It is likely that the truffle goes way back, perhaps to the Mesopotamian era, but we do not honestly know for sure.
The first mention of truffles dates back to antiquity. Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher,
described them as "plants that grow when the autumn rains come with severe thunderstorm". Among the Romans, several writers, including Pliny the Elder and Plutarch, mentioned them, also associating them with lightning. They called truffles Terrae tuber.
Truffles were rarely eaten in the Middle Ages. It is true that they had come to be seen as a supernatural occurrence, probably due to the mystery of their appearance under the earth, and their black color. They also had this reputation as being an aphrodisiac substance, and so were associated with the devil.
King Francis I of France discovered truffles in Madrid while he was being kept prisoner of Charles V in 1525 and requested them upon his release and return to France.
The Popes in Avignon seem to have secretly enjoyed those growing in Provence. In Périgord, the birthplace of the truffle, they were no doubt also consumed, probably even in prehistoric times.
It is no surprise that Catherine de Medici, a great lover of food, had white truffles from Piedmont in her food bags when she arrived at the Court of France for her marriage to Henry II.
Truffles were a hit and remained a star of French culinary history throughout the centuries. Carême often included truffles in his menus, such as one of the menus he published in 1822 in his Maitre d'Hôtel français (page 132): turkey with Périgord truffles is one of two grosses pièces (large set-piece dishes),followed by four desserts, including Truffes à la serviette. And he claimed to be the creator of the famous Tournedos Rossini.
Périgord, Kingdom of truffles, is associated, in French cuisine, with all dishes containing them. The designation à la Périgord first appeared in 1735, followed by à la Périgueux in 1790, and then à la Périgourdine in 1816. Then in 1885, Madeira truffle sauce became Sauce périgourdine.
Around the same time, Brillat-Savarin could not praise truffles enough, devoting eight pages to them in his Physiology of Taste (1825), including a section on their aphrodisiac power. Alexandre Dumas continued this praise a few years later in his Dictionary of Cuisine (1873).
As for Escoffier, he regarded truffles as a garnish (in which case he recommended carefully peeling them), but also as a vegetable in their own right or an appetizer and then "when served as a special dish, they should not be peeled" (Guide culinaire). He did not shy away from using 800 g of them in his Dindonneau truffé (Guide culinaire, page 721).
Truffles have become rarer, and are now most often harvested using a specially trained dog. The caveurs (this is the name for people who harvest truffles) use traditional methods less often, such as the sow that finds truffles spontaneously, or the very special fly, the Helomyza tuberivora, which land and lay their larvae wherever there are truffles.
Truffles are sold during their respective seasons (defined in France by the inter-industry agreement of 2009), in canvas bags, nets, or other containers that do not affect their quality, in truffle markets. They are bought by traders who then sell them once they have been brushed, sorted, etc.
They are classified into three categories: Extra: high quality and weighing more than 30 g – Class 1: good quality but with some slight defects and weighing more than 10 g – Class 2: truffles that do not fall under the previous classes and weigh 5–9 g.
. whole: peeled or scrubbed, marked surchoix (black, uniform size, and color), extra (varying shades of black, irregular shape) or 1er choix (flesh of varying degrees of firmness, irregular color, and shape). They can be from the first or second boiling (the latter truffles are boiled a second time after the truffle juice has been produced).
. in pieces, peelings, or broken.
Frozen: whole, sliced, in pieces, or broken.
Truffle juice: this comes from the first sterilization of truffles, during which they lose 25% of their weight. This juice is retained and the truffles are canned with water (or more rarely truffle juice) and undergo a second sterilization.
In France, fresh truffles must meet numerous criteria, all defined by the inter-industry agreement of 2009 (see above).
A good truffle is firm and fragrant, with no trace of mold, and without too much earth between its indentations. The flesh should be well marbled, corresponding to its variety: the only way to check this is to make a tiny cut with a knife to reveal a small part of the inside.
Truffles are occasionally sold vacuum-packed.
Canned truffles from the first boil are better than those from the second, which have lost most of their flavor.
A truffle should be brushed before use, possibly in water if there is a lot of earth clinging to it. It should be peeled when it is going to be sliced thinly so that the slices are all the same shape, but these peelings should be kept and used, to make a sauce or broth for example.
There are infinite uses for truffles, whether raw or cooked, because the simplest of recipes can be raised to new heights by the addition of truffle, such as a simple pasta dish, risotto, or scrambled eggs.
Whether whole, cooked in foil, or inserted into a classic puff pastry case, they provide a moment of true magic for food lovers.
