Updated: Jan 22, 2021
A brief history of the truffle
Somewhere deep in the folds of human psyche, the knowledge that TRUFFLES ARE DELICIOUS is built into us. Relying on permeating the soil, spreading and colonising by being eaten by animals, truffles have evolved to contain a smell and taste that is irresistible to animals. Famously, pigs have snuffled them out for millenia. In the Perigord, truffles are the foundation of a culture steeped in folklore, tradition, mystery and secrecy. But how far back does the relationship between humans and truffles date?
The limestone plateaus of Perigord, cut by deep fertile river valleys, created natural caves long ago. On visiting the area, it is easy to spot shelters and imagine a time where people had to use the land to their advantage. The imagination runs wild in sites such as the incredible troglodite settlement - La Roque Saint Christophe.
It is believed that stone age people enjoyed the climate and food of the region. Bison and deer were plentiful. And by following the examples of wild animals, they began to dig for truffles. Perhaps they enjoyed their earthy, mushroomy flavour then, as we do now.
Incredibly, it is documented that the Sumerians as far back as 1600bc ate truffles with grains such as barley, chickpeas and lentils and the ancient Greeks are said to have enjoyed truffles. There was even a chef named Cherippo in ancient Greece who's sons were granted citizenship because of a delicious truffle dish he created. It seems that man has long nurtured a relationship with these fungi.
According to European legend, a farmer observed his pig digging at the root of a tree and eating the mushrooms that he unearthed. When the farmer saw that the pig remained healthy, he tried the subterranean fungi himself. Following his feast, his inability to have offspring resulted in his wife baring thirteen children! Since then it has been believed that truffles have a supernatural quality and considered God's gift to humanity.
Time passed and civilisations changed. Man grew more informed, refined and scientific. Thanks to the observations of their forefathers, knowledge of the surrounding environment grew and began to be recorded, propelling the thirst for more knowledge. Some of the first written references to truffles date back to the first century. In Historia Naturalis, the Latin scholar Pliny the Elder claimed that the truffle, at that time defined as a tuber, was a "...product of miraculous nature in that it is born and grows without roots,.." Truffles were held in high regard for their oddities and mysteries. Six of the oldest surviving recipes for truffles are in Apicius de re Coquinaria, a book written using the recipes from a chef in the1st century. The Romans could not get enough of them! Juvenal (a Roman poet) was so infatuated that he said "I would rather the corn failed than the truffle." After enjoying these delightful morsels, people wanted to know more. Man was beginning to sharpen his scientific mind and felt a need to define and explore the origins of the truffles. This did not prove a simple task. Romans famously hypothesised that truffles came from lightening. They attributed the birth of the truffle to a thunderbolt thrown from Jupiter in the vicinity of an oak, the sacred tree of the lord of the gods.
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When this simple statement is taken on face value, it is almost laughable. Of course truffles don't pop out of the ground when there is lightening. However, Juvenal was a poet and perhaps his concepts weren't to be taken literally. When we explore these ideas more thoroughly, we can scientifically agree with many of the sentiments of the past.
Lightning - The Romans believed the lightning was thrown under an oak tree. It has been widely observed that stormy summers with lightning have yielded the best truffle harvests.
Heat - The thought the heat from the lightning was necessary. We now know that truffles will only grow in warm climates, truffières go to great lengths to expose the soil under their trees (and thus the truffles) to as much sun as possible.
Water - The Romans believed that rain was essential. Now we know that heavy down pours are linked to the seeding process and observations of heavy rainfall points to increased yields of truffle. Now serious cultivation calls for irrigation.
Oak tree - We know now that truffles, being ectomycorhizzal fungi, colonise the roots of certain plants where they establish a mutualistic relationship. They can form on the roots of a number of trees, but most successfully with oak.
So rather than laughing in scorn when we hear that the Romans believed truffles grew from lightning; we ought instead to admire their keen observational studies and inquisitiveness. In reality, while there have been huge leaps in science in the last 20centuries, we still know relatively little about truffles and we have a lot more to learn about these buried treasures.
