A brief history
The truffle is a fruit of the earth which has been known since ancient times.
The first testimonies come from the diet of the Sumerian people and from the time of Jacob the Patriarch, around 1600 – 1700 B.C.
The ancient Greeks called it Hydnon (from which “hydnology” is derived, that is the science of the truffle) or Idra, the Latin people called it “Tuber”, from the verb “tumere” (=to swell) the Arabs “Ramech Alchamech Tufus” or “Tomer” and “Kemas”, the Spaniards called it “Turma de tierra” or “Cadilla de tierra”, the French “Truffe” (derived from the meaning fraud, linked with the play by Molière “Tartuffe” in 1664), the English “Truffle” and the Germans “Hirstbrunst” or “Trüffel”.
Plutarch maintained that the origin of the “Tubero” lays in the combined action of water, heat and forked lightning. Similar theories were shared or contested by (amongst the most noted) Pliny, Martial, Juvenal and Galen which resulted only in generating lengthy arguments on the subject.
Most likely the “tuber terrae” of the past were not the perfumed truffles we know today, but the “terfezia Leanis” (Terfezia Arenaria) variety or similar species. These varieties were more abundant, in North Africa and West Asia compared to nowadays, reaching a weight of three to four kilos; they were highly appreciated (to the extent of being called “food of the gods”) since other tubers like the potato and Jerusalem artichoke from the Americas, were virtually unknown at that time.
Even though Rome had as an emperor Publio Elvio Pertinace, from Alba, the “Tuber magnatum Pico” never became part of the refined Roman recipes.
Truffles which delighted the palates of the patrician Romans, although very expensive they were lacking quality, so much so that Apicius included six truffle recipes in his “De Re Coquinaria” Book VII, citing the most expensive dishes.
Meanwhile, studies on the truffles proliferated. Pliny the Elder called it “callus of the earth” while Juvenal was so infatuated that he said “I would rather have corn failing than the truffle”. Throughout the Middle Ages truffle had no place at man’s frugal table but remained instead the fodder for wolves, foxes, badgers, pigs, wild boar and rats. When the Renaissance era saw the revival of good culinary taste ruffle began to take pride on a plate.
The prized truffles appeared at the tables of French lords in the XIV and XV centuries, while in that period in Italy the white truffle was becoming established.
Truffle hunting became court entertainment, during which, guests and foreign ambassadors in Turin were invited to participate. Possibly for this reason the use of an elegant animal such as the hound came into being, instead of a pig, as was the custom in France.
Between the end of the XVII and the beginning of the XVIII century, the Italian sovereigns Vittorio Amedeo II and Carlo Emanuele III were serious and assiduous truffle hunters. An interesting episode concerns a truffle expedition in 1751 organized by Carlo Emanuele III at the English Court, in an attempt to introduce the truffle to the British cuisine. During the day truffles were found in English soil, but they were of very poor quality compared to the Piedmonte variety.
Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, during his political career, made use of the truffle as a diplomatic tool. The composer Gioacchino Rossini called it “the Mozart of funghi” while Lord Byron kept one on his desk because the perfume helped his inspiration and Alexandre Dumas called it the Sancta Santorum of the table.
In 1780 in Milan the first book on the white truffle of Alba was published, and it was baptized with the name of Tuber Magnatum Pico (Magnatum – magnate, while Pico refers to the Piedmontese Vittorio Pico, the first scholar who studied its classification.)
In Milan in 1831 a naturalist from the Botanic Gardens in Pavia, Carlo Vittadini, published the “Monographia Tuberacearum”, in which he describes 51 species of truffle and it was this work which formed the basis of hydnology.