Truffle From the Past Comes the Present

THE EARLY HISTORY OF TRUFFLES can only be garnered from the often all too brief references ascribed to luminaries of the past, and it is likely these recorded comments referred to just a few of the many edible truffles now known to exist throughout the world *Of these, desert truffles (Eremiomyces, Kalaharituber, Terfezia, and Tirmania) are still prized in the Middle East, North Africa, and by the Bushmen of the Kalahari.

However, it is the Perigord black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) of France and the Italian white truffle (Tuber magnatum) that dominate today’s truffle world. The harvesting and marketing of truffles is a world that retains some of the mystery and intrigue of the past, a world that could easily be mis-taken for the realm of fiction, with its record of rivalry, skulduggery, and parochialism.

Whether the world’s best truffles are found in Italy’s Pied-mont or France’s Perigord is fertile ground for debate, particularly between the Italians and French. But what cannot be debated is the global demand for both, a demand that cannot be met, one that pushes prices through the ceiling, encourages trade deception, and for nearly two centuries has fueled efforts at cultivation.

The Italian white truffle (Tuber magnatum) is one of the world’s most expensive foods.
Because the Perigord black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) is harvested at a different time of year than the Italian white truffle, the two do not compete with each other in the marketplace.

The mystery of truffles that intrigued some of the great thinkers of the past is today occupying the research efforts of mycologists around the world. While fanciful theories have been replaced with sound scientific knowledge, the holy grail of truffle research their artificial cultivation is still problematic. Such a interest in truffles, as well as their gastronomic and trade possibilities, that the focus of research has spread from the Perigord black truffle and the Italian white truffle to include a range of subterranean relations, several of which are well regarded in culinary circles.

The Burgundy truffle (Tuber aestivum) has excellent gastronomic qualities, which has led to its successful cultivation in France. Being less fussy as to soil, host tree, and climate than its illustrious cousins, the Burgundy truffle is probably the most common edible truffle species in Europe. Tuber aestivum occurs naturally from the Mediterranean Basin in the south to the island of Gotland off the east coast of Sweden in the north and from the Atlantic coast in the west to an eastern European limit as yet undetermined. The Burgundy truffle has also been found in packs of truffles exported to Europe from China. Several species of truffle, including the most important Tuber indicum, are traditional foods and are used as tonics by the Yi and Han people in China. Local names such as wuniang teng (no mother plant) reflect the confusion of early European thinkers as to how truffles were formed.

Generally, these and other Asiatic truffles have not received a good reception in the trade, despite exports to Europe increasing dramatically since the early 199os. Other truffles, such as Italy’s bianchetto (Tuber borchii), have important local markets. While only truly valued in Italy between Ferrara and Ravenna, bianchetto (whitish truffle), so called to distinguish it from the more expensive Tuber magnatum, has excellent culinary credentials and is gaining in gastronomic appreciation. In the United States and Canada, the garlic-odoured Oregon white truffle (Tuber gibbosum) is abundant in the Douglas fir forests that extend from San Francisco northward to British Columbia. This species is thought by some U.S. enthusiasts to be the equal of the European truffles. Such claims notwithstanding, the Perigord black truffle and the Italian white truffle remain pre-eminent.

Writing about truffles in 1693, Sir Tancred Robinson was prob-ably referring to the Burgundy truffle (Tuber aestivum). The one shown here is the first cultivated Burgundy truffle to be harvested in Sweden.
Bianchetto truffles (Tuber borchii) are excellent to eat, provided they are not mixed with inferior species such as Tuber maculaturn.

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