"The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber, and after two thousand years of argument and discussion their answer is the same as it was on the first day: we do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord."
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)
Truffle – A Brief History
For as long as truffles have been collected – nearly 4,000 years – they have held us in their spell. Their extravagant history as inducers of romance and as the pinnacle of haute cuisine began when the ancients attributed them with magical powers. Not knowing what to make of them, sages identified truffles as calluses of the earth, the product of lightening striking the ground, the children of the gods, or things that grew from the spit of witches.
Babylonian royals were partial to truffles wrapped in papyrus and roasted in ashes. The chefs of Egyptian pharaohs embellished dishes with them. They won rave reviews from the likes of Pythagoras and Theophrastus.
But trufflemania really took off when the Greeks introduced them to the Romans, Cicero, Pliny, and Plutarch classified them as aphrodisiacs, inspiring their country men, characteristically, to take pleasures to extremes.
The fall of Roman civilization prompted the tubers’ near oblivion from historical records for 1,000 years. In the Middle Ages, monks were prohibited from eating truffles for fear they would forget their calling and get "hot under the frock" for medieval maidens.
Truffles are still used in some of the richest dishes imaginable such as this ice cream à la truffe by chef Pierre Core of the famous Aubere de la Truffe in the village of Sorges.
The long embargo on the forbidden fungi ceased with the Renaissance. François I surrendered to their charms and made them a favorite delicacy at sumptuous banquets at Fontainebleau. Louis XIV commissioned the first research devoted to cultivating them. But not until the early 1800s, when Brillat-Savarin spread the word that truffles should be cooked for their own gastronomical merits, did they get the attention they deserved.
The dawn of the golden age of the truffle — when annual production reached almost 2,000 tons in the late 19th century and Périgoridans gorged on the tubers as if they were turnips-soon faded to dusk. World War I took the lives of so many peasants that survivors had to turn their attention from truffles to staple crops. By World War II, yearly harvests had plunged to 400 tons. A postwar exodus from the countryside left most truffières derelict. Production hit bottom in the 1960s.
Many abandoned truffières have since been reclaimed by a new generation of farmers and returned to their former fertility. The discovery that tree roots infected with fungal spores can produce truffles has made artificial cultivation, for better or for worse, a reality. Today, over 90% of all truffles produced in France are cultivated.
Truffles – Summary of Biology
Tuber melanosporum is the product of a symbiotic marriage between a subterranean mushroom and the roots of a tree. The truffle itself is the fruiting body of a fungal colony and usually grows beneath the drip line of the outermost branches of hazels and oaks. Because it cannot produce its own food, the fungus unites with a tree’s hair-like rootlets to develop symbiotic organs, called mycorrhizae, through which it feeds on carbohydrates and other nutrients photosynthesized in the tree canopy.
In turn, the mycorrhizae emit hyphae, gossamer threads that extend in great webs through the soil, seeking moisture and minerals, including the vital nutrient phosphorus, which they share with the tree roots. At the same time, the hyphae spread the mycorrhizal infection to neighboring roots, forming a protective shelf around them against disease-causing organisms and infusing the soil with antibiotics. This subterranean activity is revealed by scorched earth, or " brûlé," which manifests itself as a near absence of surface vegetation.
Tuber melanosporum is a polygamist, inasmuch as its symbiotic marriage extends to truffles flies, wild boars, and many small mammals, all of which are lured by its fragrance to dine and participate in the diffusion of spores. The irony is that while these "pests" are the bane of the farmer and forager, they are also links in the chain of interdependency that gives truffles life.
Truffles and Pigs
Legend has it that the first being on the planet to devour truffles was a female wild boar. A farmer watched the sow dig up and eat the presumably poisonous underground fungi and waited patiently for her to die. Instead, she flew into a fit of passion and attracted so many lovesick suitors that the species began to proliferate in hot haste. Hoping to become fruitful and multiply, the story goes, the farmer sampled the magical tuber. His previously childless marriage reportedly gave rise to a brood of 13.
Indeed, long before human beings discovered truffles, wild pigs – from which domestic swine are descended – played a key role in the life cycle of the fungi. Misguided female boars would dig them up in fits of lust and scatter their spores throughout the forest. It turns out that truffles produced the same chemical substance as the pheromone, known as androstenol, produced in the testicles and secreted in the saliva of the boar. This is why sows were used in the hunt for truffles, and they didn’t need to be trained, as dogs would.
With high quality inoculated seedlings of oaks and filberts, coupled with advanced scientific management methodology, truffles can and have been successfully cultivated. It is a highly lucrative business, and the most lucrative legal agricultural crop one can plant. The emphasis for successful truffle cultivation is on ongoing, active science. For more information on truffle cultivation, visit www.americantruffle.com.