fren

Truffles

Truffles have been famous since Antiquity, even though they didn’t earn their title of nobility until Brillat-Savarin came around. In fact, for a long time, truffles were not cooked to their best advantage, since they were most often accompanied by strong spices. According to a passage from Athenaeum, truffles were enjoyed by the Romans at the end of a meal, marinated in a ginger and cinnamon sauce. The Arabs also cooked truffles in aromatic herbal infusions.

Dioscoride, Cicero, Pliny, Plutarch, Juvenal, Athenaeum de Naucratis, Lucullus, and Apicius (famous Roman culinary specialist) held the truffle in high esteem and considered it to be a “gift” of the gods.

After the Roman times, the use of truffles seems to have fallen out of practice, and you don’t find them anywhere in the culinary recipes of the Middle Ages. You have to wait for the Renaissance (after the Popes came to Avignon and brought them back into fashion), for truffles to make their appearance once again and become a regular feature in princely feasts.

The Greeks and Romans believed that truffles had therapeutic properties and were an aphrodisiac, a power they were believed to have up until the 19th century. The Moors also knew about truffles and the famous Arab physician Avicenna recommended them to the sick. They are still known to have the following medicinal virtues: they are fortifying, and treat vomiting and pain, and they promote scarring…

Is the truffle an aphrodisiac? ? The answer to that question is far from certain. Still if sows naturally seek out truffles, it’s because they emanate odors that are identical to certain substances that one finds in porcine sexual organs! They are pheromones, a steroid with a strong musk odor that is the same as that which comes from the testicles of the boar transferred to the salivary gland during the pre-erection phase. Perhaps the biological role of this pheromone could explain the ardor with which the sow seeks out the truffle?» (Claus R., Hoppens H.O., Karg H., 1981. The secret of truffles : a steroïdal pheromone. Expérimentia, 1178-1179.)

It is because of a conservation method invented by Appert (called appertization) and the development of means of transport to ship them that the truffle became little by little a fixture in food stores and restaurants. In fact, the great growth in production came as a result of two catastrophes: the appearance of phylloxera and the disastrous floods in the Southeast of France during the Second Empire.

In the Southwest of France, a region well-suited to the production of truffles because of the presence of many wild oak trees, wine grapes represented a major cash crop for the peasantry. Then, in 1870, in a flash, phylloxera reduced all of their grape vines to nothingness. Many of these growers switched to truffle cultivation, and they replanted oaks in great numbers. In the Southeast, following the dramatic flooding that occurred in the Baronnie and Mont-Ventoux, oaks were planted by the thousands to help retain the topsoil. Thus, in addition to the truffle fields that already existed, these two plantations brought to 75000 the number of hectares of truffle oaks planted in 1890. Conservation and transportation methods then allowed the truffle to become an omnipresent feature in holiday feasts at the end of the 19th century. There was one region that profited above all the others from this turn of events: the Périgord. It was at the first the only one which associated truffles almost systematically with all of its regional cooking specialties.

If the 19th century was one of splendor, the 20th century could possibly be called one of hardship. If we divide the obviously excessive statistics of Chatin in half, we might estimate that the annual production of truffles in France at the beginning of the century ranged between 800 and 1000 tons. Today it’s only about 3% of what it once was. When you plant an oak, such as was done intensively from the years 1870-1875 following the phylloxera outbreak, you have to wait about fifteen years before it start to bear truffles. That brings us to about 1890, the period when in fact an abundant production that would last around 30 years began, and that corresponds very precisely to the amount of time during which an oak remains productive.

Beyond that, production declined, which is what we saw happen in a dramatic fashion right after the end of World War I. Following World War II, truffles really became truly scarce. Suddenly panic lights went on and prices all of a sudden went through the roof putting truffles on par with the most luxurious of foods. They became too expensive to serve as a garnish or to make a dish richer, as in the past. They became more frequently used for their flavor and authentic taste that was sought after for all its purity, and to please the palate with the truffle highlights.

The contribution of truffles to world cuisine first and foremost pertains to certain vast areas of Mediterranean Europe, including France, Italy, and Spain.
In France, the tradition is to distinguish three main production zones: the Southeast truffle basin, the Great Southwest Truffle basin, and the East-Central truffle basin.