Five Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know About . . .
EMG Truffles Notes
Truffles are truly one of the great ingredients on any fine dining menu. In this episode, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares “5 things you didn’t know you didn’t know about" truffles. This episode includes a look at how this fungus become such a prized ingredient, how it is harvested, and why every food critic loathes truffle oil.
Find out more about the truffle's fascinating history and tune in now.
EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
Five Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About . . . TRUFFLES
April, why did the truffle get invited to the party?
I don’t know. Why, Simon?
‘Cause he was a funghi.
Ah. Right. Let’s start. Let’s start.
[Singing] Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen.
I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to another episode of Eat My Globe: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food. And this will be one of our shorter “5 Things You Didn’t Know About” offshoots of the main Eat My Globe podcast where we take a look at an ingredient, a dish or a person to give you just five “light bites.” Now, as always, if these episodes really whet your appetite, do be sure to check out our annotated transcripts where we will be listing more links so you can do further research. At the very least, I hope it makes you want to go and sample some great food.
On today’s episode, we are going to be looking at an ingredient that is one of what I have labelled as one of the culinary “Lexicon of Luxury.” It’s an ingredient that is also one of my favorite ingredients of all, hugely difficult to source, often enormously expensive and has been in culinary use since classical times. It’s also an ingredient that is often very misunderstood, but we’ll get to that later.
That’s right folks. Today on “5 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About. . .” we’re going to talk about . . .
What Are Truffles?
Well as I guess we always do. Let’s start by explaining what truffles actually are.
Let’s turn to our old friend the Merriam Webster dictionary. They describe truffles as
“The dark or light edible subterranean fruiting body of several European ascomycetous fungi (especially genus Tuber).”
The word “Tuber” actually comes from the Latin word which means “swelling.”
Truffles grow underground and live in a symbiotic and mutually beneficial or “mycorrhizal” relationship with the roots of certain trees. The truffles explore the soil for water and nutrients, which it then passes on to the tree. Truffles can grow on the roots of most trees, but by the same token so can many other types of non-truffle fungi, so that means they often have to compete with others to find a home in the roots of trees.
This competition may lead to difficulty with truffles growing in the wild. While there are some successful farming operations for truffles, the majority of those that you will find in fine dining restaurants are discovered in the wild by trained truffle hunters using trained truffle hunting animals because they are very hard to cultivate. Traditionally, these animals would be those with highly sensitive senses of smell, such as female pigs, where the aroma of the truffle is similar to a male pig pheromone. But in more recent years, they have been replaced by dogs who have 300 million smell receptors. They are also by all accounts not as prone to snaffle the truffle for their own meal while digging it up, which pigs apparently sometimes will do. Something that can be more than annoying when truffles can be sold for thousands of dollars a pound.
The tubers of truffles have a distinct and instantly recognizable smell, which, in the black truffle, is caused by a combination of many compounds but particularly two called “dimethyl sulfide” and “2-methylbutanal.” In the white truffle, it is cause by bis(methylthio)methane.
These aromas are definitely an acquired smell. I love them, but many people don’t. However, they are essential in how a truffle can be found as the sense of smell are hugely attractive to the animals used to find them. I have actually seen this in action during a trip to the Motovun Forest in Croatia, which is known as one of the great hunting grounds for truffles. It is fascinating to witness the moment the dog smells the unmissable scent of the truffle below ground, and when it immediately begins to burrow for the treasure. That means that the hunter, in our case a woman who had worked with the same dog for some time, had to work quickly to remove the treasure before the dog can do any damage with its paws. Seeing a truffle hunter and dog working in harmony is truly one of the great sights in the culinary world. And eating the end result is not bad either.
Of the 5,000 species of fungi that become truffles, only 70 are edible. Not all of them are readily available and some have very local exposure. The prices for truffles can also vary extensively.
The more famous varieties include:
“Italian White Truffles” also known as Tuber Magnatum – These are, for many, the finest truffles of all and can sell for many thousands of dollars. Their season runs between late Fall and early Winter.
“Perigord” or “French Black Truffle” or also known as Tuber Melanosporum – These are deep black and speckly and have a very short season in mid-Winter.
“Black Summer Truffles” are known as Tuber Uncinatum or “Burgundy Truffles” (Tuber Aestivum) – Which as the name suggests are harvested from early Summer up to the Fall.
So that’s all about what truffles are. But. . .
When Do We First See Truffles Being Mentioned in History?
