Travel Stories

The Truth about Truffles

"They Are Not Vegetables But Miracles"

"They are not vegetables but miracles," declared one gourmand about the wild black truffle, the rare dark tuber found buried beneath the oak trees of southern France. The scarcity of this subterranean fungus, combined with its delicate flavor and unique, pungent aroma, has made it an obsession among food-lovers and driven prices as high as $500 a pound.

"Truffle-mania" dates back to Roman times. Ancient scientists, intrigued by the tuber's curvaceous shape and underground birth, believed they were of magical origins and declared them aphrodisiacs. In the Middle Ages, their scent was thought to evoke the ruffled sheets of a bordello, and monks were forbidden to eat them in case they would provoke indecent desires. But truffles truly came into fashion under the hedonistic "Sun King," Louis XIV, who demanded they be served at the royal table in Versailles.

By the 19th century, with the rise of haute cuisine, French chefs were worshipping them as "diamonds of the kitchen." Demand soared, and the sight of truffle hunters traipsing across the countryside every fall and winter with their enormous waddling pigs became one of the most picturesque images of southern France. Sows were the traditional beast of choice for hunters (female hogs find the truffle's scent very close to that of an aroused male and seek them out voraciously). But pigs have the unfortunate habit of devouring the truffles they find, so in recent years dogs have been trained to sniff out and dig up the elusive fungi.

Sadly for gourmands, production has plunged in the last century due to deforestation and lack of manpower in rural areas. Southern markets once exported 1,000 tons of the tubers, but the amount is now closer to 50. Modern biotechnologists are coming up with new plans to cultivate the truffles in larger quantities, but true gourmands, it seems, will always hold the wild truffle supreme.