History and curiosities of the truffle

The truffle has captivated kings, princes, nobles and great characters in history.

The known history of truffles dates back to 2589 BC Egypt. It is said Khufu lavished foreign ambassadors offering them truffled dishes. However, these were desert truffles. A type of truffle that today has no gastronomic value awarded to it, at least none like that awarded to the black truffle, also known as Tuber melanosporum. But perhaps it has symbolic value. Yes. From the time of Khufu on, the truffle makes a constant appearance in texts, even sacred ones. We emphasize the special interest the truffle that arose in some characters such as Theophrastus, a disciple and successor of Aristotle, who said:
“The more it thunders, the more they grow,” referring to truffles. He was not misled: it seems that there is a connection between storms and the growth of truffles, for the years with best truffle growth are those with abundant summer storms.

In the Middle Ages, the truffle was linked to the devil, association that allowed its use in the manufacture of black mass communion wafers. It is possible that this association originates from the color of the truffle, or perhaps from its aphrodisiac properties, which to this day are still awarded to the black truffle.

The truffle was well known at the time mainly due to the Order of St. Anthony, who discovered and harvested truffles following the pigs they raised in the forest to feed the sick. They ate them and contributed to their expansion.

Once again during the Middle Ages, the black truffle is mentioned in the Tacuinum Santis (Codex Vindebonensis), written in Latin by an unknown author. Here, he writes that the tartufala truffle, being of a cold and damp nature, with a tendency toward being thick and egg-shaped, absorbs all flavors and favors coitus. He recommends not using it during a melancholy illness; but if it must be used, it is necessary to blend it with oil, pepper and salt. Clearly, this is not a scientific study such as we know today.

The French botanist Chatin (1869) says the practice of eating truffle spread in France during the Renaissance thanks to King Francis I, who became fond of this delicacy when visiting Spain. Once again, returning to historical data, we see how the truffle has been a fixture at the wealthiest of tables: tables of kings, nobles, ambassadors, etc., a delicacy that refined and added aromas to their dishes.

However, despite the fervent interest King Francis I had in those truffles he tasted in Spain, at the time the Spanish almost completely ignored, worse, repudiated the truffle because of its supposed demonic and dangerous attributes.

The truffle was also mentioned as a “turma de tierra” (literally soil testicle in Spanish; modern meaning: truffle) by Dioscorides in his encyclopedia De Materia Medica (On Medical Material). According to Dr. Laguna (Segovia 1510-1559), one of the first Spanish references of the truffle says: Truffles “are clever intermediaries, or, to speak plainly, matchmakers between man and earth, from which they come and to which they return. Pliny refers that Laërtius Licinius, who was praetor in Spain, was eating a ‘turma de tierra’ when he hit upon a denarius [small Roman silver coin] piece that in its center was hidden and, thus, turned his teeth inward; from which we can deduce that ‘turmas’ are engendered by many and very diverse superfluities the earth expels.” A metaphorical vision, which incidentally can be interpreted in an almost prophetic manner due to the current market price of the truffle: “Eating a ‘turma de tierra’ he hit upon a denarius piece that in its center was hidden.”

However, and despite its tuber-phobia (fear of truffles), Spain remains the world’s leading producer of the highest quality truffles. Serving 40% of the world’s production of truffles, surprising in fairs and foreign markets used to buying Spanish Tuber melanosporum truffle packaged in other countries—given that 90% of this production is shipped to France, it is in France where Spanish truffles are packaged and distributed as French truffles.

Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) was a great connoisseur of the truffle. He is noted for his contribution to the consecration and the ennoblement of the truffle. He baptized it the “black diamond,” because for him the Tuber melanosporum was the best among all varieties of truffle. He went down in history as the founder of modern gastronomy.

“He who says ‘truffle’, utters a word that evokes erotic and gastronomic memories in the skirt-wearing sex, and gastronomic and erotic memories in the beard-wearing sex. Such honorable duplication comes from the fact that this eminent tuber is not only renowned for being delicious to the palate, but also because it is thought to raise a potency whose exercise is accompanied by the sweetest pleasures.”

According to Brillat-Savarin, there even exists “the very general conviction that the truffle induces to reproductive pleasures.” In addition, he attempted to corroborate his theory through the testimony of friends and women. The truffle, according to his conclusions, “on occasion makes women more tender and men, gentler.” He rejected any suggestion by other writers and doctors stating the truffle was indigestible. In certain parts of France, like Périgord or Quercy, trufficulture expanded during the XIX century (the golden age of the truffle), thus the Périgord truffle became a reference. In Spain it would still be known by many as “criadilla de tierra” (literally soil testicle in Spanish; modern meaning: truffle). This name comes from J. Álvarez’s translation of Abate Rozier’s Universal Agricultural Dictionary.

From the XIX century to the present, truffle production has fallen by 97-99%. It has gone from 2,000 metric tons to only 20-50 metric tons. It is speculated that this decline is related to the multiple European wars, the Industrial Revolution, and the migration from the countryside to the cities. However, Diette & Lauriac wrote in 2004 that the mycorrhizal plantations of the 70s are fostering present day stabilization.

Despite its high gastronomic value, high market prices, and leadership in the world production of truffles, in Spain truffles and trufficulture remain largely unknown.

However, and despite the five conferences on the truffle that have been held since 1968, and despite still being the main producer of truffles, the Spanish contribution to this topic is limited to a study of the taxonomy of truffles in Calonge. We see the obscurity that clouds knowledge of the truffle in Spain: a world full of secrets.

Although, since 1995 Spanish investigative activity on the truffle has been multiplied. Citing figures until 2007: 8 truffle-related research projects funded by various public entities, at least 7 doctoral theses, and more than 120 published papers—both technical and informative—specifically about truffles.

In 2006, the CRETT (European Network of Truffle and Trufficulture Consortium) was formed, which brings together truffle companies, nurseries, research centers, etc., as well as truffle-farming federations from France, Italy, Spain and Hungary.

The future of the truffle is riddled with considerable hazards. Among them, perhaps the most obvious: ignorance. Within the truffle world, there are many varieties of truffle, but not all provide the same value to gastronomy. Nowadays, Asian truffles with no gastronomic value fall into the most unsuspecting plates at very economic prices; very cheap truffles disguised as Tuber melanosporum when in fact they are Tuber indicum, Tuber himalyensis or Tuber pseudohimalyensis. Not only are these up to 20 times cheaper, and obviously without any gastronomic value, but also mycorrhization of these species in our soil could wipe out Tuber melanosporum, because Asian truffles predominate in the ground preventing the proliferation of truffles like Tuber melanosporum.

However, these obstacles aside, the prospect of trufficulture in Spain is optimal thanks to increased research activity, the potential of the territory and the abundance of limestone soil, the support of public administrations that are increasingly aware of the value of trufficulture, and the growing interest shown by the private sector.