“It can’t be said for sure what they are, neither of the land nor other, if not a callus of the earth.” With these words, Pliny (III-18) responds to the question: what is a truffle?
Since humans have dug truffles from the soil, these mushrooms have been one of the most mysterious products of the land. In its white version as the famous white truffle of Alba—celebrated in the city of Alba at the International White Truffle Fair until November 27—it represents one of the most expensive foods on the planet. One hundred grams can cost up to €400-€500.
In autumn, everyone is talking about truffles, and hundreds of thousands of people come from every part of the world to taste them. But how well do you really know this mushroom?
Here are eight things you didn’t know about the King of Mushrooms.
1. Why is it called the Tuber magnatum Pico?
Pliny is not the only classical author to contemplate over this spectacular fruit of nature. Dioscorides, Martial, Terence, Plutarch, and Juvenal were also curious about this mysterious mushroom. The ninth sonnet of Petrach’s Canzoniere also mentions it (it was originally titled Tuberorum munus, “gift of truffles”), as well as the informative treatise De Tuberibus, by physicist Alfonso Ciccarello in 1564. But to finally get to the scientific “baptism” of the truffle, mushroom lovers had to wait until 1788 when the doctor Pico of Turin described it in detail. This most prestigious food was named after him: Tuber magnatum Pico.
2. Were truffles very well known to authority or famous figures?
Not very. Even though they have been written about in many manuals and appreciated for millennia, truffles remained a mystery for centuries (and still are today, in part), which makes them even more interesting. Even up until 1938, King Vittorio Emanuele III played a leading role in an interesting episode. When Donato Angeli of Sestino presented him with a truffle weighing a full kilo, Vittorio Emanuele III thought the King of Mushrooms was a bomb and arrested the sender of the gift (who was later pardoned and, after grating the truffle over tagliatelle, was recompensed with an honorable title).
3. Is the truffle a tuber?
No. A truffle completes its entire growth cycle underground, making it hypogenous. It forms an outer rind that may be bumpy or smooth and can vary in color from light to dark. It grows symbiotically with plants that have chlorophyll, creating what is called a mycorrhizal relationship. The truffle benefits from the tree’s food and nutrients and in turn send their hyphae (like small roots) out into the surrounding soil to absorb nutrients and water.
4. Can truffles be cultivated?
It depends. Mycorrhizae were discovered in 1810 by the farmer Joseph Talon, who found that if self-sown seedlings growing under a truffle-producing oak were used to establish truffle plantations, eventually they might also produce truffles. Many empirical methods came from this discovery, and today, certain techniques are recognized for their ability to obtain truffle-producing areas. But this being said, the most expensive truffle in the world, the white truffle of Alba, cannot be cultivated. Though we know which plants are symbiotic (linden, oak, willow, and poplar), no one has successfully cultivated Tuber magnatum Pico. The only way to find these truffles is with a trained truffle-hunting dog—which only adds to its rarity and mystery.
5. What is a truffle made of?
Water and aroma. A truffle is more than 80% water. Its high commercial value, therefore, doesn’t come from its supply but from its great capacity to please consumers. In the kitchen, truffles are a condiment used to enhance a dish and are often served raw, grated or finely sliced. It can’t be compared to other mushrooms, which are usually essential parts of other recipes or dishes. The added value of the truffle is without a doubt its aroma, tied to its ripeness and the influence of the mother plant (a truffle from an area growing with linden will never be the same as one that grew under oaks).
6. Are truffles aphrodisiacal?
The aroma of the truffle is notoriously aphrodisiacal. Napoleon knew something about this. Astounded by the sexual appetite of one of his officials, he asked him what his secret was. In response, the officer gave the emperor a basket of truffles. Exactly nine months later, Napoleon II was born, son of Bonaparte and Maria Luisa of Austria.
7. Are dogs or pigs used to hunt truffles?
A truffle’s aroma is exquisite, unique, and vaguely garlicky when fully mature. The aroma is so intense that up until several decades ago, when dogs were not yet used to truffle hunt, the trifolao (or truffle hunter) used sows to help him hunt. The odor of truffles is similar enough to the scent of the sexual hormones of the male pig. Who knows—maybe this curious fact led to the idea that truffles are aphrodisiacal?
8. Can anyone hunt for truffles?
No, but anyone can study to. To become a truffle hunter, you must pass an exam and pay for a license. Hunting for truffles is regulated by the national law 752/85 and by regional rules. Hunting is open by law to forests and uncultivated land. In cultivated land, truffle grounds are made available by the province, and can be accessed only with specific permission. And the license to truffle hunt is only the formal requirement. A truffle hunter also needs a well-trained dog and, above all, to know where to look, a secret that the trifolao jealously guards and would not reveal for all the gold in the world—since truffles are worth nearly their weight in gold!