On a winter’s night in Paris long ago, I ducked into the Grand Vefour – then a charmingly approachable temple of gastronomy, free of the rather strained merriment that signals too much money being spent – and, as one of seven guests of a rich man, sat down to a dinner that would leave me not as I was before.
To my right was Diarmuid C.-J., an elderly esthete of some renown living among dusty art objects a stone’s throw from the restaurant. He was well used to ordering without regard to the menu, and he did so this night. While others were calling for appetizers, a fish course and an entrée, Diarmuid commanded a dish of eight lightly sautéed whole fresh truffles. A little salt and pepper, a splash of cream whisked into the pan juices – that would suffice for his dinner.
But, what were truffles? Rare mushrooms, the man on my left quickly whispered to me. Rare, and black and growing underground. They were the cost equivalent, I later determined, of ordering five or six personal lobsters while others in your party struggled with choices less pricey and less pure. But cost was only part of the story.
Dinner began to arrive, the unexcitingly superb starter items of the era: delicate pike terrines, mussels steamed with shallots and Chablis. Who isn’t happy with such? But it all fell away when, in a footed, lidded Limoges dish, Diarmuid’s golf ball-sized truffles were borne to the table by a sly-looking servitor who uncovered them and swanned off. The others, including our imperturbable host, smiled faintly but intently, like Etruscans at bull games. They were in the know. Silently, I sniffed the truffle aroma, nothing if not a decisive fragrance, but I lacked the right referent. The grassiness of the cream — cream had never smelled so grassy — called up woods and moon and dew. The odor I might later describe as “earthy” and “musky” and many other things to do with cheese was then but deeply portentous. An agreeable fright overtook me: it was Pan, I understood – it was Pan! Beneath the cool weight of napery, my knees knocked slightly. I shot Diarmuid a meaning glance, all but nudged him as he plied his knife and fork, and opened my mouth to receive a truffle. For was I not still a baby bird, the whole world’s pleasure to feed me? The saurian flicker of his cold pale eye should have warned me to desist, but it did not.
And so, my first truffle. Tuber melanosporum, unearthed not a day earlier by a caveur who knew a secret place in the oak groves of Perigord, who had gone out after nightfall with his muzzled, truffle-ardent sow or his keenest bitch – for the female of the species is by far the better finder – and, kneeling where the unerring animal pressed its snout among the roots and panted and grunted and stamped, had angled his small trowel into the soil and sifted his way down to the prize. My prize. Oh, I could wish it had been fed me by an unbegrudging man, but that might only have crowded the sensation.
Not a sensation that I particularly had words for, either, looking back on the almost convent-bred purity of my food vocabulary that year. Best just to liken it to the entrance into the room, naked, of that person whom you know will make all the difference. Time passed — I’m not sure how much — and as I licked my lips and refocused on the table I saw that people — all but one — were smiling those faint, intent smiles not at the truffles but at me.
Having been admitted, in any case, to the 4,000 year-old company of those who know the truffle firsthand, I was hardly astonished when, a few years later, a Parisian banker, discovering that his cook had served his only truffle to two of her friends, made television news by shooting her. The investigating magistrate refused to bring the banker to trial for what was “obviously a crime of passion, completely understandable and completely forgivable.”
Yes, I understood. And if, wedged among his dusty curios, Diarmuid caught the news and untenderly remembered me, then I spared a thought for him too.
It Started with Desert Truffles in the Axial Age
The Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, is the one of the first truffle eaters whom history names, although truffles were prized still earlier in the palaces of ancient Mesopotamia, where their remains have been found in special baskets. The Egyptians inventoried their edibles, making papyrus records of who ate them, but the Sumerians left recipes. The truffles beloved of Khufu and the Sumerians, well known both to the writers of the Mishna and the Hadiths, and greedily imported by the Greeks and Romans, are not the same as T. melanosporum, however, but desert truffles, of the Terfezia and Tirmania genera, comprising about 30 varieties. And, although they are in flavor terms if not in pedigree far humbler cousins, any consideration of the truffle must begin with them.
