Truffles

A history

Black Perigord Truffles

The black truffle is considered the finest of the edible fungi and is the fruiting body of the fungus tuber melanosporum, forming a symbiotic relationship with the roots of oak and hazel trees.

Truffles are harvested in winter once they have matured and they are at their peak after a few heavy frosts. Ancient Greeks and Romans attributed therapeutic and aphrodisiac powers to truffles. Brillat-Savarin referred to them saying they aroused “erotic and gastronomic memories among the skirted sex and memories gastronomic and erotic among the bearded sex” - you have been warned!

Although I now feel compelled to add Jane Grigson’s more prosaic comment : "A number of rare or newly experienced foods have been claimed to be aphrodisiacs. At one time this quality was even ascribed to the tomato. Reflect on that when you are next preparing the family salad."

The history and literature of truffles goes back to the early Romans. In classical times their origins were a mystery that challenged many; Plutarch thought them to be the result of lightning, warmth, and water in the soil.

Times have not greatly changed and truffles remain an elusive and mysterious challenge to this day.

“Presently, we were aware of an odour gradually coming towards us, something musky, fiery, savoury, mysterious, -- a hot drowsy smell, that lulls the senses, and yet enflames them, -- the truffles were coming.
”
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)


Truffle Origins

History Of Truffles

Given how long truffles have enjoyed a revered place in epicurean history, their cultivation commenced surprisingly late.

It is widely acknowledged that truffles were known around 1600 BC amongst many civilizations ranging widely from the Sumerians, Chinese and Babylonians to the Egyptians, Greek, and Ancient Romans by many different names. The Arabs named it ramek, tomer or kemas, the Greek idra, the Romans first called it tuber and then tartufo, the French truffe, the Italians tartufi, the Germans truffel and the British truffle.

Whatever name they had, truffles have had a rich history, divided primarily between culinary art, culture, and literature. Shakespeare wrote of them, Rossini and Mozart enjoyed them and they became widely known after Moliere’s comedy Tartuffe. 500 years before Christ one of Aristotle’s successors, Theophrastus, thought truffles were the product of Autumnal thunder. Accompanying lighting was thought to make the thunderclaps even more beneficial. A century later the poet Nicander hypothesised that truffles were silt transformed by some source of internal heat. 150 years later Plutarch appetizingly suggested truffles were mud, cooked by lightning.

Cultivation began in 1808 when a Frenchman, Joseph Talon, discovered that if self-sown seedlings found under existing truffle trees were transplanted to a new area, there was a fair chance that they too would eventually go on to produce truffles. In the village of Saint Saturnin-les-Apt, you can go and meet a life-size stone statue of Joseph Talon, the "father of truffle raising".

In 1847, Auguste Rousseau successfully planted 7 hectares of truffle-producing oak trees and critically, instead of keeping his technique a secret as his predecessors had done, published and went on to win a prize at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris.

Cultivating truffles, however, remained little more than an eccentric’s hobby until the late 1860s when France’s viticulture and silkworm industries were decimated by dual pestilences. Swathes of arable land were given over to truffle cultivation and production peaked about 1900 with the French Federation, one of the only consistent record keepers, estimating that annual production in France was 675 tonnes by the late 1800s. The first half of the twentieth century saw the previous century’s gains erased with the combination of two world wars (the First World War alone killed 20% or more of the male workforce) and mechanised warfare laying waste the truffles’ ancestral lands.

Today production in France rarely exceeds 35 tonnes a year, wild and cultivated, and some year’s production has been as low as 8 tonnes.Ironically, the scarcity that once elevated truffles to rarified epicurean heights has returned to make truffles one of the more expensive foods. Australia now has some 160 commercial suppliers but growth is slow given the truffles’ lengthy and uncertain journey to harvest.

Sources: A History of Food By Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, Australian Truffle Growers Association, The New York Times Cultivating a Mystique | Jane Black, Wikiepedia, Edible Ectomycorrhizal Mushrooms | Zambonelli and Bonito, A Brief History of the Private Lives of the Roman Emperors By Anthony Blond