Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Two years ago, in a comment at LanguageHat, AJP Crown wondered whether there was interest in writing about truffles here. Honestly, the challenge has not been material, but having time to put it into some kind of coherent form.

These days, restaurants and frozen entrees offer dishes like mac-n-cheese that are truffled, that is, made with truffle oil. The LA food critic Jonathan Gold called truffle oil, “the ketchup of the middle class” and a judge on a recent Chopped proposed that it should be incinerated. In 2003, Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a piece for Vogue provocatively titled, “Does truffle oil have anything to do with truffles at all?” (I won't try to link to it online. A individual subscription to Vogue's online archive cost $1575 per year, so I doubt anyone who reads this blog has one. The public library where I read it still has all the print issues neatly shelved in cardboard boxes.) He methodically samples various truffle-derived or -named products. The best he can be say is that some are worse than others. Mostly, truffle oil is vegetable oil with 2,4 dithiapentane (or, if you prefer, bis(methylthio)methane) added. And since natural or naturale is not a controlled designation, saying that does not mean anything about how the oil was made.

But what of real truffles?

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Some classic European truffle dishes, meant to showcase Périgord black and Piedmont white truffles, are vegetarian. Such as an omelette aux truffes or fresh pasta al tartufo. Rossini's Salad from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is vegan: boiled potatoes, sliced truffles cooked in champagne, oil and vinegar dressing. (Dumas (fils)'s “better version of it,” Salade Francillon, is not. Toklas notes that, “Rossini was inordinately fond of truffles.” Indeed, he once claimed, «Je n'ai pleuré que trois fois en ma vie; la première, quand mon premier opéra tomba, à la première representation; la seconde, lorsque me trouvant en bateau, avec des amis, une dinde aux truffes, que nous devions manger, vint à tomber dans l'eau; et la troisième, lorsque j'entendis Paganini pour la première fois.» 'I have only cried three times in my life: first, when my first opera bombed on opening night; second, when finding myself in a boat with friends, a truffled turkey that we intended to eat fell into the water; and third when I heard Paganini for the first time.') Unfortunately, it seems that by the time truffles have been flown over from Europe and driven up from New York here to Boston, chefs feel obligated to only use them extravagantly as a garnish on some meat dish. Which is likewise how they always seem to show up on Iron Chef.

Food writers are just as extravagant. Brillat-Savarin called the truffle, “le diamant de la cuisine” 'the diamond of the kitchen'. (If anything, truffles are rarer, but diamonds have a more effective cartel.) Curnonsky quotes Rodolphe Bringer updating this to the 20th Century, «La truffe participe du radium par sa précieuse variété et du diamant par les difficultés qu'impose sa recherche.» 'Truffles share with radium their precious varieties and with diamonds the difficulties in finding them.' Alexandre Dumas (père) proposed:

Faire l'histoire des truffes serait entreprendre celle de la civilisation du monde, à laquelle, toutes muettes qu'elles sont, elles ont pris plus de part que les lois de Minos, que les tables de Solon à toutes les grandes époques des nations, à toutes les grandes lueurs que jetèrent les empires; elles affluaient à Rome, de la Grèce et de la Libye; les Barbares en passant sur elles les foulèrent aux pieds et les firent disparaître, et d'Augustule jusqu'à Louis XV elles s'effacent pour reparaître seulement au xviiie siècle et atteindre leur apogée sous le gouvernement parlementaire de 1820 à 1848.

To relate the history of truffles would be to undertake that of world civilization, in which, though they are silent, they have had a greater part than the laws of Minos or the tablets of Solon, through all the great epochs of the nations, through all the great lights which shone on empires; they flowed into Rome, from Greece and from Libya; the barbarians coming upon them trampled them underfoot and made them disappear, from Augustulus to Louis XV they fade out only to reappear in the 18th Century and to attain their peak under the parliamentary government from 1820 to 1848.

