Truffles may be found underground –they are a hypogeal fungus – in nearly all of central – northern Italy; the most famous and most important centres are undoubtedly, from both the qualitative and quantitative points of view, Alba (Piemonte), Norcia (Umbria) and San Miniato (Tuscany).
The Tuscan production of truffles covers about one third of the national association of truffle-sellers who annually, in the month of November, organise an exhibition-market where it is possible to admire the most beautiful, and fragrant, examples.
This fungus-tuber loves fresh terrain, proliferate at the roots of the broad-leaved trees, (Holm-oaks, Poplar, Willow, Lime, Hazelnut and above all Oak), growing at about 20 cm., in depth, the harvesting season goes from late summer to the beginning of winter. It may have a weight that varies from 30 to 100 grams (1 to 3 ½ oz); it is rare, but not impossible, to find truffles of heavier weights, and, in very rare cases, even of one kilo (just over 2 lbs).
Its particular hypogeal fungus condition, its strong and intoxicating perfume and its unusual and decisive taste, make it the ‘prince’ in respect to all other natural foods: there is no other product, actually, in nature which has the same evocative force, the same fascination, even a little sinister, and morbid.
A LITTLE HISTORY
It seems that in the year 3000 BC the Babylonians already knew of a type of truffle and that in 2600 BC the Pharoah Cheops was very greedy for truffles cooked in goose grease.
But in less remote times – although we are still talking of the II century B.C. -Theophrastus of Eresus, one of Aristotle’s favourite pupils, being concerned with botany, mentions the truffle in his “Historia plantarum”, defining it as a precious ornament for the table whose origin was due to the combination of rain with thunder. The truffle in those times was very much appreciated on the table, so much so that in the time of Theophrastus, in Athens, an authentic gastronomic competition was organised, and the first prize was assigned to a truffle pie, a type of flan with a stuffing of thinly-chopped truffles placed on a the finely chopped breast of a pheasant and flavoured with various spices.
Remaining in the Greek world, let us remember that in the II century BC, Galen - initiator of systematic medicine – sustained that the truffle was very nutritional and that it «may give rise to the sensual pleasures». And so the mysterious tuber was assigned aphrodisiac qualities, that is, the capacity to exalt erotic pleasure.
In the Roman world in the age of Imperialism, its unusual fragrance, and its «strange» growth gave life to a series of legends about its creation and its effect. It was dedicated to Venus, goddess of love, and administered by doctors to many patients afflicted with impotence.
In the first century BC there appeared in Rome a volume on gastronomy, for rich Roman patricians, the work of Apicius, one of the most famous gourmets of ancient Rome, whose fame could only be obscured by that of Lucullus, (Roman consul, more dedicated to banquets than to military actions, a great appreciator of truffles, whose name gave to the Italian language the adjective “luculliano” – ‘sumptuous’, ‘lavish); in his work Apicius spoke at length about the esteemed truffles that made every food sumptuous.
In book VII there some recipes are cited which are based on truffles of which there is one of a famous sauce: «Scrape the truffles, salt them, thread them onto a skewer and roast them, one one side put some oil into a pan, liquid, a mixture of finely chopped fish, herbs, vinegar, grape must, honey and pepper; when it boils thicken it all with cornflour and pour over the truffles».
In Christian times there was an episode in which the protagonist was the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, who, after death, was canonized; he received a gift from the Bishop of Trevi of some beautiful tubers of truffles for which he demonstrated his liking, something which was very different from his famous asceticism.
In the upper Middle Ages under the nightmare of sin the truffle was considered very dangerous, so much so that a hypothesis was advanced concerning its demonic nature. So for a certain time it disappeared nearly completely from the kitchens to appear again at the time of the ‘Comuni’ (Councils) and the ‘Signorie’ (Seigniories), when the lords competed to have them on their tables and at the time of the great poet Francesco Petrarch, who, in a sonnet dedicated to the truffle, worte these verses referring to the earth that «…dentro dove giammai non si aggiorna / gravida fa di sé il terrestre umore; / onde tal frutto e simile si colga…» (‘but within, where daylight never breaks, / is born by itself the earthly mood:/where such a fruit and its like are yielded…”.).
In this period we finally have news of the most noble species of the truffle, the tuber magnatum and the tuber melanosporum; until this time man was content with truffles of less value, tubers of African origins with a taste and value very different from those better types discovered, probably, observing the comportment of the wild boars and pigs that, for many centuries, ate them undisturbed.
But it is with the Renaissance that the truffle reaches its full glory, generating almost a sort of psychological dependence, seeing that, in a banquet worthy of respect, the absence of truffles was inadmissable.
