The luxurious taste of a treasured truffle has been hunted by truffle hunters since the early 1900s. FIONA FORMAN delves into the history of the rich ingredient.
Described as ‘the jewel of cookery’ by the great 18th century food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, truffles transform even the blandest of cuisine into a gastronomic delight. Shaved onto pasta or a simple risotto, they change simple Italian staples into an exquisite dish. Their rarity combined with their exquisite taste and frequent use in haute cuisine, results in enormous prices for buyers and huge profits for truffières – truffle hunter. Currently truffles are priced around £335 per kilo, though black truffles can cost more than £1,000 per kilo, and the rare Piedmont white truffles, which are so delicate they are only eaten raw, can fetch up to £4,000 a kilo. The record price paid for a truffle was set at the end of 2007, when a white truffle weighing 1.5kg was sold at auction for £165,000. Discovered in northern Italy by a truffle hunter and his dog, it was bought by Macau-based casino owner, Stanley Ho, who outbid Damien Hirst to claim the prized fungus.
Truffles may look similar to mushrooms, however their taste is far more satisfying. Dr Paul Thomas, who is a renowned truffle cultivator, says: “The scent and flavour of truffles is sublime. Its heady, deep, rich and earthy tones are unforgettable.” Known for their aphrodisiac properties, Brillat-Savarin said they, “arouse erotic and gastronomic memories” amongst both the ‘skirted’ and ‘bearded’ sexes. French royalty were especially fond of their aphrodisiac nature; Henri IV gave them to his mistresses while Louis XV’s wife feasted on them and went on to have 10 children. Grown mostly in Italy, Spain, and Mediterranean regions of France, Croatia and Slovenia, each truffle has a different season. Michel’s favourite, the French Perigord black truffles, are in season from December to March, the prized Italian Piedmont white from October to November and summer truffles from July to November. Grown in the UK and other parts of Europe, summer truffles are more mildly flavoured and worth less than their European counterparts at around £150-£250 per kilo.
Finding truffles is a clandestine affair. Grown underground in tree roots, truffles are traditionally discovered using a pig or dog – they go wild upon smelling a whiff of their musky scent. Each variety of truffle prefers a different tree and a specific soil type. Each year they appear in exactly the same spot as the year before, hence why truffle hunters hide the identity of their trees with extreme care. Some even take the secret of their location so seriously that they take it to the grave with them rather than handing it down to their children. Heading out in the dead of night with their dog or pig, the truffle hunter must find the truffles as quickly as possible, to thwart rival truffle hunters. Elisabeth Luard, author of Truffles, says: “It’s a fight to the death, with pistols at dawn.” Local authorities also impose strict times of year that truffle hunters are allowed to forage, so it’s a race against time to find the fungi. Dogs are now used more commonly than pigs as pigs are so fond of the truffles they often consume them before the truffle hunter has a chance to grasp them, plus dogs are far more agile. It takes around four years to train a dog to hunt for truffles. To start the process small pieces of truffle are put in their food so they develop a passion for the flavour, which leads to them eventually digging up the truffles themselves. Italian truffle hunter Mario, who has been hunting the fungi for 60 years, and takes tourists from Bellini Travel on truffle hunts in the autumn, says: “We start with a strong cheese like Gorgonzola and we hide it around the house and grounds. As the dog becomes better at finding the cheese, we then start to bury it underground. Once the dog is capable of finding the cheese, we start to hide pieces of truffle underground as well. A good dog that finds a truffle near the surface will not try to dig but will wait for the truffle hunter to dig it up to avoid any damage.”
Very few truffles are still gathered in this natural way. In the early 1900s, 2,000 tonnes of truffles were produced annually in Europe at the peak of truffle production, now just 60 tonnes are produced. The huge decline in production is mainly attributed to a mass exodus from the countryside, which has left woodland overgrown and wild, an inhabitable environment for truffles that prefer a light, airy environment. There are other factors too, such as global warming, which has disrupted the precise weather conditions that ensure successful truffle cultivation. It’s unlikely that wild truffle hunting will ever reach the popularity levels of the 1900s, Luard says: “The woods which are left are not cropped as knowledgeably as they were when fungi- gathering, including truffles, was an add-on to other activities such as pig-herding, charcoal- burning and so forth.”
Since the 19th century, truffle farms have been artificially cultivating truffles. When Frenchman Joseph Talon discovered that the seeds growing under a truffle-producing tree could be used to grow more truffle trees, his find saved the truffle industry. In France, around 90 per cent of truffle production is now artificially cultivated. In recent years the technology used in cultivation has improved vastly, with companies using ever more scientific methods. Dr Paul Thomas, who has a PhD in plant sciences, set up Mycorrhizal Systems, now a world leader in truffle cultivation technology. He has farms worldwide and in the UK where he artificially cultivates trees with fungus-covered roots to produce summer and black truffles. Dr Thomas explains: “What we do is propagate the truffle fungus and introduce it to the root system of a tree in a lab and make sure that both the truffle and tree are growing together. We then recreate exact soil conditions in the field and plant the trees – essentially what we’re doing is re-creating a native and naturally balanced woodland system, with management.” As the trees take four to seven years to produce truffles, they are just coming into harvest this year, so they are yet to find out if their work has been successful, though Dr Thomas assures: “All the indication tests look excellent, so watch this space.”