Where Would You Find Truffles?
If you want to sound extremely clever you can confuse your friends by telling them that the real name for truffles is Ascomycetes. That’s what the botanists call them. But you’re most likely to come across truffles, in the very best French pâtés-for example, in the famous pates of the Perigord region of France.
These Perigord truffles have a distinct smell, but this is by no means unpleasant. Some truffle hunters can actually smell out the truffle in the woodlands but in France specially trained hounds with a keenly developed sense of smell are used.
Truffles look rather like large spongy walnuts and they grow under the soil. Pigs adore them. In early days pigs were turned loose in the woodlands to root for the truffles buried beneath the soil and leaves. Even today pigs are used to sniff out truffles but they certainly are not allowed to eat them, since truffles fetch high prices as a food delicacy.
The best truffles are considered to be those in the forest regions of the Dordogne area of France, where the climate is warm and moist, and there is plenty of limestone in the earth. This is one reason why Perigord, in the heart of the Dordogne, has achieved such a great reputation for fine pâtés. The most famous pâté of all-the very expensive pâté de foie gras-comes from Perigord.
Truffles are also found in the southern countries of France’s neighbor, England. The commonest English truffle has the botancial name of Tuber Aestivam. Italy in the Classical period produced three kinds of truffles: the Tuber melanosporum, the Tuber magnificanus and the Tuber magnatum. The Romans, however, only used the terfez (Terfezia bouderi), a fungus of similar appearance, which the Romans called truffles, and which is sometimes called “desert truffle”.
Terfez used in Rome came from Lesbos, Carthage, and especially Libya, where the coastal climate was less dry in ancient times. Their substance is pale, tinged with rose. Unlike truffles, terfez have no taste of their own. The Romans used the terfez as a carrier of flavor, because the terfez have the property to absorb surrounding flavors. Indeed, Ancient Roman cuisine used many spices and flavors, and terfez were perfect in that context.
Truffles were rarely used during the Middle Ages. Truffle hunting is mentioned by Bartolomeo Platina, the papal historian, in 1481, when he recorded that the sows of Notza were without equal in hunting truffles, but they should be muzzled to prevent them from eating the prize.
According to a hadith narrated by Saeed bin Zaid, Muhammad said that truffles are like manna and that water from truffles “heals eye diseases”.
During the Renaissance, truffles regained popularity in Europe and were honored at the court of King Francis I of France. However, it was not until the 17th century that Western (and in particular French) cuisine abandoned “heavy” oriental spices, and rediscovered the natural flavor of foodstuffs.
Truffles were very popular in Parisian markets in the 1780s. They were imported seasonally from truffle grounds, where peasants had long enjoyed their secret. Brillat-Savarin (1825) noted characteristically that they were so expensive they appeared only at the dinner tables of great nobles and kept women. A great delicacy was a truffled turkey.