The history of truffles

Truffles–the tastiest temptation? A brief history of truffles

A brief history of truffles

Those lucky enough to know the wonders of eating truffles will testify that it is indeed the ultimate aphrodisiac, and even perhaps the ultimate food experience… period.

Unfortunately, as we all know, eating truffles is not a common experience.

But make no mistake, the flavor of a fresh truffle is earthy, musty, and sexy, a multi-sensory experience involving sight, smell, taste, mouth feel, and something innately primitive, even, some say, arousing. This taste experience is so uniquely powerful that it challenge’s a writer’s ability to translate flavor and texture into words. It rocks us into orbit.

What is a truffle?

I should pause for a moment to clarify what a truffle really is, because “truffle” has two meanings. Most people think of a small, round chocolate morsel called “truffle” when the term arises. The dessert known as the “chocolate truffle” can be delicious but it should never be confused with nature’s gift of the true truffle. Once you know the fungus truffle, you will be among a society of the lucky few. Of course, the dessert is very nice, as well.  I mean who doesn’t like chocolate? The dessert truffle is made from ganache, a mixture of heavy cream and chocolate. It is usually rolled in something else after it is chilled, such as cocoa powder, chopped nuts, or something sweet.  Certainly, it’s a decadent bite for a sweet tooth.

But if you want a succulent, earthy taste, the other truffle is your goal.  Unfortunately, it’s not easily attainable as mixing chocolate and cream.  And at upwards of $95/oz, few can afford even a bite. But once you’ve tasted a truffle, there’s no going back. (Prices vary by year and the color, size and origin of the truffle.)

Truffles are members of the edible fungus order Ascomycetous, and are mainly of the Tuber genus.  The 2 main divisions are black and white truffles, coming historically from Perigord, France, and Alba, Italy, respectively.

There is a fierce rivalry surrounding French and Italian truffles, as well as fierce debates concerning black and white truffles.  Let it go.  Both are great. According to some experts, the black truffle needs to be slightly cooked, while the white is sliced and eaten paper thin in the raw.

Of course, truffles are also found in other regions around the world. Many experts believe that the Oregon truffle is among America’s most overlooked culinary treasures.

Hunting for truffles

Unfortunately, no matter what part of the world from which they originate, these delectable underground fungi are not easily found.  In the history of truffles, there are certain clues that only the savvy caveur (truffle hunter) knows.

Truffles have a symbiotic relationship to certain tree roots, and the ground above the growing tubers can show a “scorched earth” appearance, referred to as terre brûlée in France. Secondly, small gnats or flies are often found around the area, apparently anxious to lay their larvae in a fertile food delta. Thirdly, although many humans rave about the earthy musky smell of truffles, our sense of smell is not keen enough to detect them growing underground. That’s why we need the chercheuse (“pursuer”), provided by a trained pig or dog, whose sense of smell is a lot sharper than ours.  These creatures are of great value in France. Food writer Elatia Harris brings the point home with the story of a Frenchman sentenced to 45 years in prison for stealing two truffle hunting pigs in 1985. No one protested, among the French, the punishment quite fitting.

Truffle is aphrodisiac

Any one who has savored a truffle can attest to its aphrodisiac effect. As far as we’re concerned, this is one of the most interesting aspects to the history of truffles. But there is also some objective scientific evidence to lend support that truffles can drive you wild. In Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the KitchenTruffles--the tastiest temptation? A brief history of truffles 1 we learn that truffles contain androstenol, a pheromone found in men’s underarm sweat, (be still my beating heart).  This chemical is also found in the saliva of the male pig, which prompts mating behavior in the sow. Suuuuueeeeyyyy! I rest my case.

So, some time before you die, you must find a way to taste a truffle. You will thank me for this. Below are some suggestions for retailers who carry truffle products. You can stretch your truffle tasting further by using them to flavor an oil or paste. A little truffle goes a long way.

A taste for truffles

And here are some recipes to try after getting your treasure:


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