Monday, February 26, 2007
Shrooming in Late Capitalism: The Way of the Truffle
On a winter’s night in Paris long ago, I ducked into the Grand Vefour – then a charmingly approachable temple of gastronomy, free of the rather strained merriment that signals too much money being spent – and, as one of seven guests of a rich man, sat down to a dinner that would leave me not as I was before.
To my right was Diarmuid C.-J., an elderly esthete of some renown living among dusty art objects a stone’s throw from the restaurant. He was well used to ordering without regard to the menu, and he did so this night. While others were calling for appetizers, a fish course and an entrée, Diarmuid commanded a dish of eight lightly sautéed whole fresh truffles. A little salt and pepper, a splash of cream whisked into the pan juices – that would suffice for his dinner.
But, what were truffles? Rare mushrooms, the man on my left quickly whispered to me. Rare, and black and growing underground. They were the cost equivalent, I later determined, of ordering five or six personal lobsters while others in your party struggled with choices less pricey and less pure. But cost was only part of the story.
Dinner began to arrive, the unexcitingly superb starter items of the era: delicate pike terrines, mussels steamed with shallots and Chablis. Who isn’t happy with such? But it all fell away when, in a footed, lidded Limoges dish, Diarmuid’s golf ball-sized truffles were borne to the table by a sly-looking servitor who uncovered them and swanned off. The others, including our imperturbable host, smiled faintly but intently, like Etruscans at bull games. They were in the know. Silently, I sniffed the truffle aroma, nothing if not a decisive fragrance, but I lacked the right referent. The grassiness of the cream -- cream had never smelled so grassy -- called up woods and moon and dew. The odor I might later describe as “earthy” and “musky” and many other things to do with cheese was then but deeply portentous. An agreeable fright overtook me: it was Pan, I understood – it was Pan! Beneath the cool weight of napery, my knees knocked slightly. I shot Diarmuid a meaning glance, all but nudged him as he plied his knife and fork, and opened my mouth to receive a truffle. For was I not still a baby bird, the whole world’s pleasure to feed me? The saurian flicker of his cold pale eye should have warned me to desist, but it did not.
And so, my first truffle. Tuber melanosporum, unearthed not a day earlier by a caveur who knew a secret place in the oak groves of Perigord, who had gone out after nightfall with his muzzled, truffle-ardent sow or his keenest bitch – for the female of the species is by far the better finder – and, kneeling where the unerring animal pressed its snout among the roots and panted and grunted and stamped, had angled his small trowel into the soil and sifted his way down to the prize. My prize. Oh, I could wish it had been fed me by an unbegrudging man, but that might only have crowded the sensation.
Not a sensation that I particularly had words for, either, looking back on the almost convent-bred purity of my food vocabulary that year. Best just to liken it to the entrance into the room, naked, of that person whom you know will make all the difference. Time passed -- I'm not sure how much -- and as I licked my lips and refocused on the table I saw that people -- all but one -- were smiling those faint, intent smiles not at the truffles but at me.
Having been admitted, in any case, to the 4,000 year-old company of those who know the truffle firsthand, I was hardly astonished when, a few years later, a Parisian banker, discovering that his cook had served his only truffle to two of her friends, made television news by shooting her. The investigating magistrate refused to bring the banker to trial for what was “obviously a crime of passion, completely understandable and completely forgivable.”
Yes, I understood. And if, wedged among his dusty curios, Diarmuid caught the news and untenderly remembered me, then I spared a thought for him too.
It Started with Desert Truffles in the Axial Age
The Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, is the one of the first truffle eaters whom history names, although truffles were prized still earlier in the palaces of ancient Mesopotamia, where their remains have been found in special baskets. The Egyptians inventoried their edibles, making papyrus records of who ate them, but the Sumerians left recipes. The truffles beloved of Khufu and the Sumerians, well known both to the writers of the Mishna and the Hadiths, and greedily imported by the Greeks and Romans, are not the same as T. melanosporum, however, but desert truffles, of the Terfezia and Tirmania genera, comprising about 30 varieties. And, although they are in flavor terms if not in pedigree far humbler cousins, any consideration of the truffle must begin with them.
