The word truffle originated from the Latin term tuber, meaning “swelling” or “lump.” Truffles are subterranean fungi that grow in association with the roots of trees. They are round and warty and range in size from a couple of inches across to ones the size of a baseball. The ones with which we are most familiar are the French black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) from the Périgord region of southwest France which has a blue-black exterior when fresh, fading to brown-black with age and a pungent, earthy odor, or the renowned odorous white truffle (Tuber magnatum) of Alba, in the Piedmont district of Italy which is solid, light-colored, and very brittle. They are also found in Sweden, New Zealand, Australian, Chile, Africa and in the Middle East, and have been recently been introduced in Oregon.
The first mention of truffles appears in the 20th century BCE in neo-Sumerian inscriptions and in the fourth century BC in writings of the Greek Theophrastus, a student of Plato and Aristotle. In classical times, their origins were a mystery and were thought to be the result of lightening, warmth and water in the soil. They were mentioned by the papal historian Bartolomeo Platina in 1481 and were served at the table of King Francis I of France during the Renaissance.
Truffles are harvested in Europe with the help of a female pig or truffle dog during September through May. The animals are used because they can detect the strong musky aroma of a mature truffle underground. Collecting truffles requires training and experience. A small hand rake or cultivator is used to gently uncover the soil near the base of suspected host plants.
The quantity of truffles harvested in Europe has consistently decreased each year. The New York Times reported that the decrease in production could be due to global warming. To ensure future production, appropriate tree seedlings (mostly oaks and hazelnuts in France and oak, hazel, poplar, and beech trees in Italy) have been inoculated with truffle spores, and when the sapling tree is established, it is transplanted to the proper environment, usually a barren, rock-strewn area. It takes about seven years before the first truffle begins to grow. A bearing tree will produce for about fifteen to thirty years. The Oregon truffles are being cultivated in association with the Douglas Fir.
The black Perigord truffle can bring as much as $1,200 per pound. However, the highest price ever paid was $330,000 for one weighing 3.3 lbs. by a Macau casino owner in 2007.
Culinary and Medicinal Uses
Truffles have been used as culinary delicacies, aphrodisiacs and medicines.
As their flavor is heat-sensitive. truffles are eaten raw and unpeeled. Carefully wash with water and gently brush to remove any traces of soil. Dry with a paper towel. They can be sliced or grated and added to cooked foods just before serving. The pungent aroma of a truffle permeates any food stored with it in a closed glass container. Thus, a small amount can be added to oils and then used in various recipes. However, read the label if you purchase truffle oil as some sold today do not contain any truffles and are just olive oil infused with a chemical substitute.
“$1,200 a Pound, Truffles Suffer in the Heat.” The New York Times. 12/21/2012
Freedman, Louise. Wild About Mushrooms: The Cookbook of the Mycological Association of San Francisco.
North American Truffling Society. www.natruffling.org