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”.
The ancient Sumerians used the truffle by mixing it with other vegetables such as barley, chick peas, lentils and mustard, while the ancient Athenians adored it so much that they conferred citizenship upon Cherippo’s sons, for inventing a new recipe. Plutarch maintained that the origin of the “Tubero” lay 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.
Very probably their “tuber terrae” were not the perfumed truffle we know today, but the “terfezia Leanis” (Terfezia Arenaria) or similar species. These were more abundant compared to now, in North Africa and West Asia, reaching a weight of three to four kilos; they were highly appreciated (to the extent of being called “food of the gods”) since in those days other tubers like the potato and Jerusalem artichoke from America, were wholly unknown.
Even though Rome had Publio Elvio Pertinace as emperor, from Alba, the “Tuber magnatum Pico” never formed part of the refined Roman recipes.
The truffles which delighted the palates of the patrician Romans were deficient only in their quality, because their price was very high, 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 truffle proliferated. Pliny the Elder called it “callus of the earth”while Juvenal was so infatuated that he said “I would rather the corn failed than the truffle”.Throughout the Middle Ages the truffle had no place at man’s frugal table but remained instead the fodder of wolves, foxes, badgers, pigs, wild boar and rats. The Renaissance saw the revival of good taste and a good table and the truffle began to take pride of place.
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.
In the 1700’s the Piedmontese truffle was considered by all the European courts to be a choice delicacy.
Truffle hunting became court entertainment, at 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 Piedmontese.
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 fungi” 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.