For my last hand-in of a module called Creative Non-Fiction, we were told to ‘write an essay’. Just that. Write an essay. It could be on anything. In any format. Referencing or no-referencing. Woolly, obscenely vague, but once I found a subject I ended up getting super involved.

Though many have classed looking at truffles as being ‘done to death’, I was not aware of this fact when I first started my research into the truffle. Luckily. Or else I think I may have lost any motivation to complete the 1500-2000 word lyrical essay.

My sister was wonderful enough to actually BUY ME a spring truffle! As a lowly student, I had settled to taste through research, due to the astronomical prices of the infamous fungi… So to her I am incredibly grateful.

Though trying desperately to not sound like an awards ceremony, I’d also like to thank Sven-Hanson Britt, a chef and culinary encyclopedia for making me even more interested/obsessed by truffles. I went off on a tangent away from cold hard, scientific facts and began to explore this essay with a historical, creative edge that surprised me. It was Sven who gave me the recipe for the truffled scrambled eggs with Marsala wine. Absolute genius! Anyway… Check out Sven’s excellent blog on his gastronomic travels around France – http://www.thechefsdirectory.com/profile/Sven-Hanson-Britt/ It makes me want to run away to Monte Carlo!

Anyway, here is my essay – it’s pretty lengthy but SO much research went into it. Whether or not my tutor will think it’s worth it is a different matter, but I know that I devoted my sanity as well as my tastebuds to the truffle for a good month before being able to complete this task.

Oh! And I’ve included references and bibliography on this copy. You know. Just in case!

*****

Truffle Hunting:

‘The harvesting and marketing of truffles is a world that retains some of the mystery and intrigue of the past, a world that could easily be mistaken for the realm of fiction’ *

* Ian R. Hall, Gordon T. Brown and Alessandra Zambonelli, Taming the Truffle: The

History, Lore, and Science of the Ultimate Mushroom (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2007) p. 15



I could throw Latin at you. Science. Tell you that this particular ectomycorrhiza is part of the mycorrhizal family; that they germinate beneath the Quercus, Cedrus and Fagus arborvitae.[i]

But this could be as lost to you as the history of this culinary diamond has become under the stamp of ‘luxury’, ‘indulgence’ and ‘delicacy’.

 An oak tree may look strong. Its branches reaching to the clouds above your head bear years of environmental perfection. But there is a war happening. Deep beneath your feet, a cell covered in microscopic needles, like the medieval Morning Star, is thieving the nutrients from the oak’s gnarled roots. A truffle is forming.

 Only science can explain this natural phenomenon… But humankind’s fascination with this legendary fungus, we can follow through history.

 

 January 1099. Tuber Melanosporum.[ii] The Périgord, France.[iii]

 A man, dressed in earth worn colours, watches a pig sharp-eyed.[iv] It rummages and rustles through the dank, rotting leaves fallen from the acres of trees stretching above his head. The leaves had lain on the damp soil all winter, for it is January.[v] The heavy rains had come early this year, melting the winter’s snow, allowing the ground to release its stale breath.

He absent-mindedly swings a stick in front of him, pressing it into the soft ground as he walks. A hazy scattering of small flies have dreamily gathered underneath a fine oak, its roots breaking free from the smothering of the earth.[vi]

A grunt from the bristle-backed sow alerts the man. He rushes forward, lifts the stick and thrashes it down upon the snout of the beast. She backs away shrieking. He will reward her later. But now, the man gets down on his hands and knees. He does not feel the decaying leaves juice seep through his leggings as his fingernails scrape at the forest floor. His excitement makes easy work of the soft ground, already disturbed by the cochon’s snout.

One hand down, a dark form is emerging. Blacker than the earth surrounding it, an ugly, scaled scalp crowns the earth’s surface. The man’s breath quickens, yet his hands remain steady as he gently prises the globular lump from the grip of the forest floor.[vii]

He brushes off the excess earth upon his tunic and holds the black diamond truffle up to the weak winter sun.[viii] He watches the light flicker over its surface; it is as if he were holding a still beating heart, poisoned black by the blasphemous indulgence that has sent him deep into the Périgordian forest.