This is a hard case to make. There is a much more solid one for spices, which really did drive the history of the world. Or, at least for the Americas and Europe, for potatoes, as in Salaman's classic History and Social Influence of the Potato. Truffles in fact made a brief appearance here before in a post on Potato. And when the Spanish discovered potatoes, they compared them to turmas 'truffles'. The German Kartoffel retains the association.

A good part of the history of truffles is the history of working out where they come from and whether it is possible to control that.

For example, Pliny the Elder writes:

et quoniam a miraculis rerum coepimus, sequemur eorum ordinem, in quibus vel maximum est aliquid nasci ac vivere sine ulla radice. tubera haec vocantur undique terra circumdata nullisque fibris nixa aut saltem capillamentis, nec utique extuberante loco, in quo gignuntur, aut rimas sentiente. neque ipsa terrae cohaerent, cortice etiam includuntur, ut plane nec terram esse possimus dicere neque aliud quam terrae callum. … crescant anne vitium id terrae - neque enim aliud intellegi potest - ea protinus globetur magnitudine, qua futurum est, et vivat necne, non facile arbitror intellegi posse. putrescendi enim ratio communis est cum ligno. lartio licinio praetorio viro iura reddenti in hispania carthagine paucis his annis scimus accidisse mordenti tuber, ut deprehensus intus denarius primos dentes inflecteret, quo manifestum erit terrae naturam in se globari. quod certum est, ex his erunt, quae nascantur et seri non possint. (HN 19.11)

de tuberibus haec traduntur peculiariter: cum fuerint imbres autumnales ac tonitrua crebra, tunc nasci et maxime tonitribus, nec ultra annum durare, tenerrima autem verno esse. quibusdam locis accepta tantum riguis feruntur, sicut mytilenis negant nasci nisi exundatione fluminum invecto semine ab tiaris. est autem is locus, in quo plurima nascuntur. … (19.13)

As we have here made a beginning of treating of the marvels of Nature, we shall proceed to examine them in detail; and among them the very greatest of all, beyond a doubt, is the fact that any plant should spring up and grow without a root. Such, for instance, is the vegetable production known as the truffle; surrounded on every side by earth, it is connected with it by no fibres, not so much as a single thread even, while the spot in which it grows, presents neither protuberance nor cleft to the view. It is found, in fact, in no way adhering to the earth, but enclosed within an outer coat; so much so, indeed, that though we cannot exactly pronounce it to be composed of earth, we must conclude that it is nothing else but a callous concretion of the earth.
… Whether the truffle grows gradually, or whether this blemish of the earth—for it can be looked upon as nothing else—at once assumes the globular form and magnitude which it presents when found; whether, too, it is possessed of vitality or not, are all of them questions, which, in my opinion, are not easy to be solved. It decays and rots in a manner precisely similar to wood.
It is known to me as a fact, that the following circumstance happened to Lartius Licinius, a person of prætorian rank, while minister of justice, a few years ago, at Carthage in Spain; upon biting a truffle, he found a denarius inside, which all but broke his fore teeth—an evident proof that the truffle is nothing else but an agglomeration of elementary earth. At all events, it is quite certain that the truffle belongs to those vegetable productions which spring up spontaneously, and are incapable of being reproduced from seed. (tr. Bostock & Riley)

The following peculiarities we find mentioned with reference to the truffle. When there have been showers in autumn, and frequent thunder-storms, truffles are produced, thunder contributing more particularly to their developement; they do not, however, last beyond a year, and are considered the most delicate eating when gathered in spring. In some places the formation of them is attributed to water; as at Mytilene, for instance, where they are never to be found, it is said, unless the rivers overflow, and bring down the seed from Tiara, that being the name of a place at which they are produced in the greatest abundance. … (ibid.)

That the right amount of moisture is needed for growth is by itself not surprising. And could charitably be described as a fact, and as such a basis for some similar French folk sayings:

  • Quand il pleut en août, les truffes sont au bout.
  • Quand il pleut à Saint Roch (le 16 août), les truffes naissent sur le roc.
  • Quand il pleut à la Saint Barthélemy (le 24 août), il y a des truffes à plein nid. (here and here)
  • When it rains in August, truffles come after.
  • When it rains on Saint Roch (August 16), truffles are born on the rock.
  • When it rains on Saint Bartholomew (August 24), there is a nestfull of truffles.