Terfezia taste nutty and delicate, with flesh that is white or creamy or even rosy in color, and they need cooking – either simmering in milk and honey or roasting in the embers of a fire. While T. melanosporum imparts unmistakable flavor to other foods, the mild Terfezia will take on the flavor of whatever it is cooked with. It can also be ground into flour for poultices, its cooking juices saved as a treatment for eye infections. In the Tirmidhi Hadith, No. 1127, Mohammed recommends the latter use. There is even an intriguing etymological case that the self-replenishing manna from heaven sustaining the Israelites in the Book of Genesis was in fact Tirmania nivea, the aristocrat of desert truffles.
Among nomadic peoples, folklore about the truffle abounds -- it is a highly nutritious “found food” for which relish, gratitude and even awe are well demonstrated. Singing to the truffles, Bedouin girls forage at dawn, when the first rays of light create telltale shadows on the still damp sand, and the truffles swell not far below the surface. Bedouins claim that truffles will grow where lightning strikes, appearing without seed or root, loosened from their beds by thunder. These beliefs go back thousands of years, at least as far back as Theophrastus, the favored pupil of Aristotle and father of taxonomy, who described truffles in the 3rd Century B.C.E. as “a natural phenomenon of great complexity, one of the strangest plants, without root, stem, fibre, branch, bud, leaf or flower.” Three hundred years later Pliny the Elder wrote that “among the most wonderful of all things is that anything can spring up and live without a root. These are called truffles.” The Babylonian Talmud, compiled in Iraq in the 5th Century C.E., records the rabbis concluding after discussion that truffles “emerge as they are in one night, wide and round like rounded cakes.”
In the desert as elsewhere, outlandish explanations for tuber growth have stubbornly attached to the truffle. But the necessary reciprocal relationship between truffle and host obtains in the desert as in the forest. Shrubs of the Helianthemum genus – relatives of the North American rock rose – can be a tip-off to desert truffle presence, for Terfezia and Helianthemum are symbionts. Filaments of the truffle penetrate the roots of the shrub, obtaining nourishment from it, in turn producing a substance that inhibits the growth of competing plants. In the absence of Helianthemum, the desert truffle can make do with other shrubs. It’s all a bit mysterious, as desert truffles grow in locations that are closely guarded secrets, and they utterly resist cultivation.
Usually no more than a few centimeters across but occasionally the size of a fist, desert truffles are found in the spring and sold in the souk, from North Africa to the Negev to easternmost Iraq. A good truffle year depends on adequate rainfall in the autumn – about 8 to 10 inches. In a middling year, desert truffles can cost about $100 a kilo, the price fluctuating wildly with supply.
In the past few years, European interest in whether desert truffles flourish has increased along with the size of Europe’s Middle Eastern population. Traditional European fanciers of T. melanosporum and its lordly white Italian counterpart, T. magnatum, are also looking to Africa and the Middle East for truffles, the supply of their most highly prized indigenous ones being egregiously threatened, down twentyfold from 100 years ago, rarer and pricier and more sought after with every passing season. A good time, in short, to take after the Romans and import Terfezia from Africa, thereby nabbing -- it is surely hoped -- some of that same old razzle-dazzle if not the peerless and shocking taste.
Food of the Devil, Fit Only for Saints and Popes
If one of the defining characteristics of Late Antiquity was its excessive devotion to banqueting, with the inclusion in banqueting protocol of emetics and special chambers – vomitoria – where diners would rid themselves of surfeit the better to take on still more surfeit, then with the Fall of Rome the elaborate truffle dishes of the era would go the way of the stewed cygnet’s tongues, leopard’s marrow cooked in goat’s milk, almond-fed geese, and conger eels fattened with live slave-meat fetishized by the later, briefer Roman emperors. The Middle Ages were dark indeed for the abused and maligned truffle, whether because, with the rise of Christian Europe the devil was presumed afoot in the kitchen as he never was in less sober times, or because food preparation to some end beyond sustenance – cuisine, that is — took centuries to regain sway after being made repulsive by decadence and impracticable by the breakdown of trade routes.
