“Whosoever says truffle, utters a grand word, which awakens erotic and gastronomic ideas”
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), preface to ‘The Physiology of Taste’ (1825)
Truffles, those incredible little culinary luxuries that almost defy description, one should never pass up an opportunity to smell, taste and commune with the plump little balls of ectomycorrhizal fungi found in the rhizosphere of oak and hazelnut trees.
The merest sliver of a shaving of the hypogeous sporocarp, (fruiting body) of the truffle can transform even the blandest dish into something, exceptional, complex and completely irresistible.
It is almost as if truffles are infused by magical properties and indeed, Ancient Europeans believed that truffles were created by the gods when lightning struck the ground. The Roman philosopher Cicero, (106 BC – 43 BC) called them children of the earth and the Greek essayist Plutarch (AD46-AD120) wrote “Since, during storms, flames leap from the humid vapors and dark clouds emit deafening noises, is it surprising the lightning, when it strikes the ground, gives rise to truffles…”
In ‘Close to Colette’ (1955) the author Maurice Goudeket suggested “Truffles – anyone who does not declare himself ready to leave Paradise or Hell for such a treat is not worthy to be born again.” Whilst his wife, French author nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, (1948) Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, (1873 – 1954) is quoted herself as saying, “If I can’t have too many truffles, I’ll do without truffles.”
The two godfathers of French fine dining criticism are Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, (1755-1826) and Alexandre-(Balthazard)-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, (1758-1837).
Brillat-Savarin’s most famous work, ‘Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste), was published in December 1825, just two months before his death and it has never been out of print since.
An interesting and complex character he studied law, chemistry and medicine in Dijon, there was a price on his head during the French Revolution and he fled to Switzerland before moving to Holland and then the brand-new country called the United States of America. In the U.S. he earned a living giving violin lesson and was for a time ‘first violin’ for the Park Theatre in New York. He returned to France in 1797 and served for the remainder of his life as a judge for the Court de Cassation, one of France’s ‘Courts of Last Resort’.
Brillat-Savin called truffles the ‘diamonds of the kitchen’ and he wrote a great many words on truffles, including:
“Whoever says truffle, pronounces a great word, which awakens erotic and gourmand ideas both in the sex dressed in petticoats and in the bearded portion of humanity. This honorable duplication results from the fact that the tubercle is not only delicious to the taste, but that it excites a power the exercise of which is accompanied by the most delicious pleasures.
The origin of the truffle is unknown; they are found, but none know how they vegetate. The most learned men have sought to ascertain the secret, and fancied they discovered the seed. Their promises, however, were vain, and no planting was ever followed by a harvest. This perhaps is all right, for as one of the great values of truffles is their dearness, perhaps they would be less highly esteemed if they were cheaper.
The Romans were well acquainted with the truffle, but I do not think they were acquainted with the French variety. Those which were their delight were obtained from Greece and Africa, and especially from Libya. The substance was pale, tinged with rose, and the Libyan truffles were sought for as being far the most delicate and highly perfumed.
From the Romans to our own time, there was a long interregnum, and the resurrection of truffles is an event of recent occurrence. I have read many old books, in which there is no allusion to them. The generation for which I write may almost be said to witness its resurrection.
About 1780 truffles were very rare in Paris, and they were to be had only in small quantities at the Hotel des Americans, and at the Hotel de Province. A dindon truffee was a luxury only seen at the tables of great nobles and of kept women.
We owe their abundance to dealers in comestibles, the number of whom has greatly increased, and who, seeing that their merchandise was popular, had it sought for throughout the kingdom. Sending for it by either the mail or by couriers, they made its search more general. As truffles cannot be planted, careful search alone can obtain it.
At the time I, (Brillat-Savin) write (1825), the glory of the truffle is at its apogee. Let no one ever confess that he dined where truffles were not. However good any entree may be, it seems bad unless enriched by truffles. Who has not felt his mouth water when any allusion was made to truffles a la provincale?
A sauté of truffles is a dish the honors of which the mistress of the house reserves to herself; in fine, the truffle is the diamond of the kitchen.
I sought the reason of this preference; it seemed to me that many other substances had an equal right to the honor, and I became satisfied that the cause was that the truffle was supposed to excite the genesiac sense. This I am sure is the chief quality of its perfection, and the predilection and preference evinced for it, so powerful is our servitude to this tyrannical and capricious sense.
This discovery led me to seek to ascertain if the effect were real or imaginary….
I made ulterior researches, collected my ideas, and consulted the men who were most likely to know, with all of whom I was intimate. I united them into a tribunal, a senate, a sanhedrim, an areopagus, and we gave the following decision to be commented upon by the litterateures of the twenty-eighth century.