But the thunderstorms and formation from bits of earth go beyond that. We will return to the matter of seeds below.

So too Plutarch: Symposiaca IV 2 is titled, “Διὰ τί τὰ ὕδνα δοχεῖ τῇ βροντῇ γίνεσθαι” 'Why truffles seem to be produced by thunder'. Ancient Greek had several words for kinds of truffles, including γεράνειον, μίσυ and ὕδνον. Theophrastus describes (Frag. 167) μίσυ as a truffle growing near Cyrene and it looks like a loanword. Manuscripts of his Enquiry into Plants have (I vi 5):

πλὴν εἰ ὅλως ἔνια μὴ ἔχει, καθάπερ ὕδνον μύκης πύξος κράνιον.

except that some have no roots at all, such as the truffle mushroom boxwood cherry.

The last two words are evidently corrupt. The usual conjectures (as in the Loeb linked above) are πέζις κεραύνιον, so 'bullfist thunder' because of that association. But this seems like a folk etymology. It could have been γεράνειον, which appears to derive from γέρανος, which normally means 'crane'. But the Etymologicum Magnum has “γέρανος, ὁ ὄμβρος ὑπὸ κυρηναίων.” Again, Cyrene was where μίσυ came from. Now ὄμβρος is still usually 'thunderstorm'. But Hesychius says that ὄμβρος is χοιρίδιον, which is a diminutive of χοῖρος 'porker'. This makes sense, since pigs are good at finding truffles; better than dogs, but harder to train not to just eat what they find. Emboldened by this, Werner Winter proposed to derive ὕδνον from ὗς 'swine' as *su-Adnom. The latter part being something to do with eating, like Sanskrit अन्न anna 'food, esp. rice' < *ed-no-m, the root being the same as English eat. So, 'sow-eats'. In other words, it's possible that both Greek words are in the always surprising category, Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs.

The truffles of the ancients were not today's important European truffles, but desert truffles from North Africa. Juvenal writes, “‘Tibi habe frumentum’ Alledius inquit, ‘o Libye, disjunge boves, dum tubera mittas.’” 'Keep your grain, Alledius says, Oh Libya, unyoke your oxen, while you send truffles.'

There is a hadith:

الْكَمْأَةُ مِنَ الْمَنِّ، وَمَاؤُهَا شِفَاءٌ لِلْعَيْنِ

alkamʾāhu mina almanni، wamāʾūhā šifāʾ lilʿayni

The truffle is like manna, and its water is a cure for the eye.

It is even proposed from time to time that the manna of the Israelites was truffles, for instance, here, as more sustaining than the usual proposals.

On a state visit in 1998, Madeleine Albright received “eleven huge boxes of Saudi-grown truffles” from Crown Prince Abdallah. In Madam Secretary, she says that under State Department rules she was allowed to keep them because they were perishable. I believe at the time some opposition politicians tried to make trouble by valuing them as though they were the better known (to Americans and Europeans) kinds. A Saudi Aramco World article gives some more words in modern Arabic dialects and a recipe. As usual, the print version has excellent photographs. However, the quote about the their abundance under the Fatimid Caliphate may be not from Edward Lane, but Stanley Lane-Poole, unless the latter is in fact quoting some work of his great uncle's that isn't online.

Typical of the entries one finds by searching around in the elder Lane's Lexicon is one for فَسَوَاتُ الضِّبَاعِ fasawātu alḍḍibāʿi 'hyena farts', “an appellation of Certain truffles, … and further that it is a plant of disagreeable odour, having a head which is cooked, and eaten with milk; and when it dries, there comes forth from it what resembles وَرْس.” (Which I think means they produce something like Indian yellow dye.)