In these years, there occurred also a shift in the thinking about exactly what a truffle was, and where it came from. It was the devil’s own food, and it was black. Though occasionally it was white, tasting of honey and garlic, a Manichean reading of this difference would never obtain. Any way you sliced it in the Dark Ages, a truffle was a degenerate thing, and it came not from Africa but from secret pockets of Europe. T. melanosporum and T. magnatum had been found, and found to be potent aphrodisiacs, conferring unholy sexual prowess on their eaters. And so they were banned from kitchens – most kitchens, that is.
Ambrose, the famously ascetic 4th Century Bishop of Milan who became after death a saint, received a gift of truffles from the Bishop of Trevi. No one can say whether he ate them, but he certainly recorded his gratitude for them. Pope Gregory IV, who reigned in the mid-9th Century, let it be known that he positively needed truffles “to strengthen him in the battle against the Saracens.” Around this time there was philosophical speculation as to whether the truffle was truly a plant. Folk wisdom still held that it was a fusion of water, heat and lightning, but deeper thinkers asked whether it might not be some kind of animal. One of the salient mysteries enshrouding all love foods began to pertain to the truffle -- in particular, the question of how food that debauches the weak-willed and the sinful serves yet to fortify the strong-willed and the saintly, nourishing them towards victory in their fitting and strenuous tasks.
By the late 14th Century, however, the truffle had made a comeback from the demonic hypothesis. Petrarch dedicated a sweet sonnet to it, and its ungodly reputation burned off like ground fog in the clear light of more rational times.
Back with Bells On, This Time for Women
During the Renaissance, the absence of truffles from the tables of the mighty would have been an inadmissible embarrassment, and their chefs were under relentless pressure to present them with ingenuity and élan. The custom of the truffle tribute arose. In 1502, the nobles of the Marchigian region of Aquamagna made a gift of stupendous black truffles to Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI. The redoubtable Lucrezia, for whose golden tresses long curly pastas were named, was very well pleased indeed, and lost no time incorporating the truffles into her beauty routine – history does not say exactly how.
But it was Catherine de Medici who outdid all other comers in securing the hold of the truffle on the European imagination. The late-born daughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Catherine was the child bride of Henry II of France. Forsaking Florence for grim cold Paris could not have delighted the 13-year old royal girl, and she brought with her cooks, and forks, and artichokes, and truffles and high heels, thinking to subdue the gaucheries of the French. That would become the gayest achievement of Catherine, who for lack of love grew into a dour and grasping queen, not averse to poisoning her political rivals. By the time she died in 1589, however, the French court was used to the sight of ladies of high birth openly eating love foods such as artichokes and truffles. This was unexampled in the Florence of her distant youth, so full of gorgeous perks for men only. It is worth remembering that until Catherine de Medici became Queen of France, aphrodisiacs were the prerogative of men, at least officially. The truffle tribute received by Lucrezia Borgia would not have been intended for her to eat – as perhaps she did not – but to serve to male guests to good effect.
A century and a half later, things had become ever so much more relaxed. Madame de Pompadour chatted freely with her maid about amatory matters. Hoping to hold onto the affections of the king, Louis XV, she lived for days at a time on an aphrodisiac regime of vanilla and celery and truffles. “My dearest,” she confided to her maid, “the fact is I am very cold by nature. I thought I might warm myself up, if I went on a diet to heat the blood, and now I’m taking this elixir which does seem to be doing me good.”
Sipping at truffle juice, Pompadour had no call to give the king heirs; when, one evening, she and Louis XV sat down to a dinner of truffled ram’s testicles, they were unbothered by thoughts of the succession.
