The History of Truffles

The aroma and taste of fresh truffles have long made them one of mankind’s most treasured culinary delicacies, much longer even than many would expect. The reverence and expense with which truffles are cooked and consumed nowadays generally gives them a high, but somewhat distant, reputation. But history shows us the consumption of truffles in a wide variety of places across an incredible stretch of time, with the enjoyment of truffles shown in the earliest ancient writings and the latest gourmet dining experiences.

Truffles are of course a kind of mushroom, the fruiting body of a fungus designed to maximise the distribution of spores. But whereas other mushrooms thrust their fruiting heads conspicuously out the ground, as toadstools, truffles take a more subtle approach. The fruiting body of the truffle burrows underground, and this downward movement often means a symbiotic partnership with neighbouring plants and trees. The subtle way in with truffles grow has lead to their unique rarity and some interesting historical confusions about the exact nature of this much loved delicacy.

Classical Truffles: early reports and misunderstandings

It would seem that humans have been consuming truffles as long as we have been writing. The first mention of truffles, and their consumption, goes back all the way to a Sumerian inscription over 4000 years old. There are also a wealth of references to truffles in Greek and Roman writings, with a number of writers simultaneously allured and baffled by truffles and their growth.

Pliny the Elder, the famous Roman naturalist, called truffles ‘most wonderful things’ pointing out their lack of roots, and arguing that it was thunder and showers that created truffles. This misjudgement about formation of truffles would not disappear for a long time.

The name of truffles themselves are believed to deride from the Latin ‘tuber,’ the family name for the fungi. ‘Tuber’ means roughly ‘swelling’ or ‘lump’ in Latin, with the name referring to the truffles’ appearance on trees and roots. Over time this word would become ‘tufer,’ and eventually the English word ‘truffle.’

Truffles in the Middle Ages: the rediscovery of forest flavours

While commonly thought of as a dark age in which literacy and architecture fell into disrepair, the middle ages saw a slow rise in truffle use in Europe, though still very much behind much of the eastern world who were continuing to openly enjoy the delicacy. Whereas the Romans tended to much prefer eastern spices to the flavours of European forests, with the Roman Empire gone and world trade slow, the tribes of Europe began to look closer to home for culinary treats. Many of these tribes would have swineherds, who would look after the tribe’s pigs, pigs that were free to roam rather than penned in. It is imagined that the rediscovery of truffles was likely to have occurred by multiple swineherds at multiple times, with the link between pigs’ keen sense smell and the discovery of truffles firmly understood.

As the middle ages drew to a close and the renaissance in Europe appeared on the horizon, truffles found an admirer in the renowned Italian poet Petrarch, who in one sonnet refers to the subterranean growth from the ‘pregnant’ earth of a ‘fruit so rare.’

A Truffle Renaissance: truffles in Italy

Early on in the renaissance truffles begin to make their first appearance in cookbooks. Cookbooks by the likes of famous early gastronomes like Platina, published in Rome, make clear a growing taste for truffles, whilst still depending perhaps too much on the often-mistaken reports and conclusions of Roman writers. These cookbooks also make clear that pigs are now well trained to search out the strong aroma of truffles with their keen sense of smell, and trained not to eat the valuable fungi. Only a few years after these early cookbooks would come written works focusing solely on truffles, attempting to define them scientifically, explain their effects on the constitution, and suggest their place in the culinary arts.

Truffles and Gastronomy: the French influence

At the beginning of the 19th century, the centre of culinary arts, and the use and appreciation of truffles, shifted to France, an event that triggered large innovations in truffle recipes and changing forever the way we look at gourmet food. This didn’t occur without controversy however, with many Italian writers throughout the late 1700s asserting that truffles found outside the temperate Italian climate and landscape were naturally inferior.

Old ways of looking at the body, sacred since the time of the Ancient Greeks, gave way to new medical understanding that removed many of the older prejudices in the history of truffles, and liberated the ingredient for use in recipes. During the Napoleonic years truffle consumption boomed, with the most famous French chef of the era, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, calling truffles the ‘diamond’ amongst a chef’s ingredients, an opinion that has held to this day. Truffle mania had taken hold, and now the wider world outside the gourmet sphere wanted to try them.

Truffles from Then to Now: a rise and fall

With their rise in popularity truffles made a staggering shift over the 19th century from a courtly luxury to an accessible food. As the process of farming truffles, once thought impossible, was bought to light and made more common, truffles were soon to be sold in cans for everyone to try, reaching the heights of their popularity around 1900.

The effects of two world wars however would bring truffle production to a near halt. Though truffles were about as expensive as potatoes in 1914, the destruction of much of the western European landscape by two world wars saw truffle farms fall in number. As the century continued truffle production continued to fall, now well under a fiftieth of what it once was in the 19th century. This rarity has however rendered fresh truffles more valued than ever today for their flavour, aroma and delicacy.