Buried Treasure

Adored the world over, truffles have been celebrated for centuries as one of the earth’s most treasured delicacies, thanks to their rarity and unique flavor. We explore more about their origins and the reasons for their enduring appeal.

Truffles are big business. Thanks to a recent resurgence in popularity, the global market is expected to grow to over $6 billion over the next ten years, and pound for pound, the truffle is one of the most expensive foods you can buy on the planet. This precious funghi’s star may be on the rise, but its earthy aroma and distinctive taste have been enjoyed for centuries.

Food historians can trace their origins to between 4100 and 1750, when the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia, one of the earliest known civilizations, were believed to have mixed them with legumes and vegetables. The Egyptians held their truffles in slightly higher esteem: Pharaoh Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid at Giza, and King Rameses II are believed to have reserved them for royalty, presenting them only at special banquets. Hieroglyphics from the era portray Egyptians offering them up to the gods while their images have adorned the walls of ancient pyramids. Indeed, throughout history, from Emperors to Philosophers, these precious tubers were believed to have heralded healing benefits for the soul and body, with some even bestowing a mythical status upon them.

The truffle’s prized reputation is somewhat at odds with its humble origins. A member of the Tuberaceae family, it is in essence a spore that grows on underground fungus. Often confused with the common mushroom, a critical difference between the two is that truffles are subterranean, while their supermarket counterpart grows above ground. Truffles typically set up home in close proximity to certain trees, such as oak, hazelnut, and beech, enjoying a mutually beneficial relationship exchanging water and nutrients with their host. This unique habitat, combined with the sensitive conditions for growth, makes truffle cultivation extremely challenging and helps to account for their high price.

There are believed to be over 200 truffle species, but only around 13 varieties are coveted in the culinary world, with their size playing a significant role in determining their value.

The more common varieties fall into two categories – black truffles and white truffles. Some of the most popular black truffle varieties originate in the Périgord region in France and are more commonly found in household kitchens, as they tend to be less expensive than their white rivals. This variety more often makes its way into oils, sauces, and infusions as, although it has a weaker aroma, its flavor is less affected by heat. By contrast, the white truffle varieties native to northern Italy are more pungent, boasting stronger, aromatic notes and an earthy, rich flavor. Less is certainly more with this delicacy, which is often enjoyed sparingly as a raw, elegant garnish for risottos or pasta dishes.