In the final years of the 18th Century and the beginning decades of the 19th, truffles were consumed whenever Europeans could afford them, and often when they could not, for it was becoming a la mode to ruin yourself by giving that final brilliant dinner that would occasion financial collapse. Trufflemania was upon the land, and a dish such as truffle-stuffed turkey, cunningly uniting the old world with the new, had become all the rage, suicides occurring for the sheer beau geste of serving it forth without means.
Praising the truffle as “the Mozart of mushrooms” Rossini tells how he wept to see a truffled turkey he was rowing to a picnic go overboard into the Seine, one of three times in his life the composer would admit to shedding tears. Nor was Byron immune to truffles, although he did not eat them but kept them on his writing table, stroking them, finding the aroma a stimulant to creative juices.
The opening years of the 19th Century were a time of vigorous inquiry into gastronomy per se – great minds considered it. It was widely observed that the marked superiority in intellect of Alexandre Dumas pere over Dumas fils should be attributed to the elder’s fine dining. Styling the truffle the “Sanctum Sanctorum of the table,” Dumas writes of an intimate after-theatre supper at the house of a certain Mlle. Georges, where the hostess “embodied every form of sensuality, and no mercy was shown to the truffle, for it was compelled to yield every sensation of which it was capable…” The exigencies of Mademoiselle’s truffle were described in full, and this was not called decadence but intelligence.
In the 1820’s, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin produced a speculative work on what his translator, M.F.K. Fisher, called “the problems of transcendental gastronomy.” The Physiology of Taste, published in 1828, came at just the time, Fisher tells us, that “Europe went mad over the art of dining.” In the spirit of the age, Brillat-Savarin was bold enough to comment on whether the truffle was actually a love food. Yes and no, he opined, for “while it is not a positive aphrodisiac it may in certain circumstances render women more willing and men more likable.” Moreover, he lets us know, even the mention of the word “awakens erotic and gourmand ideas in men and women alike.”
Hard science would soon enter the truffle picture to stay, in the person of Carlo Vittadini, the dyspeptic-looking Milanese physician with a purely scientific passion for underground mushrooms who in 1831 gave the world his Monographia Tuberacearum. This foundational work made possible all truffle classification in Europe, a boon to both mycology and gastronomy. The full name of T. melanosporum is T. melanosporum vittadini, and all the black but less wondrous truffles of Perigord, Burgundy, Provence and Umbria are named by and for him too. Too many truffles, then as now, are black without being T. melanosporum, and among white truffles only the ravishing T. magnatum vittadini, the truffle of Alba, sliced fresh and raw onto Italian dishes in the autumn, giving them an unmatched depth and wildness, is worth paying for. Vittadini identified more than 60 varieties of black and white truffles, and, while he had no cooking tips to pass on, one can only stand in awe of his sorting.
Truffle-Finders of Choice: Innocence, Animals and the Forest Floor
Naming and knowing are linked passions, always, and with taxonomy came increased interest in the actual cause of truffles, the objective conditions that gave rise to them. Not so easily studied, since the shrewd country people who made a living from gathering T. melanosporum had little incentive to demystify it. Slowly, however, it became scientific knowledge that T. melanosporum was not simply found in the roots of oak and certain other trees, but grew there, the fruiting body of a whole fungal colony that, unable to produce its own food, unites with the tree’s rootlets to develop symbiotic organs that feed on nutrients photo-synthesized in the tree canopy. Thus a gossamer web is sent out to take moisture and minerals from the earth and infuse the soil with antibiotics, protecting the trees from disease-causing organisms.
Animal interaction aids the process, diffusing the spores. Whether that animal is a squirrel, a pig or a human matters little as long as only mature truffles are dug up, their self-fertilizing traces dredged ultimately to some more distant tree, ensuring the spread of the colony. Immature truffles are like cheeses and melons that have been cut – they never ripen further. It is both a folktale and the probable literal truth that the first humans to dig for truffles were imitating the behavior of the almost gruesomely fertile wild boar whose natural habitat was the oak forest. Only, looking not just for food to eat but for food to sell, a human will dig deeper than a foraging boar, disturbing the next generation of truffles before they are ready to seed.