They can be sliced thinly or chopped up and should never be cooked for too long so as not to spoil their flavor.
Raw, they are grated at the last minute. The Alba truffle is only ever used like this.
Fresh truffles will keep in an airtight container with some rice to absorb their humidity, or with eggs, which then take on their aroma.
Canned, they will keep at room temperature. Frozen, they must be kept in the freezer without breaking the cold chain.
Truffles are very rich in minerals and fiber, but given the minute quantities that are consumed so infrequently, this has absolutely no importance.
However, truffles have long held the reputation of being an aphrodisiac, which has never been scientifically verified, of course. However, one of its many aromatic components is a substance similar to the male pig's sex hormone, with the same musky odor. This is why pigs are used to detect truffles underground. But does this molecule have an effect on the human libido? No-one knows!
There are many varieties of truffles, classified into 8 major groups, including:
- In Europe
In France, an inter-industry agreement was drawn up in 2009 to define the standards and periods for selling fresh truffles harvested or grown in that country.
Black truffle or Black Périgord Truffle or Périgord Truffle (Tuber melanosporum)
The queen of truffles. Its black flesh is streaked with small white veins and it has a strong smell. On sale from November 15 through March 31, it comes mostly from Tricastin, Vaucluse, Lot, Quercy, and Gard. It is also produced in Spain and Italy.
Musky truffle or winter truffle or violet truffle (Tuber brumale)
It resembles the Périgord, but it rarely exceeds the size of an egg, and has wider and more spaced-out veins. On sale from November 15 through March 31, it comes from the same regions as the black truffle.
Summer Black Truffle (Tuber aestivum)
Outwardly, it resembles the Périgord truffle. On the inside, it is very pale, which is why it is sometimes called the "summer white truffle", causing confusion. Its smell is not as strong. On sale from May 1 through September 30. It is cultivated in France, Italy, and Spain. It also grows in North Africa.
Burgundy truffle or French Truffle or Autumn Truffle (Tuber uncinatum)
It has dark brown flesh, streaked with numerous white veins. More fragrant than the summer truffle, it is on sale from September 15 through January 15.
Bagnoli Truffle or Italian Truffle (Tuber mesentericum)
Quite rare, and small, it is beige-gray inside, marbled with irregular veinlets. It has a unique fragrance with undertones of bitter almonds. On sale from September 15 through January 15.
Smooth black truffle or Garlic truffle (Tuber macrosporum)
Its skin is warty, and it is pink-brown inside with light gray veins. It has a particular smell of garlic which is reminiscent of the white truffle. It grows in Central and Southern Europe and is the most common species in Italy. On sale from September 1 through 31 December.
The Piedmont White Truffle or White Alba Truffle (Tuber magnatum)
A very rare variety, it cannot be cultivated. It has an extremely strong taste, with hints of garlic. It is light tan to dark beige on the outside but its flesh is dark with white veins. While Alba, in Piedmont in Italy, is the center of production (an auction is held each year), it can be found, but just as rarely, in central Italy, in the south of France, in Romania, and in Bulgaria.
Bianchetto White Truffle or Marzuolo Truffle (Tuber borchii)
It resembles the white truffle and has the same garlic flavor, but none of its magic. It is also much more common. It is found anywhere from Sicily to Finland, where it is collected throughout the year. It also grows in the Périgord region. January 15 through April 30.
- In China
Chinese truffle or Himalayan truffle (Tuber indicum)
It has the same external physical characteristics as black truffle, but has pink-red veins. It has almost no flavor, as any flavor it originally had is lost during transport. It has no gastronomic interest. Widespread, and highly exported, Chinese truffles are often sold to consumers under the guise of another, more expensive, truffle. They are found mainly in winter.
- In North Africa
Terfezia or Terfez or Kama or Kolassi or Desert Truffle (Terfezia)
These truffles do not belong to the genus Tuber but physically resemble Tuber truffles without any of the flavor. They are widely consumed in North Africa.
A small number of black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) come from Fez, Morocco.
- In North America
There are twenty known species in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
The Oregon White Truffle (Tuber gibbosum)
The only one sold. It grows in the Rocky Mountains, from Canada to California. It looks like the Piedmont white truffle, but it has a much less powerful smell.
Black truffle (Tuber melanosporum): it started to be grown in the 1980s in California and North Carolina, but with low yields.
There are truffle farms producing Périgord truffles in Australia (the Manjimup truffle) and New Zealand, in Oakland (where there is even a truffle dog contest). This was made possible by the INRA (the French National Institute of Agronomic Research) which developed truffle-producing oak and chestnut trees.