Truffles, the fruit of a fungus, are an acquired taste, which is much easier to acquire than the truffles themselves.
These delicacies cost a pretty penny in restaurants, and finding their natural wooded whereabouts, hidden just below the surface of the ground, is a learned and lucrative craft.
Searching in the wilds of Europe for free truffles is a highly elusive activity.
So, when Viking River Cruises offered truffle hunting as an optional excursion (at about $120) from its Viking Forseti, during a one-week voyage in the Bordeaux region of France, the quick answer was “yes.”
Our “hunt” was a resounding success, as the excursion included the leadership of a master guide, known in France as the Truffle King, and his dog Farah, trained as a truffle sniffer.
This would be no fishing trip without a nibble. Truffles awaited us beneath the soil at a private farm, near the village of Les Eyzies in the Dordogne region. Here, the owner and guide, passionate Edouard Aynaud, is an expert at attracting the truffle fungus to grow on the roots of his trees.
We came (by bus), we searched (where Farah scratched the ground), we dug (carefully), we discovered truffles, and we ate.
A meal was prepared at the farmhouse from previous black truffle pickings that added an unmistakable earthy flavor to buttered toast, scrambled eggs, pasta with cream sauce, and a caramel sauce for ice cream. Back truffles can sell for as much as $1,200 a pound in France, so we ate appreciatively. Such a meal, with local wine, could have cost as much as our entire 99-euro tour that day if we had chosen to eat in a French restaurant.
River voyages rise in popularity
Such an excursion is lure enough for a river cruise, which speaks to the primary reason that the popularity of river voyages continues to rise. Many river cruises in Europe and Southeast Asia are booked by vacationers more as transportation to destinations than vessels for lazing a week away.
Traveling the interior of Europe on a river cruise, with your bedroom and chef, fits the typical vacation goals of more educated, mature travelers, said Torstein Hagen, Viking River Cruises chairman.
Hagen likes to say that while ocean voyages are for drinking, river trips are for thinking (though presumably the cruises he is launching this year on the Viking Star, the first of his new Viking Ocean line, will be an exception to the rule).
Hagen’s comparison seems simplistic, but it’s his way of saying that most people choose ocean cruises to relax and be entertained, while most people choose river cruises to explore cultural and historic sites. Most group excursions off river vessels are included in the price.
All river cruises are not alike
Some scenic voyages can be quite sedentary and thus appeal to an older, less mobile crowd. (On a slow barge cruise several years ago I got up early in the mornings for a long bike ride before breakfast to combat lethargy). Other cruises require mobility, such as the voyages on the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers of Cambodia and Vietnam, where passengers climb riverbanks and take long walks.
Pay attention as well to the design of the specific riverboat that will transport you. One issue may be mobility, which is not paid as much attention in Europe as it is in the United States. Some riverboats have no elevators, for instance, and others have elevators that do not reach all decks.
Some European river cruises are from city to city, such as the many segments between Amsterdam and Bucharest on the Rhine and Danube; from Berlin to Prague on the Elbe; and the rivers Saône and Rhone from mid-France through Lyon to Avignon and Arles. In Russia, riverboats run between Moscow and St. Petersburg on the waters of the Volga, Svir and Neva.
Other river cruises are roundtrip, as distances are shorter, such as the voyages from Paris to Normandy; Porto through Portugal; and Bordeaux through the wine country. On shorter trips, you may spend less time on the river, and more on guided bus tours, especially if important sites are not at water’s edge.
Truffles do not grow near the river
The bus rides through the rolling countryside of Bordeaux from riverside to and from the truffle farm, Truffle en Perigord (truffe-perigord.com, which is in French but works in English with a translate app), totaled several hours. For me, the ride was worth every minute.
Edouard Aynaud offers to help prospective truffle cultivators locate the proper climate, soil (with lime)and trees in the long process of truffle growth.
“First, you pray for three years,” said Aynaud. In the United States, he said, truffles grow well in portions of Texas, California and Oregon.
For river cruise information from Viking, go to vikingrivercruises.com.
David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column appears monthly in U.S. newspapers and on other Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com Portions of this blog appeared in print and online in the Miami Herald.