Dogs, too, can be made to dig too deep for that unready truffle. Unlike a pig, a dog has no necessary love of the tuber, only a keen nose and high trainability. Breed is unimportant, except that a heavy-pawed canine smashes the truffles as it digs. In a passion to obey, a delicate-footed bitch will deftly unearth a truffle and take for her reward a bit of cheese. Truffling with a sow, however, you must muzzle her, or, lashy eyes slitted with pleasure, she will hasten to reward herself. A seasoned caveur may prefer to forage with one or the other animal, each a trained creature of great value. When, in 1985, a hapless Frenchman was sentenced to forty years in prison for the theft of two truffling pigs, no one protested.
The ideal finder, though, belongs to folklore in the South of France, and now to history, for she is no longer on the job. This is a virgin girl, and to learn about the truffle-hunting virgins of old, we must turn to M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth. “People tell me that only virgins have the true nose for truffle-hunting,” Fisher says. “I know a man who once saw the last human truffle-hunter in all the Perigord country.” Fisher was writing in the 1930’s and the teller of the tale she quotes is reminiscing about his boyhood, so this locates the sighting in the final decade of the 19th Century.
“Yes,” Fisher’s source confides, “I have seen the last virgin woman truffle-hunter in all France…It was a secret hunt, and we had gathered secretly because the Church was opposed to women truffle-hunters.“ Without gallantry, the teller goes on to remark that the virgin was no longer young, but then, it was the last hunt, and she was the last virgin with “the true truffle-nose,” so the men made do with her. We are told how that nose quivered and turned red, how the virgin full of years ran “like a demented soul through the underbrush,” ran faster than she could be followed by men and boys, and came to a stop at a clearing around an old oak tree, there to point at the ground with her foot, “all the time trembling and sniffing like a sick dog.” Of course, truffles were found that day. The men and boys took them, and, sending the best off to Lyons, chopped up those that remained and cooked them into a kind of omelette for themselves. One quite sees how the up-and-coming virgins of Perigord began, in the Modern era, to seek other career options.
Modern Times for the Truffle
If there is a hurdle for entrance to the Modern era, it may be a twin hurdle: rating a mention in Proust, and getting analyzed if not on the couch then in the lab for serious sex-attractant potential. Triumphantly, the truffle cleared both hurdles.
Proustians the world over assemble every now and then for a replication of the famous dinner at Tante Leonie’s table they know from A la recherche du temps perdu. The glistening yellow and black pineapple and truffle salad is a challenge to the pocketbooks of latter-day Proustians, but they cannot have the dinner without it; inordinantly fond of truffles, Proust wouldn’t want them to. In May 1922 at the Majestic Hotel in Paris, Violet and Sydney Schiff, a rich English couple, gathered all the top Modernists – Stravinsky, Picasso, Joyce, and Proust – for a supper party meant to be a meeting of the minds. An exhausted Proust and a drunken Joyce are said to have managed mutually insulting claims not to have read one another’s works. Perhaps conciliatorily, perhaps in one-upmanship, Proust finally asked Joyce, “Do you like truffles?” The reputed answer was, “Yes, I do.”
Minding that one cannot prove a negative, modern science has for decades aimed to have its say about whether the truffle – or indeed, anything – is a love food. James Trapp, an Oregon State University researcher and perhaps the leading U.S. truffle expert, puts it to us that “the aphrodisiac effect of the truffle has never been objectively demonstrated.” That reputation is supported, however, by scientific findings that truffles contain the pheromone androstenol and its precursor, the steroid androstenone. Both are needed to create that musky odor, so tremendously arousing to sows. And there is fascinating evidence that the sex-attractant androstenol affects not only pigs but humans – “long pig,” as the Fiji Islanders once called their favorite dish – not by making women feel aroused, but by elevating their moods.
