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A truffle is one of a type of subterranean mushroom, or the fruiting body of such a mushroom. Spore dispersal is accomplished through fungivores, animals that eat fungi. Almost all truffles are ectomycorrhizal and are therefore usually found in close association with trees.
There are hundreds of species of truffles. The fruiting body of some (mostly in the genus Tuber) are highly prized as a food: French gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called them "the diamond of the kitchen". Edible truffles are held in high esteem in Middle Eastern, French, Spanish, northern Italian and Greek cooking, as well as in international haute cuisine.
The origin of the word truffle appears to be the Latin term tuber, meaning "swelling" or "lump", which became tufer- and gave rise to the various European terms: French truffe, Spanish trufa, Danish trøffel, German Trüffel, Swedish tryffel, Dutch truffel, Polish trufel, Serbian тартуф / tartuf and Croatian tartuf. In Portuguese, the words trufa and túbera are synonyms, the latter closer to the Latin term. The German word Kartoffel ("potato") is derived from the Italian tartufo (truffle) because of superficial similarities.
The mycelia of truffles form symbiotic relationships with the roots of several tree species including beech, poplar, oak, birch, hornbeam, hazel, and pine. They prefer argillaceous or calcareous soils which are well drained and neutral or alkaline. Truffles fruit throughout the year, depending on the species and can be found buried between the leaf litter and the soil.
The "white truffle" or "Alba madonna" (Tuber magnatum) comes from the Langhe and Montferrat areas of the Piedmont region in northern Italy and, most famously, in the countryside around the cities of Alba and Asti; in Italy it can also be found in Molise and in the hills around San Miniato, in Tuscany. It is also found in Croatia, on the Istria peninsula in the Motovun forest along the Mirna river, and in the Drome area in France. Growing symbiotically with oak, hazel, poplar and beech and fruiting in autumn, they can reach 12 cm diameter and 500 g, though are usually much smaller. The flesh is pale cream or brown with white marbling. Italian white truffles are very highly esteemed (illustration, left) and are the most valuable on the market: The white truffle market in Alba is busiest in the months of October and November when the Fiera del Tartufo (truffle fair) takes place. In 2001, the Tuber magnatum truffles sold for between 1000–2200 USD per pound (2000–4500 USD per kg); as of December 2009 they were being sold at 14,203.50 USD per kilogram.
Giancarlo Zigante and his dog Diana found one of the largest truffles in the world near Buje, Croatia. The truffle weighed 1.31 kilograms (2 lb 14 oz) and has entered the Guinness Book of Records.
The record price paid for a single white truffle was set in December 2007, when Macau casino owner Stanley Ho paid 330,000 USD (£165,000) for a specimen weighing 1.5 kilograms (3.3 lb), discovered by Luciano Savini and his dog Rocco. One of the largest truffles found in decades, it was unearthed near Pisa,Italy and sold at an auction held simultaneously in Macau, Hong Kong and Florence. This record was then matched on November 27, 2010 when Ho again paid 330,000 USD for a pair of white truffles, including one weighing nearly a kilogram.
The Tuber magnatum pico white truffle is found mostly in northern and central Italy, while the Tuber borchii, or whitish truffle, is found in Tuscany, Romagna, Umbria, the Marche and Molise. Neither of these is as aromatic as those from Piedmont, although those from Città di Castello come quite close.
The "black truffle" or "black Périgord truffle" (Tuber melanosporum) is named after the Périgord region in France and grows with oak and hazelnut trees. Specimens can be found in late autumn and winter, reaching 7 cm in diameter and weighing up to 100 g. Production is almost exclusively European, with France accounting for 45%, Spain 35%, Italy 20%, and small amounts from Slovenia, Croatia and the Australian states of Tasmania and Western Australia (see below). Recently large amounts have been found in Serbia. In 1937, France produced around 1,000 metric tonnes (1,100 short tons) of Tuber melanosporum. Production has considerably diminished in the past century, and is now around 20 metric tonnes (22 short tons) per year, with peaks at 46 metric tonnes (50 short tons) in the best years. About 80% of the French production comes from southeast France: upper Provence (départements of Vaucluse and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), part of Dauphiné (département of Drôme), and part of Languedoc (département of Gard); 20% of the production comes from southwest France: Quercy (département of Lot) and Périgord. The largest truffle market in France (and probably also in the world) is at Richerenches in Vaucluse. The largest truffle market in southwest France is at Lalbenque in Quercy. These markets are busiest in the month of January, when the black truffles have their highest perfume. As of December 2009, black truffles were sold for about €1,000 per kilo in a farmer's market (the normal price being about €600) and €3,940 per kilo in a retail seller. The genome sequence of the Périgord black truffle was published in March 2010.
