Truffles have always carried a certain mystique and air of secrecy around them. Truffles are rare, fancy and a delicious delicacy, historically prized by many and accessible to only a few. Egyptian Pharaohs served them at their royal tables and Romans enjoyed their flavor while thinking they were produced by thunder and lightning. The French winter black truffle became a delicacy at the French court, enjoyed throughout the Renaissance as taste trends moved away from heavy spices to lighter, earthier fare. Nowadays, truffles are the most expensive food in the world: they can sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars per pound, giving rise to the term “black diamonds” for the French winter black truffle. Their reputation as an aphrodisiac only adds to their appeal.
Truffle folklore has always maintained truffles cannot be cultivated or grown on a farm. Where truffles grow wild, people go out at night to search for truffles in secret. Shielded by the cloak of darkness, truffle hunting becomes a clandestine affair as successful truffle hunters sneak around in an attempt to not expose their secret hunting grounds to others who would take advantage of the riches buried in the soil. Always rare, truffles have now become even more so as their favorite growing grounds, European oak and beech forests, have now been much reduced in size. Some say that knowledge of most truffle beds was lost in the world wars, as the areas became battlegrounds instead of simple forests.
Today, modern science has given us more insight into the way truffles grow and reproduce, paving the way for them to be cultivated and grown in new areas. We now know the mycelia (roughly, the roots) of the truffle fungus forms a symbiotic relationship with the roots of several tree species, including beech, oak, hazelnut, birch and pine among others. Truffle cultivation now involves inoculating seedlings with truffle spores and giving them time to grow and develop into fruiting truffles. As we create more opportunities to cultivate truffles the mystique remains. Truffles’ rich flavor, steeped in centuries of enjoyment, will ensure they remain a delicacy prized by generations to come.