In this period, the best «masters of the kitchen» in the service of the lords exerted themselves to always create new recipes using the truffle, in order to be able to offer them to the illustrious guests to which this tuber was often given as a gift. In 1502 the nobles of Aquamagna in the Marche region gave enormous black truffles to the beautiful daughter of the libertine Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia Borgia, who, other than being a heartless lover, endowed with an irresistible fascination, adored truffles, perhaps because they transmitted a sense of mystery; and the same nobles in September 1526 also gave a complimentary gift to Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere) the warrior Pope and protector of art (he commissioned Michelangelo to do many works amongst which the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel) who was travelling through Aquamagna with his troops on his way to subdue Bologna.
The truffle, naturally, appears in a good position amongst the products promoted by Catherine de' Medici when she went to France, bride of Henry II.
From the Renaissance onwards, the truffle had a prominent position in Tuscan cooking and was exalted even by the poets; it is enough to think of Bernardo Vigo who, in 1776, wrote in Latin the poem "Tuber terrae" extolling the exquisiteness of the truffle.
For all the 1800's the truffle was a symbol of nobility and of wealth. Many kings and emperors, Napoleon included, declared themselves to be enthusiastic about the tasty tuber, and even at the conclusive lunch of the Congress of Vienna (1815), participated by the greatest statesmen in the world, the truffle appeared, scattered over the croquettes d'esturgeon.
A RARE FOOD
It has always been a valued food, precious and expensive, but its qualities have been increased throughout the ages, so much so in fact that, today, with the growth of demand, more than a food, it is a myth, a desire which is satisfied with much difficulty also because it is continually becoming more costly.
The independent truffle-sellers actually, in the last ten years, due to a series of causes, the main one being pollution, deterioration and deforestation, have become notably less in number. To contain the progressive deterioration of the natural truffle-seller, attentive studies have been initiated into the cultivation of the truffle, with encouraging results.
It is best to make clear that it is not a matter of direct cultivation, in the sense that the truffle is not cultivated, but rather the tartufigena plant is cultivated with the intention of preserving its specific mycorrhization (the symbiosis in which the truffle lives near the roots of the herbaceous plant to which it gives water and salts absorbed from the earth and from which it receives already elaborated carbohydrates - its nutriments) and promoting these conditions to encourage the formation of truffles.
THE TRUFFLE-SELLER AND HIS DOG
That of the truffle-seller is an art made from attention, memory and experience that is carried out with the help of a dog; it is necessary to know every centimetre of the terrain in order that the commitment be repaid, and the maximum discretion is necessary to maintain the secrets of the trade well hidden,; one must never tell where the truffle has been found, the only company allowed is that of the dog. The best hours for the search are at night because the humidity that covers the ground increases the fragrance of the truffle and because it allows the maximum secrecy; the only instrument used is that of a shovel which may be in various forms and which, generally, the truffle-seller makes himself; and lastly it is necessary for the man and the animal (generally a mongrel, although 1991 in Italy since 1991 the lagotto has been recognised by the ENCI- National Association of Italian Cynophilists - as an independent race in itself, as a specialist in this area), to work as one, in a tension that is shared; , in silence, the man who follows the excitement of the dog is a spectator, until it stops, circling around itself, keeping its nose to the ground; when it begins to scratch with its paw, whining with pleasure, the hunter enters into action and approaches the dog, caresses and calms it, when the tuber comes to light he intervenes with his shovel giving the dog a tasty morsel in exchange. Some truffle-sellers leave it all to the dog (taking the risk that the dog also eats the precious tuber) as an act of courage and respect for the intelligence of his animal, and showing an act of faith, based on long and laborious training.
That training begins when the dog is about six months old; it is encouraged to bring to its owner objects and to scratch the ground, having hidden there something which has a strong individual odour. Then the trainer hides a strip of particularly strong smelling cheese under the ground, to accustom the dog to search for things that have a strong and acute odour. Only after a while is the cheese substituted with a truffle. When the animal has learnt to find this strip of cheese without hesitation, then a real truffle is hidden which the dog must not eat or bite, but must bring intact to its owner.
Naturally this training requires much practice, patience and at least one and a half years of time; but when the dog has learnt to distinguish the truffle and take it to its owner, it gives good results.
THE TRUFFLE IN TUSCANY
The most famous zones in Tuscany for truffles are the area around Siena, the Maremma and, in the area around Pisa, the small town of San Miniato of which we have already spoken. The most highly-prized quality that may be found is the tuber magnatum Pico (the white truffle), this is the "jewel in the crown" of the category, it is of an off-white colour and of a very sharp fragrance, enhancing and extremely agreeable; the tuber brumale vittadini (black trifola), the tuber melanosporum vittadini (black truffle).
But whether it is black or white, the truffle is always appreciated and is in harmony with every dish; from tagliatelle pasta to rice, from meat to eggs and then finally fish; it is important that it is served on top of the food, so that the penetrating aroma is not diminished, that intense aroma that makes every dish precious, and it is able to exalt every palate which for its particular pathos is still today widely considered as having aphrodisiac qualities.