Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.
A Gift of Zeus to Earth?
History tells us that as early as 2000 BCE, the Amorites who lived in Mesopotamia and Syria dug out and ate truffles. Truffle eating habits of the Amorites were proof of the barbarity of these people to the neo-Sumerians, as the rich taste of truffles was unknown to them. There is mention in historical documents that in 3000 BCE, the Babylonians went truffle hunting on beaches and deserts. In the modern world, truffles remain among the few most coveted and delectable food ever.
The ancient Greeks loved truffles and the tradition of truffle hunting is still alive in Greece. Truffles are historically known to have aphrodisiac powers, mythologically a favourite of the love goddess Aphrodite herself, and lauded as divine as they are supposed to have been born when the Greek King of Gods, Zeus, struck the earth with thunderbolts.
The Périgord Fairy Tale
The Périgord region of France has a popular fairy tale that tells another story about the origin of truffles. A woman lost in the woods finds an old man who though very poor, treats her to his humble food of burnt potatoes. The woman is a fairy and she turns the potatoes on the plate into tasty truffles. The old man becomes rich selling them but when he dies, his children turn into greedy and lazy lot. The fairy came back after many years. The children of the old man do not offer her food thus making her angry. She hides the truffles under the soil and turns the arrogant offspring of the old man into pigs. Now they have to run around and labour to find the truffles again.
Ancient people used pigs for truffle hunting but once the pigs found them, it was difficult to keep the find safe from being eaten by the pigs themselves. Pigs love truffles. Nowadays, dogs with special training do the part, and the hunters no longer have to worry about their harvest being eaten instantaneously. Dogs have little love for this human delicacy. From 1985, pigs were banned in Italy from being used as truffle hunters as their excitement could destroy the delicate habitat of truffles.
There are black truffles and white ones. They grow connecting themselves to the roots of certain trees-the birches, oaks and some more. France and Italy are known for the best quality wild truffles. During the Middle Ages and in the renaissance period especially, truffles were royal treats and coveted gifts.
The Luxury Food
In Europe, good quality truffles cost 3000 euros per kilo. Of the 80 odd varieties of truffle in the world, only 7 can be cultivated, a fact that ski-jumps the price of this food item. Only in 1815 did someone find a way to cultivate truffles; Joseph Talon, a small farmer of Coragnes, a hamlet in southeastern France, had the ingenuity to find the connection between the truffles he found in his area and the roots of the holm oak trees that grew there. He uprooted a few acorns off the holm oaks and planted them in the barren land he owned. It takes 8 years for truffles to grow and though we do not know exactly how Talon managed to be patient all those long years, we know that he became the first successful farmer to cultivate and harvest truffles. Many tasty varieties of truffle still elude farming; they just do not grow when you try to cultivate them.
Truffle Hunting in Ancient Times
Truffle Hunting: An Intangible Cultural Heritage
In 2021, truffle hunting in Italy has been included in the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list by UNESCO. Tuscany in Italy is known for truffle hunting as a tourist attraction. The trained dogs go about the trees in the forest sniffing the ground. Once the dog finds a truffle, it starts digging. But the owner stops the dog and carefully extracts the truffle from the ground using a small spade. Before extraction, the hunter often sniffs it out for the ripened aroma. If it is too young as is detected from the scent, the hunter has to leave it behind for harvesting on a later day. It is this special aroma to the raw truffles that makes them an uncooked addition to many food palates. They are used shaven or grated with the skin as and when the dish demands. Before we conclude, let us remember that chocolate truffles got their name from their similarity to natural truffles.
Truffle History, mfrescoinc.com
Hunting for Truffles in Greece, greekreporter.com, 2022.
Peoples of the Bible: The Legend of the Amorites, Philippe Bostrom, 2017, Haaretz.com
Joseph Talon: The Discoverer of Truffle-Growing, 2021, laumontshop.eu
Truffle Legend from Périgord region, sabatinotruffles.com
Truffle Hunting and Extraction in Italy, Traditional Knowledge and Practice, ich.unesco.org
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Deepa