The man was a forester, sent by his Lordship to search for the fungus that was dense with Christian superstition.[ix] For within the creamy veins that etched their way through the core of the mysterious fungus, was the power to stimulate desire into the veins of the person who ate it. Seduction was a witch’s fare and the fungi’s use has been denied for all these dark years.

With dirt encrusted fingernails, the man raises the truffle to his nose and sniffs. Yes. He could smell it; the strange, musky aroma that he associates with what lies between lustful bodies.[x] It was an ancient myth, but one that was secretly preserved by those who had liards to spare, and the contempt of the controlling Church to defy.

The truffle is large. Perhaps he will keep it. Sell it for more than his Lordship will offer him.

The sow is restless. The scent of the hog is there, deep underneath her snout. She tries, over and over, to search for him underneath the web of roots of the huge oak trees. Yet she cannot hear his grunting rasp; cannot see his mark upon the soft ground. She can taste him though, as she crunches upon a truffle with her strong teeth.[xi]

The man is alerted once more to the grunt of the sow. He raises his stick.

  

March 1859.[xii] Tuber Magnatum Pico, Le Marche[xiii]

 Like shattered glass, the darkening March sky appears cracked by the bare hazel branches that draws her eye down the ridged trunk of the tree. If Lizzie reaches out her hand, she can feel the mottled bark beneath her small fingertips, patches slippery with green moss. The roots splitting the ground can be felt through the bottom of her thinly soled shoes as she stands, stock still, observing the truffle traders.

Down beside the rushing brook, they hobble down the misted glen, their shadows distorted by their wares. One hauls a basket, one bears a plate, one lugs a heavy dish of thousands of pounds in weight.[xiv] Lizzie’s father had told her that these truffles were more precious than silver, of gold; they were worth their weight in diamonds.

Onto some wooden tables, sheltered by the crooked branches, they set their baskets down. A small crowd has gathered on the fringes of the glade, waiting, watching. Their gentle murmurs, restless as the brook, are silenced as the baskets and plates are uncovered. Lizzie watches intently as necks stretch and eyes widen at the goblin’s fare.

They stand arms crossed, hands stuffed into thick moleskin pockets. They peer over scarves and mufflers wrapped tightly as protection from the last grips of the winter wind fingering at their throats. “Come buy, come buy.” They whisper, beckoning her with their sharp eyes.[xv]

Her father takes Lizzie by the hand and leads her towards a table with a dish covered with a cloth. She has small hands, white and china-like in the evening light. She pulls herself up, and on tiptoes looks over the table top.

Signalling Lizzie and her father to bend closer with a slight nod of the head, the trader gently lifts a corner of the cloth. She leans forward towards the expected jewels lying nestled beneath the cover.

Mounds of ugly swellings bulge from the dish. They are cream-coloured and smooth but dirty, and rough. There is no sparkle of diamond, no flash of gold, no gleam of silver.

From Lizzie’s father however, a strange guttural utterance grumbles from his throat and his eyes fix upon the alien forms. She watches him stretch out his arm hesitantly towards them.

The trader, smiles his wicked smile – so close to a snarl – and holds out the dish towards her father’s quavering hand. Their eyes shift to the other characters hypnotised by the traders. They begin to whisper underneath in deep, hushed tones – How much do you want it? How much will you pay?

“Let us get home before the night grows dark”, pleas Lizzie.

The goblin man takes another truffle, bulbous and gross, out of the dish and holds it out to her. His hand is large; his fingers darkened with wired hair, his nails long and thick with dirt. “Sniff”, he coos. He moves it closer to her freckled nose, watching her intently. Smell me, he seems to say. Smell me. Eat me. Love me.

She shuts her eyes. She holds her breath. Will not open lip from lip, lest he should cram a mouthful in.

