Truffles - A Brief History
The unravelling of some of the biological mysteries of truffles has been paralleled by a dramatic growth in their culinary stature, from being a food source for peasants in the dark ages to become an obsession in higher circles of society, well known French gourmand Jean Brillat-Savarin (d.1826) hailed them as the ‘jewel of all cookery’
The early 1800’s may be referred to as the ‘golden age of truffles’, particularly in France where a heightened appreciation for them was more readily matched by supply than at any other time in history. A recipe in Mrs Beeton’s first cookbook (1861) listed among ingredients a ‘dozen fine black truffles’ such was the abundance at the time.
The popularity of truffles reached a peak in the late 19th century. Brillat-Savarin noted that merchants, aware of their popularity stimulated the market by paying good prices for truffles at the source and using the fastest transport available to send them to Paris. With a steady market demand then came the desire to increase supply, attention turned to the truffle harvesters holy grail - artificial systematic cultivation.
The first step to cultivation was discovered by chance by planting acorns from oak trees infected with truffles in nearby land containing siliceous, stony earth. A few years later the first cultivated truffles appeared from under the young oak trees. By 1890 there were 750 square kilometres of truffières in France
The method of cultivating truffles this way was still favoured up until the middle of the 20th century, however, the technique was badly flawed, the seedlings were overrun with insects, pests, and faster growing contaminating fungi. By 1960 the collapse of the European truffle industry was well underway.
By the end of the 1960’s French and Italian scientists had devised methods of for producing truffle-infected plants under controlled conditions in greenhouses by inoculating plants with pureed truffle, truffle spores, cultures, or sections of infected root. Eventually, their perseverance was rewarded and in December 1977 the first cultivated truffles using this method were harvested in France. Truffle cultivation is where almost all of the world’s black truffle harvest comes from, France, Italy, Spain and Australia being the main exports of fresh Black Truffles.
Botanically, the truffle is a fruiting body that develops on a mycelium, the fine web of filaments that bonds itself to the roots of different trees known as mycorrhiza. Truffles are host specific and the relationship is symbiotic, both parties benefit, though, in the long run, it suits the guest rather than the host.
While lesser European truffle species go for beech and fir, the Périgord Black Truffle (tuber melanosporum) prefers oak, and lime, while Poplar and Hazel appeal more to the Alba white (tuber magnatum Pico.) While the former like air and light and forms its own burnt patch under its host, the second needs semi-shade and the presence of bushes to provide a shady understory. Both need chalky soil, marginal land, the right degree of rainfall, and peace and quiet, the white is ecologically pickier than the black and takes longer to come to maturity and fruit. Of these two big hitters of the truffle trade, only the Périgord black is in successful cultivation.
How to find truffles
Host plants are species-specific, identifying the right tree is of huge importance also is the time of year, climate, altitude and growing conditions.
Burgundy or summer truffles (tuber aestivum) are found throughout Europe, from May until September and are associated with beech, birch, hornbeam, hazelnut and English oak.
In the UK the British Mycology Society has records for the Burgundy truffle found in Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Somerset, Surrey, Warwickshire, Sussex, Wiltshire and Yorkshire. Some of the largest collections on record are 65 kg in Somerset under holm oak and 80 kg under European beach in Wiltshire.
The English truffle hunt must start from scratch. First, the terrain must be suitable - patience is essential - the host trees listed above must be present. Next, it’s a matter of selecting a likely tree - sparse undergrowth and slight balding of the moss and grass in a root-wide radius around the trunk is a good indicator. In the likely scenario that you are trying to find truffles without a pig or a well-trained dog, it’s on your knees, feel delicately under the surface layer of moss and leaf-debris until your hand encounters a firm lump. This would either be a lump of grass, a stone or if luck is with you a spherical tuber!