The Greeks and Romans also used truffles for therapeutic purposes, feeling that they improved the health of the body and soul. Pope Gregory IV (early 800) ate truffles for strength when battling Saracens. Perhaps these too are observations that have a grounding in science, but I think that's to be explored in another post!
This time in human history was not called the dark ages for nothing. Truffles virtually disappeared from sight. The strangeness of the truffle: the way is grows; the way it smells and tastes; the sensations it imparts and the mysterious beliefs surrounding the truffle were not so readily accepted during this period. In fact it was imagined that the only explanation was that they came from supernatural, diabolical interventions. The fact that truffles would grow in strange places such as near the dead, and covertly under the ground, earned them the reputation of evil food. Referred to as 'witch's fares', and 'devil's creations' truffles were avoided throughout this period. Yes, a dark time indeed.
The end of the dark ages saw the long awaited revival of the truffle. Tastes were important and needed to be satisfied, so these lighter times saw the truffle return to the table.
Louis XIV was obsessed with the exotic aromas of the truffle and he set out to cultivate the delicious fungi. Although he was unsuccessful in his attempts, the king did however ensure that these morsels re-established their place on the high table and were once again enjoyed by nobility with their mystic properties being revered rather than feared.
The golden age of truffles
In the mid 1800s, truffles reached their peak of popularity. Many famous food writers of the age admired them for their rarity and exquisite flavours. Brillat-Savarin (d. 1826), a major truffle enthusiast and chef described them as the jewel of cookery. They became a feature of gourmet recipes including in Mrs Beeton's first cookbook. Lord Byron kept a truffle on his desk, claiming that the perfume helped his inspiration.
During this time, over 2000 tons were produced annually in Europe. They were central to haute cuisine until the ravages of WW1 left truffle groves wasted and even ripped up to make way for more essential food farming.
It is the Perigord region of France that is considered the home of the tuber melanosporum (black truffle) and at the close of the 19th century, Collette describe the black truffle as 'the jem of the poor lands'. Perhaps she heard the Perigordian legend to account for the origins of truffle: 'There was an old woman, tired and hungry, lost in the woods. At last she found a tumbledown house. It was the home of a man equally old and poor. Kindly, he invited her in to have his meal of charred potatoes, cooked in the coals of the dying fire. The old woman was deeply touched by his generosity and she sat down to peel the potatoes. Suddenly, she was transformed into a beautiful fairy. "Lo, do not be alarmed old man, I am the the fairy of the woods. You are a kind and noble person and from these poor potatoes, which you have humbly shared with me, will come the end of your trials and tribulations" Before his very eyes, the potatoes turned into richly flavoured truffles. Despite becoming wealthy and respected throughout the land, he continued to be kind and helpful to those less fortunate. But the same could not be said for his children. They grew up spoiled and lazy. Many years later, when the good fairy returned disguised once again as an old woman, they refused her hospitality and food. To punish them, the fairy buried all the truffles underground and turned the selfish children into pigs to root them out.'
Collette has been among countless others in describing truffles as precious treasure. They are still commonly known as black diamonds or diamonds of the dirt.
The truffle is still considered divine. Elusive and difficult to cultivate, expensive and rare, truffles are sought after across the globe. In 2010, $330,000 was paid for a 1.5kg white truffle, proving that in today's market they continue to command a high price. Truffles have a flavour that cannot be replicated by any other ingredient and so, truffle production is on the rise. And yet, it still remains at only 10% of heyday production in France. There is also a time lag because the subterranean fungus cannot be rushed and will take at least ten years to colonise plant roots and produce harvestable truffles. Almost 200 years ago, the 'Prince of Gastronomy', Curnonsky was asked how he liked his truffles, he replied "In great quantity madam, in great quantity." And more recently, in response to a similar question, P Diddy has been quoted to say "Shave this bitch." The words may have changed, but the sentiment remains true: we all, just like the Romans, can't get enough of them.