Terfezia taste nutty and delicate, with flesh that is white or creamy or even rosy in color, and they need cooking – either simmering in milk and honey or roasting in the embers of a fire. While T. melanosporum imparts unmistakable flavor to other foods, the mild Terfezia will take on the flavor of whatever it is cooked with. It can also be ground into flour for poultices, its cooking juices saved as a treatment for eye infections. In the Tirmidhi Hadith, No. 1127, Mohammed recommends the latter use. There is even an intriguing etymological case that the self-replenishing manna from heaven sustaining the Israelites in the Book of Genesis was in fact Tirmania nivea, the aristocrat of desert truffles.
Among nomadic peoples, folklore about the truffle abounds — it is a highly nutritious “found food” for which relish, gratitude and even awe are well demonstrated. Singing to the truffles, Bedouin girls forage at dawn, when the first rays of light create telltale shadows on the still damp sand, and the truffles swell not far below the surface. Bedouins claim that truffles will grow where lightning strikes, appearing without seed or root, loosened from their beds by thunder. These beliefs go back thousands of years, at least as far back as Theophrastus, the favored pupil of Aristotle and father of taxonomy, who described truffles in the 3rd Century B.C.E. as “a natural phenomenon of great complexity, one of the strangest plants, without root, stem, fibre, branch, bud, leaf or flower.” Three hundred years later Pliny the Elder wrote that “among the most wonderful of all things is that anything can spring up and live without a root. These are called truffles.” The Babylonian Talmud, compiled in Iraq in the 5th Century C.E., records the rabbis concluding after discussion that truffles “emerge as they are in one night, wide and round like rounded cakes.”
In the desert as elsewhere, outlandish explanations for tuber growth have stubbornly attached to the truffle. But the necessary reciprocal relationship between truffle and host obtains in the desert as in the forest. Shrubs of the Helianthemum genus – relatives of the North American rock rose – can be a tip-off to desert truffle presence, for Terfezia and Helianthemum are symbionts. Filaments of the truffle penetrate the roots of the shrub, obtaining nourishment from it, in turn producing a substance that inhibits the growth of competing plants. In the absence of Helianthemum, the desert truffle can make do with other shrubs. It’s all a bit mysterious, as desert truffles grow in locations that are closely guarded secrets, and they utterly resist cultivation.
Usually no more than a few centimeters across but occasionally the size of a fist, desert truffles are found in the spring and sold in the souk, from North Africa to the Negev to easternmost Iraq. A good truffle year depends on adequate rainfall in the autumn – about 8 to 10 inches. In a middling year, desert truffles can cost about $100 a kilo, the price fluctuating wildly with supply.
In the past few years, European interest in whether desert truffles flourish has increased along with the size of Europe’s Middle Eastern population. Traditional European fanciers of T. melanosporum and its lordly white Italian counterpart, T. magnatum, are also looking to Africa and the Middle East for truffles, the supply of their most highly prized indigenous ones being egregiously threatened, down twentyfold from 100 years ago, rarer and pricier and more sought after with every passing season. A good time, in short, to take after the Romans and import Terfezia from Africa, thereby nabbing — it is surely hoped — some of that same old razzle-dazzle if not the peerless and shocking taste.
Food of the Devil, Fit Only for Saints and Popes
If one of the defining characteristics of Late Antiquity was its excessive devotion to banqueting, with the inclusion in banqueting protocol of emetics and special chambers – vomitoria – where diners would rid themselves of surfeit the better to take on still more surfeit, then with the Fall of Rome the elaborate truffle dishes of the era would go the way of the stewed cygnet’s tongues, leopard’s marrow cooked in goat’s milk, almond-fed geese, and conger eels fattened with live slave-meat fetishized by the later, briefer Roman emperors. The Middle Ages were dark indeed for the abused and maligned truffle, whether because, with the rise of Christian Europe the devil was presumed afoot in the kitchen as he never was in less sober times, or because food preparation to some end beyond sustenance – cuisine, that is — took centuries to regain sway after being made repulsive by decadence and impracticable by the breakdown of trade routes.