As usual, we are left to be sorted out by behavioral scientists, with all their talk of connotations. That truffles connote wealth, for instance, and that wealth is arousing. No argument there. That whatever is rare and hard to get is a big, big turn-on. This too holds water, does it not? But, if a rich person made you a truffle tribute such as Lucrezia Borgia received 500 years ago, and you understood that it was both pricey and rare, would any arousal you felt on nibbling at the tribute be necessarily specific to the giver? Perhaps it would all depend on just how much money was being spent.
So, just how much money is being spent?
We are asking at a very bad time, of course, for the September 2005 to March 2006 harvests of both T. melanosporum and T. magnatum were dismal in quantity. Low rainfall, a broiling summer – in short, changing patterns in the world climate – are disastrous to the traditional truffle locations in the South of France and the North of Italy.
Trufficulture, the cultivation of truffles on tidy plantations, now vastly amplifies the dwindling supply of wild-gathered truffles, but still, a year of few truffles across the boards can only have one result -- fewer high rollers getting their truffles this year than last, and paying more for them. A lot more.
The freshest information on price comes from a world traveler, David Downie, who treks enormous distances and writes wonderfully about it. He tells us that scarcity itself has driven wholesale prices of T. melanosporum to between $375 and $600 per pound, that variation depending on provenance. Picture how far a pound of hamburger goes in a dish that features meat, and try to encompass how much hamburger you’d have to work with if, desiring the good stuff, your butcher paid $600 per pound for whatever he then sold you.
More horribly still, T. magnatum, the white glory of Alba that grows exclusively in the wild, taking to basket willows as its black cousin does to oak, is such a vanishing item that, Downie winces to relate, it wholesales for $1750 to $2000 per pound.
Getting down to cases, you may expect to pay a trusted merchant $75 or so for a whole fresh T. melanosporum about the size of a medium Labrador retriever’s nose. Your own T. magnatum of like dimensions may cost $150.
Fitting these tubers into what you know about cooking is very close to unnecessary, isn’t it? But if you are willing and able to put down $75 to $150 for an edible thing the size of a medium dog’s nose, then I do have a couple of suggestions for you.
With T. melanosporum, keep it simple and make a tastou. Slice the fresh, raw truffle onto a long thin piece of lightly buttered country bread, sprinkle it with sea salt and with freshly ground pepper, and bake it in a very hot oven for two minutes. Don’t wait around – eat the thing.
No one in her right mind would “cook” a T. magnatum. Just a few tissue-thin medallions of the raw, fresh real thing, dealt one by a nifty slicer or a razor blade and a steady hand, are sufficient to enliven a pasta dressed with butter and salt and pepper far beyond one’s ability to forget it. Trust me.
A co-owner of The Four Seasons in New York, Julian Niccolini, takes a different approach. “Eat the truffle as you would an apple,” he counsels.
Whichever piece of advice you follow, a caveat is needed. Be very sure your truffle is indeed either T. melanosporum or T. magnatum, and never hand over money for any of the more than fifty European truffle species, black and white, that are neither thing, perfectly pleasant as some of them may be. ‘Pleasant’ is not a word that can ever denote a true truffle experience. Protect yourself from this vapidity: buy a fresh truffle in season -- fall for T. magnatum, fall and winter for T. melanosporum -- from a source you trust, or don’t buy it at all. It’s actually okay, if sad, not to buy one at all. Some authorities believe, however, that the time to buy truffles is now or – soon enough – never. For the worst threat to the noblest truffles may be, simply, the shape of things to come.
Battling the Truffle Anti-Christ
There is an interloper in the oak groves of Perigord, a highly competitive interloper that looks even to experts just like the real thing but tastes, appallingly, of nothing much. Enter T. brumale vittadini, the tuber that has shaken truffle world to its very foundations.