The black summer or burgundy truffle (Tuber aestivum/uncinatum) is found across Europe and is prized for its culinary value. Two varieties are distinguished within this species: burgundy truffles, harvested in autumn until December, and summer truffles, harvested in summer, whose flesh is of paler color and whose aroma is less pronounced.
Two lesser-used truffles include the "black truffle" (Tuber macrosporum) and the "Scorzone truffle" (Tuber aestivum).
The "pecan truffle" (Tuber lyonii) syn. texense is found in the Southern United States, usually associated with pecan trees. Chefs who have experimented with them agree "they are very good and have potential as a food commodity". Although pecan farmers used to find them along with pecans and discard them, considering them a nuisance, they sell for about $100 a pound and have been used in some gourmet restaurants.
The term "truffle" has been applied to several other genera of similar underground fungi. The genera Terfezia and Tirmania of the family Terfeziaceae are known as the "desert truffles" of Africa and the Middle East. "Hart's truffle" is a name for Elaphomycetaceae. Pisolithus tinctorius, which was historically eaten in parts of Germany, is sometimes called "Bohemian truffle".
The first mention of truffles appears in the inscriptions of the neo-Sumerians regarding their Amorite enemy's eating habits (Third Dynasty of Ur, 20th century BCE) and later in writings of Theophrastus in the fourth century BC. In classical times, their origins were a mystery that challenged many; Plutarch and others thought them to be the result of lightning, warmth and water in the soil, while Juvenal thought thunder and rain to be instrumental in their origin. Cicero deemed them children of the earth, while Dioscorides thought they were tuberous roots.
Italy in the Classical period produced three kinds of truffles: the Tuber melanosporum, the Tuber magnificanus and the Tuber magnatum. The Romans, however, only used the terfez (Terfezia bouderi), a fungus of similar appearance, which the Romans called truffles, and which is sometimes called "desert truffle". Terfez used in Rome came from Lesbos, Carthage, and especially Libya, where the coastal climate was less dry in ancient times. Their substance is pale, tinged with rose. Unlike truffles, terfez have no taste of their own. The Romans used the terfez as a carrier of flavour, because the terfez have the property to absorb surrounding flavours. Indeed, Ancient Roman cuisine used many spices and flavours, and terfez were perfect in that context.
Truffles were rarely used during the Middle Ages. Truffle hunting is mentioned by Bartolomeo Platina, the papal historian, in 1481, when he recorded that the sows of Notza were without equal in hunting truffles, but they should be muzzled to prevent them from eating the prize.
During the Renaissance, truffles regained popularity in Europe and were honoured at the court of King Francis I of France. However, it was not until the 17th century that Western (and in particular French) cuisine abandoned "heavy" oriental spices, and rediscovered the natural flavour of foodstuffs. Truffles were very popular in Parisian markets in the 1780s. They were imported seasonally from truffle grounds, where peasants had long enjoyed their secret. Brillat-Savarin (1825) noted characteristically that they were so expensive they appeared only at the dinner tables of great nobles and kept women. A great delicacy was a truffled turkey.
"The most learned men have sought to ascertain the secret, and fancied they discovered the seed. Their promises, however, were vain, and no planting was ever followed by a harvest. This perhaps is all right, for as one of the great values of truffles is their dearness, perhaps they would be less highly esteemed if they were cheaper."
However, truffles can be cultivated. As early as 1808, there were successful attempts to cultivate truffles, known in French as trufficulture. People had long observed that truffles were growing among the roots of certain trees, and in 1808, Joseph Talon, from Apt (département of Vaucluse) in southern France, had the idea to sow some acorns collected at the foot of oak trees known to host truffles in their root system.
The experiment was successful: Years later, truffles were found in the soil around the newly grown oak trees. In 1847, Auguste Rousseau of Carpentras (in Vaucluse) planted 7 hectares (17 acres) of oak trees (again from acorns found on the soil around truffle-producing oak trees), and he subsequently obtained large harvests of truffles. He received a prize at the 1855 World's Fair in Paris.
These successful attempts were met with enthusiasm in southern France, which possessed the sweet limestone soils and dry, hot weather that truffles need to grow. In the late 19th century, an epidemic of phylloxera destroyed many of the vineyards in southern France. Another epidemic destroyed most of the silkworms there, too, making the fields of mulberry trees useless. Thus, large tracts of land were set free for the cultivation of truffles. Thousands of truffle-producing trees were planted, and production reached peaks of hundreds of tonnes at the end of the 19th century. In 1890, there were 75,000 hectares (190,000 acres) of truffle-producing trees.