In these years, there occurred also a shift in the thinking about exactly what a truffle was, and where it came from. It was the devil’s own food, and it was black. Though occasionally it was white, tasting of honey and garlic, a Manichean reading of this difference would never obtain. Any way you sliced it in the Dark Ages, a truffle was a degenerate thing, and it came not from Africa but from secret pockets of Europe. T. melanosporum and T. magnatum had been found, and found to be potent aphrodisiacs, conferring unholy sexual prowess on their eaters. And so they were banned from kitchens – most kitchens, that is.
Ambrose, the famously ascetic 4th Century Bishop of Milan who became after death a saint, received a gift of truffles from the Bishop of Trevi. No one can say whether he ate them, but he certainly recorded his gratitude for them. Pope Gregory IV, who reigned in the mid-9th Century, let it be known that he positively needed truffles “to strengthen him in the battle against the Saracens.” Around this time there was philosophical speculation as to whether the truffle was truly a plant. Folk wisdom still held that it was a fusion of water, heat and lightning, but deeper thinkers asked whether it might not be some kind of animal. One of the salient mysteries enshrouding all love foods began to pertain to the truffle — in particular, the question of how food that debauches the weak-willed and the sinful serves yet to fortify the strong-willed and the saintly, nourishing them towards victory in their fitting and strenuous tasks.
By the late 14th Century, however, the truffle had made a comeback from the demonic hypothesis. Petrarch dedicated a sweet sonnet to it, and its ungodly reputation burned off like ground fog in the clear light of more rational times.
Back with Bells On, This Time for Women
During the Renaissance, the absence of truffles from the tables of the mighty would have been an inadmissible embarrassment, and their chefs were under relentless pressure to present them with ingenuity and élan. The custom of the truffle tribute arose. In 1502, the nobles of the Marchigian region of Aquamagna made a gift of stupendous black truffles to Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI. The redoubtable Lucrezia, for whose golden tresses long curly pastas were named, was very well pleased indeed, and lost no time incorporating the truffles into her beauty routine – history does not say exactly how.
But it was Catherine de Medici who outdid all other comers in securing the hold of the truffle on the European imagination. The late-born daughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Catherine was the child bride of Henry II of France. Forsaking Florence for grim cold Paris could not have delighted the 13-year old royal girl, and she brought with her cooks, and forks, and artichokes, and truffles and high heels, thinking to subdue the gaucheries of the French. That would become the gayest achievement of Catherine, who for lack of love grew into a dour and grasping queen, not averse to poisoning her political rivals. By the time she died in 1589, however, the French court was used to the sight of ladies of high birth openly eating love foods such as artichokes and truffles. This was unexampled in the Florence of her distant youth, so full of gorgeous perks for men only. It is worth remembering that until Catherine de Medici became Queen of France, aphrodisiacs were the prerogative of men, at least officially. The truffle tribute received by Lucrezia Borgia would not have been intended for her to eat – as perhaps she did not – but to serve to male guests to good effect.
A century and a half later, things had become ever so much more relaxed. Madame de Pompadour chatted freely with her maid about amatory matters. Hoping to hold onto the affections of the king, Louis XV, she lived for days at a time on an aphrodisiac regime of vanilla and celery and truffles. “My dearest,” she confided to her maid, “the fact is I am very cold by nature. I thought I might warm myself up, if I went on a diet to heat the blood, and now I’m taking this elixir which does seem to be doing me good.”
Sipping at truffle juice, Pompadour had no call to give the king heirs; when, one evening, she and Louis XV sat down to a dinner of truffled ram’s testicles, they were unbothered by thoughts of the succession.
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