals the beginning of an exciting new era for Hôtel Crillon le Brave. In the stone-walled Restaurant Jérôme Blanchet, with its impressive vaulted ceiling, you might start with a delicate dish of sea bass Carpaccio marinated with kumbawa and avocado shavings flavored with spices and soya caviar. Then savor a mouth-watering filet de boeuf, sautéed with spring onions and potato callisson stuffed with pissala onion and black olives, or trout freshly plucked from the Sorgue in an almond crust with asparagus from Mazan. And to finish, a plate of local cheese from Carpentras, or an iniquitously rich chocolate soufflé with Guanaja chocolate and bourbon vanilla ice cream.
Bistrot 40K boasts local produce sourced within 40 kilometers (approx. 25 miles) of Crillon, hence its name. On clear nights, diners can enjoy Crillon's hilltop views of the villages which generate the wines and produce they are feasting on.
Crillon's unique beauty is that each of the restored houses are joined together by original cobbled alleyways and Romanesque arches, making it impossible to tell where the 32-bedroom hotel begins and the hamlet ends. Exposed beams, tile flooring, distressed wooden furniture and no shortage of quirky features (our room boasts a perfectly preserved set of canine paw prints set into its bathroom tiles) reaffirm its rustic charm.
Rooms start at approximately USD $184 per person, based on two sharing a room in low season; but the Suites and Master Suites are worth the additional money for the extra space and quite simply, their breathtaking panoramic views from the terrace. Room 32 has an open-plan living area, bedroom, and a bathroom with a large shower room built into the old citadel wall, while in Room 33 (a large suite on two levels) you can sip Champagne from a pair of roll-top baths. Furthermore, families should opt for the privacy of the stunning two-bedroom house, La Sousto.
But if you're all truffled out, there's certainly no shortage of places to see and things to do in the city like the nearby vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône. Mont Ventoux, only a 40-minute drive to its summit, offers an adrenaline-pumping cycle ride (if you're feeling so inclined). The hotel is just 25 miles northeast of Avignon, with Marseille and Aix-en-Provence 75 minutes away to the south and southeast, and further afield Nice and the Côte d'Azur.
Alternatively, after feasting on the generous breakfast au terrace or in the La Grange Bar you may just decide to relax by the pool and make the most of the sublime views with a glass of perfectly chilled Provençal rosé in hand.
Hôtel Crillon le Brave offers the three-night Truffle Hunting package in November, December and March from approximately USD $740 per person based on two people sharing a Standard room, approx. USD $903 for a Deluxe, with prices for Suites and Master Suites available upon request. Prices include daily dinner and breakfast, truffle hunting with a rustic lunch, Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine tasting, cooking demonstration, and a visit to Isle-sur-la Sorgue for the weekly farmers’ market and antique shops.
Getting There & Getting Around:
- British Airways, Air France, Flybe, easyJet and Ryanair operate direct flights to Marseille (a 75-minute hotel transfer), and CityJet operates the London City-Avignon route (a 30-minute hotel transfer).
- Rhino Car Hire offers cheap car hire in Provence with prices starting from around USD $31 per day (USD $215 per week). Car hire provider will vary; check terms and conditions on booking.
Thanks to The Massey Partnership, La Truffe du Ventoux, Rhino Car Hire and Grifco.