The truffle is a positive aphrodisiac, and under certain circumstances makes women kinder, and men more amiable.
In Piedmont white truffles are met with, which are very highly esteemed. They have a slight flavor, not injurious to their perfection, because it gives no disagreeable return.
The best truffles of France come from Perigord, and upper Provence. About the month of January, they have their highest perfume.
Those from Bugey also have a high flavor, but cannot be preserved.
Those of Burgundy and Dauphiny are of inferior quality. They are hard, and are deficient in farinaceous matter. Thus, there are many kinds of truffles.
To find truffles, dogs and hogs are used, that have been trained to the purpose. There are men, however, with such practiced eyes that by the inspection of the soil they can say whether it contains truffles or not, and what is their quality.”
A lengthy treatise on the Truffle by Brillat-Savin but I am sure you will agree, one well worth the read.
In the 1930’s cheese maker Henri Androuet renamed their ‘Excelsior’ cheese Brillat Savarin in homage to the great gourmand and critic. A luscious, triple cream Brie made in Burgundy and Normandy; it is said that to bring out the best in this cheese one should pair it with the finest French truffles.
Alexandre-(Balthazard)-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière is considered the first public critic of cooking and the first reviewer of restaurants, particularly the ambitious new restaurants that cropped up in Paris during the latter part of the eighteenth century, and flourished under the Napoleonic regime.
Born into a wealthy family, the young Grimod, who had deformed hands at birth, was largely kept out of public view and in isolation developed a sharp wit and a dark sense of humor. As a young adult he became notorious for throwing elaborate and outrageous dinner parties, one in particular had a pig dressed and seated at the table as host. This sort of behavior was soon the gossip of society and outraged his father, who eventually had him disinherited and confined to an abbey.
Ironically, it was in confinement that Grimod began to learn the art of good eating from the abbot and would eventually open one of the earliest grocery stores, in Lyon. Upon his father’s passing Grimod was able to reconcile with his mother and return to Paris, where he and his close friends would gather once a week to dine at the Hôtel Grimod de La Reynière.
At these feasts Paris’ finest restaurants would send around their best dishes to be judged by the group and reviewed in their monthly ‘Journal des Gourmandes et des Belles,’ which first appeared in 1806.
Upon his mother’s death in 1812 Grimod inherited the family fortune, he held his own funeral dinner whilst still very much alive, because he apparently wanted to see who would turn up. He then married his long-time devout mistress and retired to a chateau outside Paris. The chateau was previously and somewhat ironically the home of an infamous serial killer who did her victims in by poisoning their food.
His eight volumes of ‘L’Almanach des Gourmands’ are still today, a rich source of culinary knowledge and wonderful insight into the enjoyment of fine dining and French cuisine.
Grimod wrote a great deal on truffles in the Almanach des Gourmands including:
‘Truffles are one of the greatest godsends that Providence, in its immeasurable bounty, has ever deigned to bestow upon food lovers.
This tuber, which is neither vegetable nor fruit, is one of the noblest ingredients of haute cuisine, by virtue of the incomparable flavour it lends to the meat or vegetable dishes to which it may be added. On its own, it is the most luxurious of dishes, and for four months of the year, the dish of choice of the most distinguished gourmets and the prettiest actresses of the Vaudeville theatre (enough said).
They are found in abundance in Italy but these, generally speaking, are white truffles. Truffles from Turin are notable for their distinct aroma of garlic, which is unbearable in a truffle to all but the Piedmontese.
Burgundy, Champagne and Germany, to name but a few, also produce truffles, but in small quantities only, and of such poor quality and so little taste that it would be bestowing too great an honour to even call them by that name.
Here is not the place to comment upon the signs by which one may recognise an area harbouring truffle; suffice to say that pigs are normally used to detect them. Such is the heightened sense of smell of these animals which are already so beloved by gourmands, that they are renowned as the best explorers. We should thus prostrate ourselves before the true inventive genius of these precious friends of mankind, and at least do them the justice of considering them no less useful alive than dead. For without them, truffles would rot, undiscovered, below the earth, providing nourishment merely for worms and flies, instead of for our most illustrious gourmands.
We know of three main truffle varieties: white, red and black. The first is the least well regarded, the second is the rarest and the third is without doubt the best. In fact, it is the only one which is allowed to make its way onto our tables.
Fully matured truffles are difficult to store. Indeed, they should only be harvested when they are fully mature as only then do they reach their optimum aroma and taste. They are best preserved by leaving them in their natural coating of earth, rather than by washing them. So, we should not complain at having to pay five or six francs a pound for Périgord earth when buying truffles, for it is that very earth which keeps them well-perfumed and in good condition.