Tuber and terræ tuber give many of the modern words for truffle in Western European languages: Italian tartufo, French truffe (earlier trufle), German Trüffel, Spanish trufa. The origin is clear, though the exact phonological processes aren't; and likewise it also somehow leads to obsolete and dialectical English trub. In the scheme of Wilkin's Philosophical Language, trubs are (p. 70; EEBO):

Plants > Herbs Considered According to their Leaves > Imperfect Herbs > Terrestrial > Moſt imperfect (which ſeem to be of a ſpontaneous generation) > Having no leaf > Without a Stem (of a roundiſh figure ‖ growing either in the ground, being eſculent, & counted a great delicate:

English also has the doublet trifle.

I presume that Jarðkeppur 'earth fungus' is a deliberate native Icelandic invention and relatively recent. A number of older words elsewhere refer to various hypogeous foods, including truffles and other funguses along with and potatoes and other tubers. As often with food words, it is unclear, at least to me, whether these referred to a variety of things within a single speech community or to different things in related ones. For example, Spanish criadilla de tierra and turma de tierra. Grimm gives truffle as one of the meanings of Grübling, along with potatoes and Phallus impudicus (for which Dr. Krokowski can only bring himself to give half the name); Adelung says it is also a kind of apple. Zedler describes truffles in one of the entries for Erdäpfel. Among the synonyms there are Hirschbrunst 'hart rut' and Hirschschwamme 'hart fungus', the idea being that some kind of fungus is produced where stags had rutted. (In English, deer truffle is Elaphomyces, which deer eat.) A number of truffle web sites in Italy give Hirstbrunst; if not a typo, perhaps that is the form in a German dialect spoken in Northern Italy.

Martial's Epigrams xiii l is spoken by truffles:

Rumpimus altricem tenero quae vertice terram
Tubera, boletis poma secunda sumus.

We who burst through the nurturing soil with our soft heads
Are truffles, of fruits second only to mushrooms.

Petrarch's ninth sonnet of the rime describes their formation from very little in Spring, “grauido fa di ſe il terreſtro humore” 'makes earthly moisture pregnant of itself'.

And not just poets. Fanciful ideas on the origin of fungi continued as scientific botany began to emerge. So, Hieronymus Bock's De stirpium (1552) (p. 942):

Fungi, ſicut & Tubera neque plantæ, neque radices, neque flores, neque ſemina ſunt, ſed nihil aliud quam terræ, arborum, lignorum putridorum aliarumque putrilaginum ſuperfluæ humiditates, id quod inde colligi poteſt, quod omnes Fungi & Tubera: maxime ea quæ edendo ſunt, è tonitrubus, & pluuioſo coeli ſtatu frequentius naſci ſoleant, …

Mushrooms like truffles are neither plants, nor roots, nor flowers, nor seeds, but but nothing other than the superfluous moisture of earth, trees, rotting wood, and other rotting things, which can be gathered from the fact that all mushrooms and truffles, especially the ones which are for eating, grow most frequently when there is thundery and rainy weather, …

The same passage is included almost verbatim in the 1671 edition of G. Bauhin's Pinax p. 369 and translated into German in a 1590 Mattioli Kreutterbuch (p. 386):

Alle Schwämme ſeind weder Kreutter noch Wurtzeln/ weder Blumen noch Samen/ ſondern eittel uberflüſſige Feuchtigkeit der Erden/ der Bäume/ der faulen Höltzer/ und anderer faulen dingen …

In 1583, Giambattista della Porta published Phytognominica, in which there is a chapter, “Contra antiquorum opinionem plantas omnes ſemine donatas eſſe” 'Contrary to the opinion of the ancients, all plants are provided with seed'. In noting that he has found seeds (spores, that is) from mushrooms and truffles, he writes (p. 367):

Falſo igitur Porphyrius Deorum filios fungos, & tubera dixit,quod ſine ſemine prouenirent. Sic in tuberum corticibus, ut in cupreſſi pilulis, nigrum etiã latet ſemen: ob id in ſiluis, ubi ſępius prodierint, & computruerint, ſemper proveniunt.