David Downie conducted an interview with Pierre-Jean Peybere, France’s leading dealer in fresh and conserved melanosporum. Peybere tells him how the brumale is the dreaded enemy of the melanosporum, an invader species up to 10,000 times hardier and superior in its ability to compete. “The ugly truth comes out in brushing,” Peybere says of the brumale, almost identical in outer appearance to melanosporum, but crisscrossed with thick white veins inside. The brumale tends to smell off-puttingly of alcohol, Downie finds, and to be flavorless. Yet it can handle the dry summers that are becoming the norm in Perigord. Peybere ruefully observes that in a business where reputation is everything, there are nonetheless unscrupulous retailers and restaurants passing off the brumale as melanosporum, with fewer members of each new generation of truffle-eaters to know the difference. A future in which this fungal Anti-Christ effectively knocks out melanosporum on the basis of looking enough like it for the deception to be successful is not hard for Peybere to envision. “It’s possible,” he says, “one day we’ll just run out of melanosporum.”
The white truffles of Alba, too, compete poorly with hardier species that invade their willow habitat and drive them out. Though the price is stratospheric and the demand higher than ever for the wild T. magnatum – no one yet knows why it resists cultivation – at some point, it may tip, and cease to be commercially viable at any price. If that happens, fewer and fewer people will know to object to the profitable, mild-tasting stand-ins that will be sliced onto their fondue in the fall. Things will simply have changed.
Sequencing the Truffle Genome
When folk wisdom and farming come up short, and venality is on the rise, a beleaguered blue-blood truffle’s best hope may lie with molecular biologists. Or perhaps not.
INRA, France’s national institute for agricultural research, confesses that little is understood about the interactions between competing fungi such as T. melanosporum and T. brumale. For this reason, INRA researchers set up a consortium with universities in Italy and Belgium in order to sequence and study the truffle genome. A strain of T. melanosporum from the INRA collection at Clermont-Ferrand was chosen for sequencing, which started in 2006 at Genoscope-Nationale Sequencing Centre at Evry.
Noting that while the morphology of spores does vary according to species, INRA admits not only the difficulty of telling T. brumale spores from those of T. melanosporum with a microscope, but the futility of employing a microscope to tell which species has produced truffle juice under analysis, as the juice of a truffle, like an immature truffle, contains no spores. To overcome that problem, and deal intelligently with rising truffle fraud, INRA developed a clever molecular test. The test is based on analyzing a fragment of ribosomal DNA, the sequencing of which makes it possible to determine the truffle species without ambiguity – in 48 hours and on all types of truffle-based products, both cooked and raw.
One can only hope that such sophisticated tools to detect and discourage truffle fraud will before long be applied to analyzing how a threatened species might regain its competitive edge without being genetically manipulated. Little could be clearer, however, than that the idea of T. melanosporum fashioned into Frankenfood the better to vanquish T. brumale may be just around the corner. If this happens, then the truffle and the Devil shall have truly been brought together for the very first time.
To Know Pan
Pan would shudder, yes he would. I’ve known him for a while now, and I’m sure of it.
That Paris evening of my girlhood, when a rich man’s guest could order up a storm of truffles for himself – eight fresh whole ones, sufficient, perhaps, to have one to give away – could never today be repeated in the public dining room of a great restaurant. If in some ill-conceived demonstration of freakish plutocracy it were, then a hush would befall not the table but the room, and not an admiring, anticipatory hush, either. For even in a temple of nimiety where almost everything costs too much and is too much – that’s part of the point, after all – there is such a thing as going too far in the presence of other revelers, and doing this would neatly cross that line.
How then -- if at all -- to eat the secret masterpiece of nature, to taste the taste that will wed you to everything wild and deep?
It is an act that has a moral dimension, for it might be said that in a time of monstrous contrasts on a global scale, you had money to burn and yet did not give it away. That instead, you went shrooming. Consumer culture cannot quite blind us to such considerations – not for lack of trying hard. But perhaps you have done good things for yourself, and not in such a way as to cause a thunderous silence in a large room? If so, I would urge you to think long before you decide that eating a truffle will never be one of them.
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