On Truffle and its Unbreakable Spell



In Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) I read that truffle, which the Roman natural philosopher calls Terrae Tuber (outgrowth of the earth), was much appreciated by his contemporaries. They inherited its culinary use from the ancient Etruscans. The Romans were addicted to thrill and inebriation and if you have ever experienced truffle in its purest form - freshly dug up from the ground and shaved until whatever lies on the plate disappears - you will know it can provide plenty of both.

Having grown up between northern Italy and France I have always been fascinated with truffle. When Sorn invited me to cook a dinner entirely based on this ingredient, I started compulsively reading about its culinary history. I’ve been lucky enough to have eaten truffle and cooked with it a fair bit, so I was not looking for new recipes or preoccupied with how I was going to use it. Instead, I started wondering why truffle is such a big deal for so many of us, what is it about the scent that sends shivers down my spine? And what was going to make 50 people travel to a barn in the middle of the Wiltshire to eat it?

Firstly, I wondered, how truffle was discovered. After all, it takes a trained animal to hunt for them. Thousands of enthusiastic hunters set off for the country with their dogs when the season starts after the first frost in November. They begin early in the morning, when tiny flies can be seen orbiting above the ‘brûlés’ - the burned patches underneath the oak trees of the Hautes-Alpes and the Pyrénées - or late at night in Piedmont, where at the risk of falling down a burrow, truffle hunters can be sure the locations of the best colonies remain secret.

In the first century AD, Plutarch of Chaeronea attributed the origin of truffles to a combination of water, heat and lightning. The Roman poet Juvenal wrote that truffles originated from a thunderbolt hurled to earth near an oak tree by the father of the gods, Jupiter. These strange fungi were only found in proximity to certain types of tree, on certain slopes and on certain days, different every year - the only explanation was Jupiter must have been behind it.

During the Renaissance in Italy truffle was found at the table of the Medici and the Borgia. It was sent to the most prestigious banquets of the continent to win favours and hearts. The first treaty dedicated to truffles, Opusculus de tuberis, was written in 1564 by the Umbrian doctor Alfonso Ciccarelli.  A century later, the white truffle of Piedmont was considered one of the most valuable edibles in the courts of Europe. In fact, truffle hunting became an exquisite form of entertainment to which guests and foreign ambassadors were invited. However, it was in the 18th century, thanks to the writing of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, that truffle became a gastronomic superstar associated with the notions of excess and luxury that it still carries today:

‘In 1780, truffles were rare in Paris, and they were to be had only at the Hotel des Americans and at the Hotel de Provence. A dindon truffée (a truffled turkey) was a luxury only seen at the tables of great nobles and of kept women.’

About a century later one of these women, the French stage actress Marguerite Georges - known for her affairs with Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington - had the indulgent habit of offering truffle to her guests after her shows. Alexandre Dumas wrote:

‘…[she] cut them in tiny leaves, like paper, poured on some ordinary pepper, impregnated them with white oil from Lucca or green oil from Aix, then passed the salad bowl to a servant, who tossed the salad she had prepared.’

As I am not able to afford salads of this kind, I’m content with using it sparingly. A few shavings of truffle over ribbons of Tajarin, as they do in Piedmont, and over a risotto cooked in a rich beef stock - the umami flavour of the tuber marrying with Parmesan sublimely – and inside a good Brie which has been properly matured or, on special occasions, in a truffled fois gras.

Truffle looks more like a potato or a dahlia rhizome than a mushroom. However as with all fungi, they are plants that lack chloroplasts and feed off organic matter. As heterotrophic organisms they are more akin to animals than plants. There are thirty or so species of truffles, but the two most sought-after varieties are the Piedmontese white truffle (Tuber Magnatum,) and the Perigold truffle (Tuber Melanosporum). The latter grows in Provence (where it is called rabasse) as well as in Spain and Italy.

Black truffles are different from white truffles. Their season is much longer and they are found in a much wider area of Europe, where white truffles stubbornly refuse to be cultivated. Are black French truffles superior to Italian truffles? Ask a Frenchman and ask an Italian and you will find different answers. I put this down to national pride, in which both Italians and French excel. They are different and each has its own peculiarities. Personally, I am more interested in a truffle’s freshness than its provenance. The more inebriating gasses are dispersed into the above-ground world only 3-4 days after being foraged. The truffle dealer we use at Albertine is a foxy woman who delivers them by motorbike. This guarantees their freshness. The ability and dangers involved in riding through London traffic seems to draw parallels with hunting on dark forest slopes.

In addition to the legend that Jupiter’s thunderbolts were responsible for truffles, the Roman god’s prodigious sexual activity also earned them a reputation as an aphrodisiac. I cannot say whether anything indecent happened at the Fonthill Estate after Sorn’s Truffle Feast, but I do know that the scent of truffles is intoxicating. My favourite passage from the seminal book by the great French truffle hunter Jean Marie Rocchia is when he describes the first time he smelled white truffles in Alba:

‘Like a gigantic olfactory punch which almost knocked me over, a veritable earthquake of various and disordered sensations assailed my neurones from every direction. My suprarenal glands discharged torrents of adrenaline into my blood vessels. It was a perfume of extraordinary power which provoked in me a completely new and indescribable desire, a disquieting desire not devoid of a certain amount of perversion.’

I once tried to impress a date with a plate of veal escalope and shavings of white truffles I had brought back from Umbria, only to be told my flat smelled of pig urine. It did not work for me that night, but the scent of truffles cannot possibly be to everyone’s taste.

Truffles rely on their pungent smell in order to reproduce and exist. There are no butterflies and bees underground to do the pollinating work. Truffles need animals such as squirrels, birds or boars to unbury them, eat them and disperse their spores by way of excreta. Roadworks and football teams training over their patches are apparently also beneficial to their spreading. Their powerful smell can travel through 30cm of compact ground to attract their predators. They say the smell of truffles mimic the effect of animal pheromones. They are trying to send out a message, they are calling out. What are they saying? The scent of truffle has been described as soothing by some, the smell of a place of peace and safety. By others, like Rocchia, an olfactory punch, an instigator of sensory disorder.

People have committed crimes to capture the scent of truffle, just like the perverted hero Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Patrick Süskind’s novel The Perfume. The highest of these crimes is the creation of the chemical formulas released into truffle oil. Numerous attempts at cultivation have also been made. One can infect the roots of an oak with its spores but it is obviously difficult to recreate the complex conditions for their habitat and it takes decades to establish a truffière, which brings me to the next possible reason behind their mythical status: their price.

Has our fascination with truffle got to do with its scarcity in the market then? Or rather its intrinsic rarity? The fact that they are difficult, sometimes impossible to obtain, no matter how much you are prepared to pay for it? We would not be able to find them without animal intervention. Do they silently connect us back to the animal kingdom? Is it perhaps this primordial instinct to reconnect with the other species, to the very ground from which everything originates and depends on?

I have not yet found a definite answer to any of these questions, but I have spent another winter cooking with truffles, only this time thinking about it a bit more than I should have. The lure of truffle is perhaps something we cannot fully comprehend, but the spell they cast is something most of us cannot even attempt to resist.

Roberto Freddi is the chef patron of iconic West London wine bar Albertine, est 1978.

Rob has a master’s degree in Semiotics from the University of California San Diego and the University of Bologna, where he graduated under the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco. He left academia in 2008 to train first as a chef then as a sommelier. He has since worked in some of London's best restaurants while continuing to study and write about his real passion: food and wine. 

Rob collaborated with Sorn for our magical Truffle Feast at the Fonthill Estate in Wiltshire in November of 2018.

Ella Donald