Porphyrius therefore says falsely that since they arise without seed mushrooms and truffles are the children of the gods. So in truffles by shells, as in cypress by pills, a black seed lies hidden: because of this they always come forth in woods, where they have frequently been produced and rotted away.

Nevertheless, Robert Hooke's 1665 Micrographia concluded (Obs. XX):

Next, that as Muſhroms may be generated without ſeed, ſo does it not appear that they have any ſuch thing as ſeed in any part of them; for having conſidered ſeveral kinds of them, I could never find any thing in them that I could with any probability gheſs to be the ſeed of it, ſo that it does not as yet appear (that I know of) that Muſhroms may be generated from a ſeed, but they rather ſeem to depend merely upon a convenient conſtitution of the matter out of which they are made, and a concurrence of either natural or artificial heat.

Joseph Pierre de Tournefort sensed the contradiction between what he was able to observe, “ne produit ni fleurs ni graines sensibles” 'produce neither flowers nor perceptible seeds' and what he had to assume was going on, “Suivant les apparences ces filets blancs ne font autre chose que les graines ou les germes développés des Champignons” 'According to their appearance, these white threads are nothing other than the seeds or developed germs of mushrooms'.

The birth of the science of mycology was Pier Antonio Micheli's 1729 Nova plantarum genera juxta Tournafortii methodum disposita. He carried out experiments, some of which were successful, trying to grow fungi in culture media from spores. His illustration of truffles labels them semina.

Giovanni Bernardo Vigo, “Il Virgilio Piemontese,” wrote a book-length poem on truffles and truffle hunters originally in Latin and translated in 1776 into Italian by the author. It appears that the BNF has both versions bound together, but they have not scanned that into Gallica yet. There is a modern edition of just the Italian for only a few euros, though.

For balance, there is Eustache Deschamps, who when he got sick from eating truffles, wrote a ballade against them where each stanza ends with, “De pis avoir que d'acès de tierçaine” 'worse than having a bout of tertian fever'.

Most books on truffles in English mention that truffles grow in England, perhaps citing Tancred Robinson's 1693 report of them in Northamptonshire. Or Richard Bradley's Dictionarium Botanicum (1728) entry, “I gueſs, we have few old Woods in England without them.” Readers of A Common Reader may recall from the “Outlines” essay on Lady Dorothy Nevill that, in addition to orchids, “she went into the question of funguses and established the virtues of the neglected English truffle.” And indeed that is reported in the book by her son under review there — to the extent that Woolf''s essay is a book review and not a meditation on upper- and upper-middle-class, the aristocracy and the Walpoles, Darwins and Stephens. And Lady Nevill's note-book records that she persuaded Lord Ashburton to hunt them beneath the beech trees and serve them for dinner at the Grange in Hampshire. But what were truffles traditionally called in Hampshire and Northamptonshire? Prior's On the Popular Names of British Plants (digested in Dickens's All the Year Round) only gives Parkinson's trubbes and the presumably general earth-balls.

There are also truffles in North America, in particular in Oregon and California. Early reports noted that they were as good as European truffles, but suggested that they were too rare to be exploited as food. And that has only happened in the last few years, with the increased popularity of both truffles and local foods. If these truffles were known to Native Americans, I have not found any mention of it and so no description of what they might have been called. On the other hand, on the East Coast, there is tuckahoe, Indian bread or the Virginia truffle. Jefferson noted this as Lycoperdon tuber, which is to say he thought it was a truffle. (Although it is not a truffle and truffles are no longer Lycoperdon.) The Algonquian etymology is sometimes given as something about bread. But in a Smithsonian report, the author quotes J. Hammond Trumbull — who gave Twain those Gilded Age mottoes — relating it to Cree pitikwaw 'made round', which seems to be the version given more often now.

This same fungus is found in China, where it is called 茯苓 fu2 ling2. Du Halde predictably reported:

Il y a de nos Miſſionnaires qui ſont du pays où ſe trouvent les truffles en France, qui aſſurent que le Pe fou ling du Chen ſi eſt véritablement truffle.

