Black diamond: an ode to the truffle

Meet Serge Desazars, the owner of France’s first organic truffle farm who left a career in fashion to grow the finest truffles

People 4 Dec 2018

Truffle farmer and author Serge Desazars

After working in fashion for 15 years, Paris-born businessman Serge Desazars turned to a different kind of luxury industry, transforming his passion for truffle farming into his livelihood. In 1996, he founded Baron de la Truffe, France’s first organic truffle farm, using centuries-old production methods to produce the finest truffles. Desazars’ first book, Ode To The Truffle, charts the untold history of the black diamond

What was the inspiration behind Ode To The Truffle?

I was surprised that there weren’t really any books dedicated to truffles. With this book it was important to first explain the history of truffles and also the different types of truffles – there are 27 different varieties. Then in the end there are some recipes. I’ve been quite fortunate to supply some great Michelin-starred chefs such as Yannick Alléno and Thomas Boullault, and they were all very keen to donate recipes for the book.

When were you first introduced to truffles?

It was thanks to some friends about 25 years ago. In 1996 I decided to plant my first trees, and in 2000 I managed to harvest my first truffles. It was just a hobby at the time because I’d been to business school and had spent 15 years in luxury fashion, so far away from this environment, but I found that on weekends my passion was to go into the field and take care of the trees and my dogs and harvest a few truffles. Then came the day when the production started getting bigger than my consumption. I started doing some research on the market and discovered that the worldwide demand is estimated to be 10 times more than what we produce, so it was a big gap. For me is was important to produce good quality truffles in big quantities and supply directly to the consumer. It’s important that they have access to real truffles. We are expanding Baron de la Truffe every year and planting more hectares and developing visits to the farm. With 60 hectares it’s a big investment so it has to be business-orientated but at the same time it’s a passion.

What was your first truffle experience?

My first experience with truffles was a whole one – about 50g – and it was cooked in pastry and bacon. At first I thought it was too strong but it’s a bit like a drug, you have a bit and then you need more and more. That’s how I came to this name, Baron de la Truffe, because truffles are like a drug. In the past you had drug barons and now you have truffle barons!

What is the planting process?

It all starts with the ground. You have to have PH levels of more than seven, then you plant some trees. It’s an exchange between the truffle and the tree; the truffle brings minerals to the tree and vice versa, so you need both of them. There are 14 different kinds of trees that can produce truffles, oak being the most common. Truffles have been around since the 4th century and surprisingly it wasn’t in France but Egypt – the desert truffle. Soon after, the Greeks and Romans also started enjoying truffles thanks to the pigs who were eating them – that’s how they discovered them. In France it was Pierre Mauléon who pioneered truffle growing. He started planting his first trees in 1790 and nine years later he harvested his first truffle, and that’s only five miles away from Baron de la Truffe in Touraine, so it’s really the birthplace of truffle growing.

Are they difficult to grow?

Yes, because it’s a very long-term process. Between the moment you plant the tree and the time you start harvesting the first truffles it takes at least five years. Full production is 10 years, so you need to be passionate to do it.

Can they grow anywhere?

You find truffles all over the world, we are discovering new ones almost every year. Nowadays they’re coming from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile – it’s spreading all around the world. It’s a mushroom that needs water and also heat, but it also needs a bit of cold weather although not too much otherwise you can’t dig them out. France, Spain and Italy have ideal conditions. I’m not too worried about competition yet.

Did you have to train to become a truffle farmer?

Not really, because there’s nowhere to study it. The key is to be curious and experiment, look at other agricultural products and how they grow and see if you can take some ideas direct from those producers. What is surprising is that one tree can give you up to four kilos of truffles but the tree next to it won’t give you anything. It’s difficult to predict it but that’s the fun of it. It’s exciting when the dog has found something but you never know the size of the truffle. It could be the size of a pea or it could be up to two kilos, so it’s always a bit of a surprise. My record is finding 44 truffles together.

What is your favourite way to eat them?

The simplest recipes are the best. For people who have never really tasted truffles before I make truffle butter. You take salted butter, put about 10 percent of its volume of truffles in it, leave it in the fridge for two days and then just serve it with bread. I also do the same thing with eggs, you put whole eggs with truffles in a jar and the egg will take the flavour of the truffle. One of my favourite recipes is with scallops, they go really well together. And what surprises everyone is that they go with dessert very well. You need cream or a bit of fat. It goes really well with chocolate, like a white chocolate mousse. Tiramisu with truffle is also delicious.

Ode To The Truffle is available now (£32, Editions Sutton);