Guide to Black Truffles

Their presence is signaled by rutting pigs and buzzing flies yet they are prized by chefs. In the past they have been regarded as the fruit of the devil and potent aphrodisiacs. Today they are given holy reverence. They are expensive enough to be compared to precious metals and have recently been the cause of a gastronomical spat between France and China. They are called Tuber Melanosporum, in Latin and the French call them “rabasse.” They are black truffles.
They can range from the size of a walnut to that of a man’s fist. Their unremarkable exteriors are black and warty but when cut open reveal a nearly violet flesh with delicate white veins. While there are many varieties of these subterranean fungi, the black truffle, found throughout southern France, is the most valued. Black truffles are bulbous fungi found underground growing from the roots of trees, mostly hardwoods like oak. A barren radius surrounds trees whose roots carry the spoor of rabasse. While this terre brulee’, or scorched earth, indicates a likelihood of finding truffles, one can not simply start digging willy-nilly. Though sometimes a cloud of swarming flies can be a telltale sign, the terre brulee’ does not tell the harvester exactly where the truffle is growing, They can be found up to fourteen inches underground and digging a one-foot deep trench around a valuable truffle-bearing tree is not an economically sound harvesting technique (Hurst and Rutherford 60). A more precise method is needed.
A unique property of Tuber Melanosporum is its ability to secrete a pheromone called androstenol. This chemical is produced in men’s armpit glands and, more interestingly, in the testicles of a boar. Enter the sow. Upon detecting the androstenol of a mature truffle crop, she will begin digging with greater accuracy than any human could (“More”). However at this point, the truffle hunter encounters another problem. Trying to stop a 300-pound female from indulging in her porcine proclivity is nearly impossible. The brave soul must instead attempt to seize the precious Perigord before it has been consumed. This is so hazardous that many French truffle farmers have adopted the Italian alternative of using dogs to seek out the ebony delicacies, while old-school hunters can still be recognized on account of their missing digits (“Truffle” 1).
The rarity and the difficulties in harvesting black truffles have affected their price like any valuable commodity. Lalbenque, in Quercy, is the largest truffle market in southwest France. During fall and early winter, prices there range from $110 to $330 a pound depending on how fruitful the season was (2). Acquiring them as imports is quite difficult, as the fresh truffle should be consumed within a week (Hurst 63). A quick search at Shop.com did offer a brine preserved variety at $2,373 for a case of six 7oz. bottles. This was 30% off the original price a real bargain – but still ten times the current price of silver.
Those who are not wealthy enough to shave entire black truffles over salad or cook them into omelets have a clever method of stretching their fungal francs when the occasional rabasse does come their way. The fragrance of a truffle is so powerful that placing one small truffle in a bowl of eggs will impart the aroma to its neighbors, right through their shells (Hall 1). Other frugal gourmets will mix black truffles with other, less expensive varieties (Hurst 63).
Black truffles have not always been held in such high regard. There are accounts of the ancient Greeks enjoying truffles, though not likely the black variety (“More”). Some truffle recipes from the Roman Empire still survive. The Romans were also the first to record any supposed aphrodisiacal properties of the truffle, drawing comparisons between the shape of a truffle and that of a human testicle (Giacosa 64). The Dark Ages were truly a dark time for the truffle. The clergy attributed their seemingly seedless appearance to lightning strikes or witches’ spit. Truffles did not regain their elite status until Louis XIV took a fancy to the falsely maligned fungus and commanded a study of their cultivation (“More”).
Truffle production proceeded to boom in the following centuries reaching a peak of 2000 tons by the turn of the twentieth century. This bounty did not last long. World War I began in 1914, taking the lives of most of France’s young men. Thousands of acres of truffle bearing land were also destroyed and all resources had to be diverted to bearing staple crops. Before the truffle forests had a chance to recover, World War II struck only three decades later, further diverting resources away from producing these luxuries. Today, France produces only 50 to 150 tons of black truffles a year (Hall).
This supply does not meet the worldwide demand, and some enterprising companies are attempting to rectify this imbalance. The notion that black truffles cannot be cultivated is not entirely correct. By replanting saplings already infected with the spoor of Tuber Melanosporum in regions with similar growing conditions as those in France, a grove of trees with truffle bearing roots can be grown. However, these trees are deciduous hardwoods and do take time to mature. Likewise, the truffles depend on the size of the tree and the amount of sugar the tree can produce. This adds up to a long wait before edible truffles can be harvested. New Zealand currently has a yielding truffle grove and Tasmania, Australia is watching theirs grow (Hall). There is even a small yielding grove in North Carolina (“More).
To the French, however, these foreign countries will always lack the terroir to produce a true black truffle, though they have begun importing the New Zealand variety as an off-season alternative. What outrages them, however, is a truffle imposter.
China has recently begun exporting a variety, Tuber Indicum, that looks very much like the black truffle yet has a less pungent aroma. Used for centuries in China as pig feed, this variety is now being sold at $80 a kilo. This is not a crime in itself, but when French merchants illegally label these fungi as “Perigord” black truffles, it is a high crime indeed in this label and region conscious country. A second and more serious danger involves the risk of Chinese truffle spoors contaminating the native French variety. DNA testing is currently being utilized to sniff out the imposters, but the situation has yet to be resolved (Beech).
Considering its humble earthy beginning, the life of a black truffle is certainly a rags to riches tale. It epitomizes the expense the French are willing to pay in order to enjoy a good meal. In his book The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin eloquently sums up the spirit of the truffle, “At the time I write, the glory of the truffle has now reached its culmination …. In fact, the truffle is the very diamond of gastronomy …. The truffle is not an outright aphrodisiac, but it may, in certain circumstances, make women more affectionate and men more amiable”(qtd. in Stradley).

Works Cited
Beech, Hannah. “Truffle Kerfuffle.” Time 21 Feb. 2005: 44.
Hall, Ian. “Tuber Melanosporum- Perigord Black Truffle.” Crop & Food Research. 14
Apr. 2005 < http://www.crop.cri.nz/home/research/plants/gourmet-foods.jsp>. Hurst, Jacqui and Lyn Rutherford. A Gourmet’s Guide to Mushrooms and Truffles. Los
Angeles: Salamander, 1991.
Giacosa, Maria Gozzini. A Taste of Ancient Rome. Chicago: University, 1992. “More Fun Facts on Truffles.” Paris Tempo. 15 Apr. 2005 .
Perigord Truffles of Tazmania. 14 Apr. 2005
Stradley, Linda. “Oregon Truffles.” Whats Cooking America. 18 Apr. 2005
“Truffle.” EDinformatics: Education for the Information Age. 18 Apr. 2005