There are some of our missionaries who are from the countryside in France where truffles are found, who assure us that the Pe fou ling of Chen si is indeed truffle.

There are true truffles in China, with names including 塊菌 (simplified 块菌) Mandarin kuai4 jun1, Cantonese faai3 kwan2, literally 'lump fungus'. See the Gastronomica article by Gareth Renowden, “Truffle Wars,” on how these have gone from relative obscurity in Yunnan and Sichuan out into the globalized food market since the 1980s and 90s. The same species, Tuber indicum, is also native to India. A Colonel Elphinstone (I do not think this is any of the famous Elphinstones) reported them in the Kangra hills, growing under pine trees. And here is a note on something sold as “Tibetan truffles” in Munich's Viktualienmarkt last year and evidently either T. indicum or T. himalayensis.

Update: See comment below from JosephK giving more comprehensive Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese names. 松露菌 song1 lu4 jun1, literally 'pine dew fungus', appears to now be the more common name, particularly online. It originally referred to Rhizopogon rubescens and does confirm the pine tree habitat. The paper “块菌名实考证及其资源保护” by Wang Yun 王云 and Liu Pei-Gui 刘培贵 covers Chinese species and names more carefully and points out that attempts to exactly match Chinese Tuber species with type specimens have so far been inconclusive. There is also this documentary from CCTV-10, in which Prof. Liu is featured prominently.

Given the discussion above on Greek words, we should also mention the Buddha's last meal, sūkaramaddava, which appears to literally mean 'pig delicacy', that is, tender pork, or possibly something that pigs eat. Other traditional theories are bamboo shoots trodden on by pigs or a mushroom (ahicchattaka 'snake's umbrella') that grows where pigs have trampled the ground. But Rhys-Davids, who had only noted the controversy in his Milinda, in his later translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, renders it as “a quantity of truffles,” following Neumann who had found various other sūkara- fungus words. See the thorough discussion in Arthur Waley's, “Did Buddha die of eating pork?” Waley, at least when with Beryl de Zoete, was a vegetarian.

Finally, an anecdote:

On devait manger un dinde aux truffes à un dîner où se trouvait M. de Buffon. Avant de se mettre à table, une vieille dame demanda au naturaliste où venaient les truffes. « A vos pieds, madame », répondit-il. La dame ne comprend pas, M. de Buffon lui dit : « C'est aux pieds des charmes. » On trouva charmans et le compliment et celui qui le faisait. Vers la fin du repas, quelqu'un fit la même question au savant, qui, ne faisant pas attention à la dame d'avant dîner, dit ingénûment: « C'est aux pieds des vieux charmes. » La dame, qui l'entendit, ne le trouva plus si charmant.

Buffon found himself at a dinner where truffled turkey was to be surved. Before sitting down to the table, an elderly lady asked the naturalist where truffles came from. “At your feet, Madame,” he answered. The lady did not understand, so Buffon told her, “At the feet of charmes.” She found both the compliment and the one who made it charming. Near the end of the meal, someone put the same question to the savant, who, not paying attention to the lady from before dinner, said ingenuously, “At the feet of old charmes.” The lady, who heard him, did not find him so charming.

The oldest reference to this story I have found is in the 1804 L'improvisateur français, which also carefully lays out the pun: charmes is both 'charms', that is, attractive (female) physical attributes, and European hornbeams. A search also finds what appears to be an actual innocent occurrence. It shows up in English in a French language reader, translated in a Gentleman's Magazine piece on truffles and The Pleasures of the Table's chapter on them, as well as among “Anecdotes of the Kitchen” or “After Dinner Talk,” the latter from The Epicure: A Journal of Taste, from S.S. Pierce, the Boston Brahmins' grocer. I first read the joke in The Pantropheon. Alexis Soyer was Britain's, and perhaps the world's, first celebrity chef in a more or less modern sense, who also wrote a cookbook for people of modest means, set up soup kitchens for victims of the Irish famine, and worked with Florence Nightingale on the diet of men recovering in hospital from the Crimean War.