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A Trifle on Truffles

"The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber, and after two thousand years of argument and discussion their answer is the same as it was on the first day: we do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord."
- Alexandre Dumas(1802-1870)

The Random House College Dictionary defines the Truffle as: 1.) Subterranean, edible ascomycetous fungi of the genus Tuber. Found anywhere from 2 to 15 inches below the ground, usually in a circular formation about 4 to 5 feet from the base of an oak tree. A number of varieties exist. 2.) Black Truffles, of Perigord and Lot are highly esteemed as the absolute finest in the world. "Truffle" oaks are also found in areas of France including Dauphine, Burgundy and Normandy, but these are all inferior in quality, with a less delicate aroma and taste. White Truffles are found in Piedmont, and have a slightly garlic flavor. 3.) Reference to a candy made of soft chocolate, shaped into a ball and dusted with cocoa; or, sometimes a 3 layered cube of light and dark chocolate. (Thought to resemble the shape and color of the fungi, circa 1585-95.)

Although the first actual consumption of truffles is not documented, legend has it that a female pig in her first pregnancy was the first being on the planet to devour the fungi. When the farmer saw her digging and then eating her "find", he watched, waiting for her to die from the "poisonous underground mushrooms".

Instead, as the legend goes, the scent of the truffles lured many other suitors to dine with the female, and subsequently, avidly proceeded to proliferate the species.

When the farmer decided to try the mysterious fungi himself, legend says that his previously childless marriage soon gave rise to a legacy of 13.

Nowadays, trained dogs often substitute for pigs when "hunting" truffles. (One speculates that it's easier to reward a 60-lb. dog with a treat than it is to distract a 200-lb. pig from the truffles he's just sniffed out!

Not even the most respected culinary scientists have succeeded at "cultivating" truffles in the laboratory; Perigord still provides a superior product, as they have for centuries. Score one for Mother Nature. And the merchants.

The rich and amusing history of truffles takes one on a journey through the ages of the most "enlightened" of men. The Aristocrats of Rome ate them. Renaissance Italians wrote about them. Louis the XIV is the first person known to have commissioned research devoted to studying and cultivating them.

Truffles are the only subterranean fungi on our planet, and, akin to the lore of the finest food on the planet, most all truffles grow (dare I say "are cultivated") in France. Perigord, in the Bordeaux region, to be specific. Truffeliers have always been there and always will be. There are those plantations that have been producing for hundreds of years. "Cultivated" oak forests that were planted in some of our lifetimes are generating the real thing, too. And, some commercial production exists. (Oregon has recently been producing a small black truffle, although it's considered by most to be inferior.)

Is there a difference, you ask? Connoisseurs may be able to discern it, but to the layman, simply being able to smile smugly at the friend who only knows truffles as those "little chocolate candies" seems accomplishment enough. Pity the one who's never experienced the sensuous aroma, texture and taste of the little black treasures. Perhaps a visit to a Provence brasserie prefaced by enjoying a Peter Mayle novel would enlighten the poor sheltered chum.

Truffle recipes from the archives

Truffles on the Web
Truffle Information
Oregon White Truffles
Truffles from Italy
Perigord Truffles of Tasmania
Marini Truffles of Italy
Truffle Retailers
Truffle Market
Gourmet Mushrooms
The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills
Gourmet World

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