Throughout history people have loved truffles. We’ve loved eating them, finding them, and pondering their mysteries.
When we planned our recent trip to Alba, Italy to see the donkey races, I noticed that there was a truffle festival the following week. Of course, I wanted to stay for that. I had fallen in love with the funny-looking fungi when we went on a truffle hunt in Provence years earlier and found a few bumpy black truffles.
Black and White
Black truffles are the more common variety. They’re less expensive, and have a stronger, earthier flavor. But there are also white truffles, which are the rarest and most prized. They grow predominately in the Piedmont region of Italy, and Alba is “truffle central.” The tartufo bianco d’Alba or the white truffle of Alba is considered the finest – and most expensive – of all truffles.
Alba is home to the International Alba White Truffle Fair which runs over nine weekends in October through December. There are cooking demonstrations and countless truffle products on offer: oils, sauces, pasta, and of course, the fabulous fungi themselves. The little lumps are displayed under glass which will be opened for you to sniff as you carefully choose your pricey prize.
So why do these fistfuls of fungus cost so much? First of all, they grow out in nature, under the ground, so they are hard to find. They can’t be sown from seed, and the natural conditions have to be just right for them to grow. Secondly, they have a short shelf life which makes them rare. They are only fresh for a few days. Ideally, they should be consumed withing 5 days. However, if stored properly (wrapped in a paper towel that is changed daily and kept in an airtight glass container in a cool area) they might last a week or two. And, finally, they taste really good, so the demand is high.
Juvenal, a 1st century Roman poet, loved truffles so much that he said “I would rather the wheat crop fail than the truffles.”
On the Hunt
While in Alba, we also went on a truffle hunt – a basic truffle hunt that we scheduled through the tourist office. It was one man and his dog, and my husband and I were the only two “guest hunters.” And when the dog found a medium-sized black truffle, the truffle hunter let us keep it! We were thrilled with our treasure. We went back to our apartment and used all the products we had bought at the truffle fair (truffle pasta, truffle cheese sauce and truffle oil) to make dinner, then we grated our fresh truffle on top. It was glorious!
People and animals have enjoyed eating truffles for thousands of years, but they have always been a bit of a mystery. The ancients weren’t sure whether they were plants or animals. They didn’t appear to have any roots or stems like other plants. It fact, it seemed as if they weren’t connected to anything at all. This led some to believe that truffles formed spontaneously from the earth. Others thought that they might be composed of slightly altered soil.
1st century Roman author Pliny the Elder said the truffle was a “…product of miraculous nature in that it is born and grows without roots…”
Truffles and Thunderbolts
All this mystery led to a myth that the god of the sky (Zeus to the Greeks and Jupiter to the Romans) threw a thunderbolt down next to an oak tree and when it struck the ground it made truffles form under the soil.
In Plutarch’s writing he describes an after-dinner conversation about truffles. He and his other 1st century, Greek philosopher buddies were served some truffles and they began discussing the mystery of how they were formed. They all seemed to think it had something to do with thunder and lightning. But was it the warm rain associated with the thunderstorms, or the cracks made when lightning struck the earth?
Plutarch and his friends didn’t quite figure out the mystery of truffles, but their observational skills were taking them in the right direction. The weather conditions need to be just right for truffles to grow, and, as the philosophers noted, they do grow best when the season is rainy. And they grow near the roots of oak trees. However, in the Piedmont region of Italy, they grow near the roots of the hazel tree.
Truffles, Jupiter and Monks
The legend of Jupiter making truffles with his thunderbolt led to the idea that truffles were aphrodisiac, because Jupiter was known for his overactive libido. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church discouraged the eating of truffles, and it’s said that monks were strictly forbidden to eat them for fear that they would become overexcited and forget their monkish vows.
Truffles and Trees
As the ancients had noticed, truffles do grow near oak tree roots. But we have since learned that Jupiter’s thunderbolts striking the ground doesn’t really have anything to do with it. It’s just that the right growing conditions for truffles exist near the roots of certain types of trees such as oak, hazel, poplar, and beech.
Another oddity observed by the ancients is that when you dig up a truffle, you can’t see any roots or any attachment to the earth. However, it has been discovered that the little fungi do actually connect to the tree roots through microscopic filaments. And through this invisible network, the truffles and trees help each other out: Truffles are great at absorbing water and nutrients, but they can’t turn them into food. Trees, on the other hand, have lots of leaves that allow them to create food through photosynthesis. Through these microscopic filaments, the truffle shares its extra water and minerals with the tree, and in return, the tree shares its carbohydrates (food) with the truffle. It’s a win-win situation.
Truffles and Animals: Pigs, Dogs, and Goats
And just like trees and truffles work together to survive and thrive, humans and animals work together to find the delicious delicacy. You might think it would be easy to find truffles since we know where they grow, but it’s not so simple. Truffles grow underground, so we can’t simply go out and look for them near tree roots. We need the help of our animal friends who have a keen sense of smell.
Pigs were probably the first truffle hunters as they are naturally attracted to the aroma and like to eat the tasty morsels. However, they also disturb the areas where truffles grow which reduces future yields. For that reason, truffle hunting with pigs has been prohibited in Italy since 1985. Dogs seem to be the truffle hunter of choice these days, as they are easily trained to sniff them out. But pigs and dogs aren’t the only animals who can snuffle out a truffle. Surprisingly, goats are also natural truffle detectors.
Truffles and Chocolate
And I want to leave you with one last note about truffles: It’s important to know that chocolate truffles do NOT contain any fungi. (I know, I was disappointed too.) They are called truffles simply because of their shape and resemblance to the luscious little balls of fungi.
I hope you’ll be enjoying some truffle dishes this season.
- Italian winter white truffle: Sep – Dec
- Italian winter black: Nov – Mar
- Italian summer black and white: May – Aug
- French winter black: Nov – Mar
- French summer black: Jun – Aug
Visit the International Alba White Truffle Fair website. The fair is running on the weekends through 3 December.
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- Truffle Hunting in Provence
- The Bronze Pig of Florence
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