  

May 2012. Tuber Aestivum. Cornwall.

 I sit here, bedroom door wide open, eager, excited. Nervous. It will arrive before one o’ clock I am assured.

We discussed it in grams. Our inexperience was clear and it was furtively discussed in private emails; secret code feeling necessary for the dealing of the precious item.

Now it sits beside me. TRUFFLE HUNTER Fine Italian Truffles in the proudest, blackest ink upon the side of a manila box.[xvi]

I am somewhat disappointed. I had thought more secrecy would be present; a feeling of underhand significance would pass between myself and the post man when it was placed in my hands. We would give each other a meaningful look seeped in caution and knowing, a surreptitious glance over his shoulder would be necessary… But the post man only comments on the weather.

I even smell it. I smell the unopened box in the hope that the sweet, musty, sexy scent of the Italian diamond will exude its way through the cardboard to tickle my desires and tempt me away from my computer into the kitchen. Right there and then the pungent smell will inspire me to buy a £15 bottle of Marsala wine and taste the most luxurious scrambled egg I will ever eat…

I am tempted. I tear off the black tape. I sniff. The box smells weird suddenly. I lift the square lid of a polystyrene box surrounded by plastic bubble wrap. A strip of 5 small ice coolers are wrapped like a protective snake around the little wooden box that lies nestled amongst the bubble wrap.

I open the box. It’s a whole truffle.

I sniff again. Is that..? I smell again longer this time. A slight frown. Even after I’ve moved it away from my nose, the earthy smell feel as if it’s laced the inside of my nostrils with this musky, stale but delicately sweet smell. I try to place it but I can’t.

It is sensual. It is in some way sexual, but earthier, less sordid.

*****

There is a hiss. A scattering splash and the tiny cubes of truffle are added to the burning Marsala wine. Alcoholic spirals reach their fingers into the veins of the sponge-like fungi. I work quickly. A lump of butter leaves its glossy trail across the bottom of the pan. Beaten egg with a splash of cream bubbles and sticks. A clove of garlic melts across thick toast – the pungent plate for the most expensive meal I have ever made. A layer of thick steam blinds the view of the thick, bubbling yellow mass and I hope, pray that it is the food-encrusted hob plate that burns and not my precious mixture welding itself into the corners of a very non-stick pan. I stir slowly hoping that the panic won’t seep out of the end of my fingers, trickling down the long spoon and curdle the mixture.

It happens rather suddenly. The time between realising that the egg is at its best (before it congeals into a watery lump), and resting it upon the toast, is enough time to spoil. Much more time has been spent into the research of this dish than the time it has taken to put the plate in front of me.

Unlike my other culinary experiments, I won’t share it. I want to eat this all myself, selfishly savouring every morsel purely for my own indulgence; secondly, I don’t want to observe the disappointment on someone else’s face, when the first bite says nothing of the hours that I have spent researching, and the centuries that have past where this diamond of the earth has been held as the ultimate luxury.

I sit in sunshine at an uneven plastic table that is marked with the rings of blue paint pots. Overgrown grass and uncut daisies stroke my ankles. Next to my student existence, my truffle and marsala-infused scrambled egg on garlic toast reeks of guilty expense.

 *****

The authors of Taming the Truffle claim that it is because I know that it is so rare and expensive, that I know the intrigue of its history, which makes the pleasure of eating a truffle so heightened.[xvii] Perhaps it also had something to do with the relief I felt at enjoying the subject of what a month of research has led me to.

I collected the confusion of tastes and smells, fixing them to my memory in the hope that I could explain exactly why the tuber has earned such a famous reputation. Its history speaks through countless facts and fictions, yet the mysterious scent is still elusive, still secretive, even after centuries of first tastes.

It is a taste that doesn’t feel like it should be shouted about. It is something private, selfish and completely enticing.

I lay my knife and fork together, with the taste still on my lips.

