|Ever since truffles appeared in human culinary history, they have aroused opposing feelings, from longing to fear, and from curiosity to awe. Considering their appearance and subterranean habitat, it’s easy to see why they were viewed as mysterious elements in the past.
The Greeks bestowed a divine character on the truffle: the physician and botanist, Theofrastus (born ~400 B.C., he was Aristotle the philosopher’s successor), described it as a rootless vegetable that was derived from a combination of the Autumn rains and the lightning sent towards Earth by Jupiter, Roman father of the Gods.
By contrast, during the Roman Empire the truffle was so renowned that it attracted the attention of great scholars. We recall the natural historian, Pliny the Elder, who considered the truffle a gift from the skies and wrote, “What great miracle of nature is the birth and life of this potato that grows in isolation surrounded only by soil”.
The ancient Latins called their truffles “Tuber terrae”, a name that would eventually become the root for the nomenclature of many modern day species. The origin of this phrase can probably be traced back to the thirteenth century, when truffles were called “Terrae fufolae”, or “humps of earth”. This was due to the fact that they often raised the soil during their growth and maturation.
For centuries, the nature of truffles was debated….animal, vegetable, or even mineral? The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (first century A.D) concluded that truffles were “belonged to those vegetable productions which spring up spontaneously, and are incapable of being produced from seed” and defined them as “ marvels of nature” and “callouses of earth” because they were able to grow without roots.
In the second century A.D., the Greek historian Plutarch suggested that the tubers were generated from lightning, water, and soil. This simplified the theory formulated by Nicandro three centuries earlier when he proposed that truffles originated “from stagnant soil water rarified by a central heat source”. Thereafter, many poets were inspired to comment on truffles. Among these, Giovenale explained that the precious fungus owed its origins to a thunderbolt hurled by Jupiter close to an oak (a tree held as sacred by the father of the Gods). As Jupiter was also famed for his sexual prowess, truffles also became associated with aphrodisiac properties.
Indeed, aphrodisiac qualities have always been attributed to truffles; the use of stimulating foods during Dionysian festivals was widespread in ancient Greece. The aphrodisiac effect of truffles is thought to be due to the presence of androsterone, a hormone that acts on the olfactory senses in some animals and in humans. Androsterone increases the production of serotonin, and therefore elicits pleasurable and relaxing feelings. In any case, by the Renaissance period (1400-1500) truffles consumption was widespread; this generated a real psychological dependence among many of the Italian upper class (including members of the powerful Malaspina and Sforza families). Indeed, a banquet was not worth attending unless accompanied by truffles in some form or other.
In the Molise region of Italy, there are areas that naturally produce rare underground fungi. In these areas, truffles are renowned for their pure whiteness and are entrenched in the local cultural and culinary history. This product offers a healthy pastime for many truffle hunters, but also enriches the exquisite dishes found in the region.