It’s very likely that the first mention we have of truffles in antiquity comes in the writings of the Sumerians, whose civilization lasted between 4500 B.C.E. and 1900 B.C.E. In a Sumerian myth, Martu, a nomad, wanted to marry the daughter of a god and one of her girlfriends was aghast and complained about Martu. She said
“He is clothed in sack-leather...lives in a tent, exposed to the wind and rain, cannot properly recite prayers. He lives in the mountains and ignores the places of gods, digs up truffles in the foothills, does not know how to bend the knee, and eats raw flesh...”
Poor Martu. I suspect if the Mrs. and her friends found out that I dig up truffles, they’d be all for it.
The first references we see to truffles in Ancient Greece are in the writings of Theophrastus, who lived from 371 B.C.E. to 287 B.C.E., and where he referred to them as misu or “Hydnon.”
In Ancient Rome, we see mentions of truffles in the works of historian Pliny The Elder – who lived from 23 C.E. to 79 C.E. and who also writes about them in the 13th Chapter of his work “Natural History.”
“The following peculiarities we find mentioned with reference to the truffle. When there have been showers in autumn, and frequent thunder-storms, truffles are produced, thunder contributing more particularly to their development; they do not, however, last beyond a year, and are considered the most delicate eating when gathered in spring. In some places the formation of them is attributed to water; as at Mytilene, for instance, where they are never to be found, it is said, unless the rivers overflow, and bring down the seed from Tiara, that being the name of a place at which they are produced in the greatest abundance. The finest truffles of Asia are those found in the neighborhood of Lampsacus and Alopeconnesus; the best in Greece are those of the vicinity of Elis.”
In the period of the Middle Ages, we see truffles becoming a subject of issue and disdain for the church, which considered them to be “devilish” and an aphrodisiac. However, we see more positive mentions of truffles in the works of papal historian and gastronomist, Bartolomeo Sacchi, also known as Platina. In 1481, he wrote a theoretical treatise on Italian gastronomy, which was entitled “De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine” or “On Right Pleasure and Good Health,” which is, by many, considered to be the first printed cookbook. Platina notes,
“nothing equals the instinct of the sows of Notza in finding Truffles hidden in the ground.”
It was by the period known as the Renaissance that truffles began to appear on the menu with some regularity and by the 18th century they were very much back in fashion, particularly in France.
Louis XIV of France, known as the “Sun King,” was known to love truffles and included them in many of his famously opulent feasts. And French writer, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who lived from 1755 to 1826, declared in his 1825 book, “The Physiology of Taste,” that truffles were
“The diamond in the art of cookery.”
The Italians too fell under the spell of truffles and renowned composer Gioachina Antonio Rossini, once declared,
“I have wept only three times in my life . . . The first time when my earliest opera failed, the second time when, with a boating party, a truffled turkey fell into the water, and the third time when I heard Paganini play.”
The success of truffles as one of the great indulgences in the culinary world was confirmed by the recipes of the great chefs of the 19th and 20th centuries. And, it would be hard to imagine now, in the 21st century a fine dining meal worth its name that did not have at least one dish that did not boast the use of truffles or indeed offered a full “truffle” inspired menu in the right season.
How Do You Grow Truffles and Why Are They So Expensive?
Despite the fact that truffles are very much back in culinary fashion, they can be very hard to come by and very expensive indeed, particularly if one is purchasing the much-coveted white truffles. The main reason is not just that truffles are only grown in very specific conditions but also because they are very, very hard to cultivate. That’s not to say that man has not tried, and the attempted cultivation of truffles has been underway in France and Italy since the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.
For the most part, truffles were found where they occurred naturally. However, given that they were becoming of increasing value, people began to search for ways to grow truffles or at least to promote their growth.
Around 1810, an indirect way of fostering truffle growth was discovered by chance by a French farmer named, Joseph Talon; he planted land with acorns from a truffle rich area and a few years later discovered truffles in the roots of the new trees.
This led to increased forestation in areas where truffle production was of importance. Particularly in areas where wine grapes had been destroyed by the epidemic blight of Phylloxera, an occurrence that meant that other uses had to be found for the land.
In the 20th century, a laboratory based effort was utilized in an attempt to produce seedlings from trees that would potentially have the mutually beneficial relationship with the tubers. And as we move in to the present day, development in the science of truffle cultivation has allowed them to be produced in many countries in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and North America, including here in the USA, particularly in Oregon.
Despite the fact that truffles are being produced in increasing numbers, they remain very expensive and the most sought after white truffles can be sold for extraordinary amounts of money. In 2018, a set of white Alba truffles weighing just under 2 pounds was sold for a staggering – wait for it – $85,000.