Bibliography

 Curzietti, Davide, Le Trifole, www.trufflespeciality.com [accessed 15th May 2012]

Gourmet Foodstore [online] www.gourmetfoodstore.com [accessed 9th May 2012]

Hall, Ian R., Gordon T. Brown and Alessandra Zambonelli, Taming the Truffle: The History, Lore, and Science of the Ultimate Mushroom (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2007)

le-marche.com, www.le-marche.com [accessed 9th May 2012]

Mabey, Richard, Food For Free, (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012)

Renowden, Gareth, The Truffle Book, (Amberley, NZ: Limestone Hills Publishing, 2005)

Rogers Mushrooms, www.rogersmushrooms.com [accessed 10th May 2012]

Segnit, Niki, The Flavour Thesaurus, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010)

Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne, A History of Food, trans. by Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009)

Truffle Hunter: Fine Italian Truffles [online], www.trufflehunter.co.uk [accessed 8th May 2012]

 


[i]Oak, Cedar, Beech tree

Hall, Taming the Truffle, p. 118

[ii] Tuber = Latin for ‘lump’

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food, trans. by Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009)  p. 395

[iii] The Périgord region of France – Home of the Périgord Black Truffle – prized by the French, their whereabouts are kept in constant secrecy by truffle hunters.

Gareth Renowden, The Truffle Book, (Amberley, NZ: Limestone Hills Publishing, 2005) p. 80

[iv] Pigs were traditionally used in the gathering of truffles, yet were prone to eating them. Sticks were necessary to deter them. Dogs are now considered to be more trustworthy.

Renowden, The Truffle Book, p. 83

[v] Though many have tried, the cultivation of truffles has proved difficult. This is not helped by the strictness of their season. Périgord truffles are only found in winter.

Hall, Taming the Truffle, p. 121

[vi] Many truffle hunters use the gathering of certain flies in known truffle-areas as a guide to the location of truffles.

Hall, Taming the Truffle, p. 203

[vii] A truffle is an underground fungus. They were coined by Cicero, a Roman philosopher as “children of the Earth”

‘History of Truffles’ available from Gourmet Foodstore [online] www.gourmetfoodstore.com [accessed 9th May 2012]

[viii] The Périgord Truffle is deemed the ‘black diamond’ for its monetary value and its treasured culinary worth.

Hall, Taming the Truffle, p. 24

[ix]During the Middle Ages, truffles were regarded with superstition as the idea of their being an aphrodisiac was warned against by the Christian church. This idea was easily believed due to their musky ‘exotic’ scent being often compared to that of sex.

‘History of Truffles’ available from Gourmet Foodstore [online] www.gourmetfoodstore.com [accessed 9th May 2012]

[x] “a fruit consecrated to Aphrodite”

Aristotle, Taming the Truffle, p. 32

[xi] Truffles contain a chemical that is likened to a pheromone in a male pig’s saliva. It is this that makes a female pig a natural forager for truffles.

Renowden, The Truffle Book, p. 30

[xii] Literary figures such as Lord Byron were said to be inspired by the presence of the truffle during the Victorian period.

‘A Journey Through the History of a Truffle’ available from, Truffle Hunter [online], [accessed 9th May 2012]

[xiii] A region of Italy where the white truffle is famously found.

‘Eating in the Marche: All About Truffles’ available from, le-marche.com, www.le-marche.com [accessed 9th May 2012]

[xiv] Here, inspiration has been found in the poem ‘Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti to illustrate this relationship with the Romantic poets. *Exact phrases have been used.*

Christina Rossetti, ‘Goblin Market’ in, The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse, (London: Penguin Group, 1997) pp. 473- 488

[xv] Hall states that ‘Women, considered to be “impure”, were kept away from the truffle beds for fear that their very presence would strike the beds sterile’. In this narrative, Lizzie as an ‘innocent’ girl is encouraged into temptation but resists.

Hall, Taming the Truffle, p. 42

[xvi]         Truffle Hunter [online], [accessed 9th May 2012]

[xvii]        Hall, Taming the Truffle, p. 15

*****

TBC, Rosie x

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