This just in from Harold Hark. Is it for real? You be the judge.
OK, so I lied about the pub brawl. But I swear on a stack of Pat Robertson-autographed Bibles that what I am about to relate is true. To prove it, I am sending an item extracted from my buttocks and retrieved from the surgeon's poubelle by an obliging nurse who works in the hospital where I have spent the last ten days.
From Ireland, I went straight to France where I intended to blow half my meagre funds on a few days of bliss in the truffle country of Provence. Mission: consume as many truffles as the allotted funds would allow while feasting on the great cuisine of the region and imbibing copious amounts of Baudelaire's vin de l'assassin, the poetic term he surely meant to describe the wretched table wine of France's southern vineyards.
As karma would have it, I landed in the midst of a truffle war.
It appears the price of truffles has skyrocketed in the last decade, pushed up by a high-flying and voracious global tout-le-monde. To cash in on the boom, truffle rustling has become beeg beezness. Marauding gangs and individual raiders have taken to ferreting out the magic lumps under cover of darkness, armed with guns, wire-cutters and night-vision goggles. Enterprising families have joined in too -- mums and dads, sons and daughters, and, of course, the family chien truffier -- all seeking to do their part to bolster the capitalist/criminal imperative. Every farmer's neighbour is now a suspect.
So there I was in the village of M., buttering and jamming a croissant in the small bistro attached to the hotel I arrived at the night before, when two farmers entered, one in a state of alarm. Amazingly, one of his best truffle-producing oak trees had been uprooted and hauled off overnight. I nearly choked on my brekkie and the comely girl behind the bar let out a seemly squeal of dismay. An entire tree? Evidently happens all the time.
"Mademoiselle, deux Cinquante-et-uns, s'il vous plait!" croaked the violated farmer, calling on a certain Monsieur Ricard, the Provençal oracle to help calm his anger. The girl brought them two ice-free glasses of the liquorice-flavoured, mucous-coloured pastis, which the gents topped up with tepid tap water from a pitcher on the table. Their moustaches trembled as the glasses were raised. Altogether a horrifying sight this early in the day.
The farmers-a-pair then whipped out a couple of Boyards, the cigarette wrapped in papier maïs whose strength makes Gauloise smokers look like poofs. The air filled with the smoke of indecently pungent black French tobacco, lung-cementing as well as muse-provoking, as they conferred with great agitation.
Seems the farmer's son had been swanning around in Lyons for the last week and couldn't be contacted. Farmer Fucked desperately wanted him to come back to stand guard in the smallish plantation for the next few nights.
Before I could stop myself (but after I wiped coffee and apricot jam from my chin -- I'm a dunker whose nickname, Slobodan Disgustos Grossman, is well earned), I volunteered to be his sentry. For a small fee, bien sûr. The farmer turned to me, aghast.
"Espèce de salaud Brittanique, c'est entièrement votre faute!" he spluttered.
"Mais non, Je viens d'Australie," I protested. "I'm an Aussie."
"Même chose," he muttered.
After I convinced him Australians were not the cause of the truffle troubles, he reluctantly agreed to hire me.
"Vingt euros la nuit, repas gratuite," he said. He was offering me around $30 Australian, and free food.
"Vingt-cinq euros," I bargained, "et du bon vin, pas l'ordinaire."
"D'accord," he grumbled. The deal was set. Unless, that is, he could meanwhile find his son. Otherwise, he would pick me up in time for dinner.
So it came to pass that the son was not found and I was not to salivate over several courses of the "black diamond", the famous Tuber melanosporum that night at the nearby Relais Sainte-Victoire. Instead, I found myself, slightly drunk, in an eerie little forest surrounded by a very high, five-strand electric fence.
How did they get in here and remove a tree? I wondered, trying to establish a routine to my pacing. The smells generated by the hidden lumps assailed my nostrils: rich soil, fine wine, ripe cheese, mown lawns and old socks frolicked together in the late summer air.
At this point I realised my blunder in not bargaining for truffles -- straight from the source! -- to go with the farmer's dinner. I kicked a clod of dirt with vicious despair.
To get over it, I turned my thoughts to the girl in the bistro, whom I took to be the daughter of the hotel's propriétaire. A frisson of lust accompanied the vision of her close-set Mediterranean eyes and bronze skin; enough beauty there to have starred in my dreams the night before. Knowing that somewhere on the premises, perhaps next door to my room, she was sleeping in her warm skin under a fragrant doona, hopefully unwashed for some time so that it had absorbed her tongue-lolling female aromas …
What could have possessed me to volunteer for this asinine tribulation!
I decided to do my own rooting for truffles to pass the time. I had no idea how to find them, but if I knelt at the foot of a tree and dug around, maybe I would find one near the surface. If they lived near the surface. What if they were deeper? The old bastard would know someone was digging around. Just then, the torch went dim. The fucking batteries! Well, isn't that just great, I sort of shouted. (Trying to shout quietly is no mean feat and the words came out in a theatrical, strangled sort of way.) I could have been sleeping next to Manon des Sources but there I was stuck in the middle of a medieval forest without a light. In-fer-nal, I cried in my best French accent to date. Unfortunately, I forgot to put at least half a sock in it.
"Who goes there?" someone shouted in French. I leapt a foot.
"Whaddaya mean who goes there?" I shouted back. "I'm the one asking the questions around here. Such as, 'Who goes there.'"
My irate question was met with gunfire. Crikey! The bastard was shooting at me. I ran like hell, but the next round caught up with me. I fell to the ground with several fiery pellets of buckshot in my backside.
"Hey, I'm only a sentry here," I squeaked at the man standing over me. He held a smoking shotgun.
"Les mains en l'air," he ordered, sounding as if he had stepped out of a Lucky Luke comic.
"You want me to put up my hands? But I'm on my hands and knees. If I put up my hands I'll fall on my face!"
"Debout, alors," he commanded. I obeyed, standing with difficulty from the searing pain in my derrière. "C'est la ferme de mon père ," he said, "et vous êtes en état d'arrestation."
"Votre père?" je blubbered, "votre père? Mais c'était votre père qui m'a engagé. Didn't you know?"
Alas (or should I say hélas), the son had returned to the village that night and heard from someone in the local bar about the tree hijacking. He drove home, decided not to disturb his sleeping father, grabbed his shotgun and strode into the forest to look for truffle rustlers.
I later learned that while he was driving me to the hospital, a truckload of poachers arrived and removed another tree, apparently unaware of the drama which had just taken place.
So much for truffles. My arse is mended and tomorrow I'm off to search the villages north of St Tropez for the whereabouts of Johnny Depp. Maybe I can find a job as Depp's personal truffle taster, to save him from the inferior Italian variety, or to insure that they have not been poisoned by agents of Christopher Hitchens. Of course I never got to taste one -- the truffle funds went to paying the hospital bill -- but Depp needn't know. As soon as he hears how much I loved Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he's bound to hire me for something. I wonder if he has a shack out back I could stay in.
Ed. note: It turns out that the "item" Hark claims to have been extracted from his buttocks is not a pellet of buckshot but a ball bearing. He probably found it while walking down some endless road.
Furthermore, Hark clearly lifted much of the information in this dubious account from Truffles and strife, by John Lichfield, which appeared in the 14 May 2005 edition of The Age Good Weekend. He must have read it before fleeing Australia.
Let's hope Johnny Depp doesn't have a shotgun.