As a little aside, with such potentially large amounts of money involved, the world of truffle production and hunting has also seen its own shares of felonies and crime. These include tax evasion, disabling of dogs with poisoned meatballs – of all things – counterfeits selling much cheaper Chinese truffles as French Black Truffles, and even a fatality in a failed truffle heist in 2010. Problems of food fraud, not just with truffles, but also other luxury foods such as Champagne, are now so rife that Interpol has a full time operation known as “Opson” that works to counter the problems.
I recently came across a great book called “The Truffle Underground” by Ryan Jacobs which delves into some of the darker side of supplying some of these uber expensive ingredients. Do check it out.
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What Truffle Recipes Do We Find in History?
In his work, “De Re Coquinaria,” Roman culinary writer Marcus Gavius Apicius offers seven preparation for truffles that include one to
“Scrape [brush] the truffles, parboil, sprinkle with salt, put several of them on a skewer, half fry them; then place them in a sauce pan with oil, broth, reduced wine, wine, pepper, and honey. When done retire the truffles bind the liquor with roux, decorate the truffles nicely and serve.”
Others he suggested included braising them along with mint, or pepper, honey, oil and good wine.
In 2010, a banquet replicating one of the lavish feasts of Louis XIV’s was held at the palace of Versailles. Among the many other elaborate dishes served, chefs prepared
“Pureed chestnut soup with truffles from the Court of Italy.”
Marie Antonin Carême, often referred to as the father of French cuisine, created what I think is probably the most indulgent dish of all time when he was on an annual retainer of 8,000 francs to prepare feasts for Baron de Rothchild. It was a huge retainer that now would have been worth well over six figures in dollars. Not bad just to be on standby. I’ll take that any day.
In return, in 1825, Carême created a dish he christened, “Salmon a La Rothchild,” which included the poaching of a large salmon in four, yep four bottles of Champagne, and then layering its surface with very thin slices of truffle -- one pound of them, to be exact, to replicate the scales of a fish. Must’ve been nice! Maybe I’ll try that for tea.
Perhaps the most indulgent use of truffles I have encountered on my own travels was at the restaurant of legendary French Chef, Paul Bocuse, in Lyon, France. The dish is called “Poularde de Bresse Demi-Deuil en Vessie de la Mère Fillioux,” or “Bresse Chicken Cooked in a Bladder ‘a la Mère Fillioux,’” which involves sliding truffles under the skin of a chicken raised specially in the town of Bresse, France, then poaching the chicken protected by the bladder of a veal calf. They served us the dish with great ceremony tableside, as they peeled the inflated bladder and then carved the chicken and served it with simple seasonal vegetables. I found it rich and truly delicious, but not for the faint of appetite. If you want to see the dish being prepared, I really recommend you look up an episode of the television show, “Parts Unknown,” by the much missed Anthony Bourdain, where he visits Lyon. It’s a wonderful episode of television, perhaps my favorite of his, and in it, you can see this dish being made in its full glory.
As for my own use of truffles. Given that they are so expensive and therefore a rather irregular indulgence, I like to keep it very simple and serve my truffles shaved over a plate of gently scrambled eggs or a bowl of pasta.
Now, this is a good one for all of you out there – Why Do All Food Critics “Hate” Truffle Oil?
OK. For the final question about truffles, I thought I would answer one of the questions I am asked most of all by people. And that is -- why is it that nearly all food critics rail against truffle oil? It’s true. Truffle oil is one of the most universally despised ingredients by most people in the culinary world, and the reason is that most truffles oils have absolutely no connection with truffles themselves. None.
Of course, there are some – with commas – “real” truffle oils out there, and by that, I mean olive oils that have been infused with shavings from real truffles; now truffle oils are not typically done that way. That’s because the shavings begin to lose their scent and flavor very quickly. And you need to use these oils straight away. The majority of the rest of the truffle oils on offer are made out of a base olive oil that is then combined with a synthetic compound called “2,4 dithiapentane.” This is a compound that is made by mixing “methyl mercaptan” with “formaldehyde,” of all things. Nice, huh? Blech. Horrible stuff.
The scent of this compound replicates some of the aromas of truffles that we discussed at the beginning of the episode, but they are far removed from the use of a fresh truffle that is being shaved in front of you. So, next time you see me eliminating someone on a show for using truffle oil, you’ll know why.
I hope that this last fact has not put you off seeking out some real truffles to try in your own kitchen. They are truly one of, if not the greatest culinary indulgence and I promise you that your life will never be the same again after you sample your very first truffle.
And trust me. I know. Because, nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen. Sorry.
See you next week.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions” and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Nicole Gilhuis for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: December 16, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.