Truffles are best eaten fresh, when in season. Those which have been preserved, either in sand, or in oil, vinegar or eau-de-vie, completely lose their aroma and their flavour to these various substances, becoming entirely odourless. And so, it is for dried truffles also.
Rather a peculiar attribute of the aroma of truffles is that it aids in the preservation of meats. A turkey or any other type of poultry may be kept fresh for more than a month and a half if stuffed with truffles, where otherwise, it would go off in less than a week.
Truffle perfume is so subtle that a little goes a long way. A pound of this vegetable matter is enough to make an expansive area fragrant with its scent, and yet it will dissipate if subjected to too much heat. So, the best chefs are careful not to let the various stews to which they have added truffles boil for too long.
Truffles gently warm the soul, assist in digestion and are an excellent aphrodisiac. They are simply the most distinguished of dishes which opulence can offer up to sensuality.”
Grimod was indeed a fan of truffles.
The fathers of French grande and haute cuisine, Marie Antoine Carême and Georges Auguste Escoffier cooked extensively with truffles in their grandest recipes and France’s famous food writers and critics lauded it culinary properties. Yet, it was perhaps an Englishman, born in India during the British Raj, who described truffles best. The satirist and author of ‘Vanity Fair’, William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) who wrote:
“Presently, we were aware of an odour gradually coming towards us, something musky, fiery, savoury, mysterious, — a hot drowsy smell, that lulls the senses, and yet enflames them, — the truffles were coming.”
Sex and Truffles
All this talk of Truffles, sex, arousal and erotica, is there anything in it? Apparently so, pheromones are secreted chemicals that trigger a response from another member of the same species. In animals, sex pheromones indicate the availability of the female for breeding. Male animals also emit pheromones that convey information about their species and genotype. Pheromone secretions often come with their own scents and odors and some of these smells arouse us.
“They can, on certain occasions, make women more tender and men more lovable.”
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), referring to truffles.
George Dodd is the co-founder of Aroma Science Pty. Ltd. He formed in 1971 the Warwick Olfaction Group at the University, and he remained as its director until he left the University in 1994. He formed Pheromones ltd which is now part of Kiotech Int plc. And worked as a consultant for Lifetime Sciences Ltd. where he developed human pheromone fragrances. George Dodd is one of the best-known scientists working on the sense of smell.
He points out that truffles belong to one of seven families of pheromones, those human body odours by which we establish our sexual compatibility. Six other categories are also found in foods, he says; in caviar, shellfish, ripe cheese, champagne, vintage wine and beer.
The traditional method of foraging for the underground shrooms was the truffle hog, now more commonly replaced by the trusted hound. The reason pigs were so good at rooting out truffles has to do with their sex lives. Researchers in Germany found that truffles contain massive quantities of a substance also synthesized in the testes of boars, who secrete it through their saliva when courting sows.
The earthy, spicy, sweaty leather and musk like scent and other related steroids are also secreted by humans in their armpits through sweat glands and tests carried out in Germany and England have reportedly shown that the substance does have an effect on human beings.
Truffles are seasonal and best eaten fresh, there are winter truffles and summer truffles. Their remarkable aroma pervades everything they are cooked with and especially ingredients high in fat like foie gras, butter, cream, cheese or oils or with rather bland in flavour dishes like rice, pasta or potatoes. Truffles with gently scrambled eggs are incredible and must also be tried. The outrageous expense of truffles is mildly offset by the fact that the merest sliver or shaving is usually enough to impart enough aroma and flavour into the dish.
To preserve the aroma and flavour of the fresh truffle it is usually sliced or shaved onto the dish just prior to serving. Whilst slices of Truffle inserted into the skin of duck, poultry, pheasant or guinea fowl and left for 24 hours prior to roasting with infuse the bird with truffle character.
“I have wept three times in my life. Once when my first opera failed. Once again, the first time I heard Paganini play the violin. And once when a truffled turkey fell overboard at a boating picnic.”
Gioachino Rossini, Italian composer (1792-1868)
“To tell the story of the truffle is to tell the history of world civilization.”
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)
“Truffle is the food for kings, gods and pigs.”
Antonio Carluccio, Italian chef and restaurateur
Whether it’s the ridiculously pungent and expensive winter truffles from Périgord, or the slightly less expensive or intense, but more versatile summer truffles from France; there is nothing quite like the pungent, evocative, sensual and overwhelming pleasure of a perfect truffle dish or fresh, exquisite, fresh truffle shaved over your pasta, meat or eggs for a unique and truly memorable culinary experience.
At Topaz restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, they air-fly in fresh seasonal truffles and employ them both extensively and liberally throughout their menu, the perfect place to sniff out your next truffle indulgence.
Written by Darren Gall