In the 20th century, however, with the growing industrialization of France and the subsequent rural exodus, many of these truffle fields (champs truffiers or truffières) returned to wilderness. The First World War also dealt a serious blow to the French countryside, killing 20% or more of the male working force. As a consequence of these events, newly acquired techniques of trufficulture were lost. Also, between the two world wars, the truffle groves planted in the 19th century stopped being productive. (The average life cycle of a truffle-producing tree is 30 years.) Consequently, after 1945, the production of truffles plummeted, and the prices have risen dramatically. In 1900, truffles were used by most people, and on many occasions. Today, they are a rare delicacy reserved for the rich, or used on very special occasions.
In the last 30 years, new attempts for mass production of truffles have been started. Eighty percent of the truffles now produced in France come from specially planted truffle groves. Nonetheless, production has yet to recover its 1900s peaks. Local farmers are opposed to a return of mass production, which would decrease the price of truffles. There are now truffle-growing areas in the United Kingdom, United States, Spain, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and Chile.
In 1999, the first Australian truffles were harvested in Tasmania, the result of eight years of work. Trees were inoculated with the truffle fungus in the hope of creating a local truffle industry. Their success and the value of the resulting truffles has encouraged a small industry to develop. A Western Australian venture, The Wine and Truffle Company, had its first harvest in 2004, and in 2005 they unearthed a 1 kg truffle. In 2008, an estimated 600 kilograms (1,300 lb) of truffles were removed from the rich ground of Manjimup. Each year The Wine and Truffle Company has expanded its production, moving into the colder regions of Victoria and New South Wales.
In June 2010, Tasmanian growers Michael and Gwynneth Williams harvested Australia's largest truffle from their property at Myrtle Bank, near Launceston. It weighed in at 1.084 kilograms (2 lb 6.2 oz). Mrs. Williams told ABC Radio in Australia that it is valued at approximately A$1,500 per kg.
New Zealand's first burgundy truffle was found in July 2012, at a Waipara truffle farm. It weighed 330 g, and was found by Rosie, the farm owner's beagle.
Looking for truffles in open ground is almost always carried out with specially trained pigs (truffle hogs) or, more recently, dogs. The Lagotto Romagnolo is currently the only dog breed recognized for sniffing out truffles (although virtually any breed could be trained for this purpose).
|Truffle Hog||Truffle Dog|
|Keen sense of smell||Keen sense of smell|
|Innate ability to sniff out truffles||Must be trained|
|Tendency to eat truffles once found||Easier to control|
The female pig's natural truffle seeking, as well as her usual intent to eat the truffle, is due to a compound within the truffle similar to androstenol, the sex pheromone of boar saliva, to which the sow is keenly attracted.
Because of their high price and their pungent taste, truffles are used sparingly. Supplies can be found commercially as unadulterated fresh produce or preserved, typically in a light brine.
White truffles are generally served raw, and shaved over steaming buttered pasta or salads or fried eggs (this last is recommended by many gourmets as the best way to enjoy the flavour). White or black paper-thin truffle slices may be inserted into meats, under the skins of roasted fowl, in foie gras preparations, in pâtés, or in stuffings. Some speciality cheeses contain truffles as well.
The flavor of black truffles is far less pungent and more refined than that of white truffles. Its strong flavor is often described as syrupy sweet. Black truffles also are used for producing truffle salt and truffle honey.
While in the past chefs used to peel truffles, in modern times most restaurants brush the truffle carefully and shave it or dice it with the skin on so as to make the most of this valuable ingredient. A few restaurants, such as Philippe Rochat in Switzerland, still stamp out circular discs of truffle flesh and use the skins for sauces.
Truffle oil is often used as a lower cost and convenient substitute for truffles; to provide flavoring; or to enhance the flavor and aroma of truffles in cooking. Most "truffle oil," however, does not contain any truffles. The vast majority is olive oil which has been artificially flavoured using a synthetic agent such as 2,4-dithiapentane. Daniel Patterson reported in the New York Times that "even now, you will find chefs who are surprised to hear that truffle oil does not actually come from real truffles."
The bulk of truffle oil on the market is made with a synthetic ingredient like 2,4-dithiapentane, as are many other truffle products. However, alcohol is now being used to carry the truffle flavour without the need for synthetic flavourings. The first truffle vodka, Black Moth Vodka, is a natural vodka infused with black Périgord truffles (Tuber melanosporum). Although primarily used as a spirit in its own right and mixed in a range of cocktails, truffle vodka is also used by various chefs to flavour dishes by evaporating the alcohol through cooking whilst retaining the truffle aroma.
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