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16 june 2015

I'm honestly unsure whether I've ever eaten truffles. I've seen truffles, at specialty markets, and I've consumed things that were purported to have contained truffles, like pâté with bits of truffle in it, which might have been bits of rubber gasket for all the taste they added. I've cooked with truffle oil, but apparently the whole point of truffle oil is that it has never touched a truffle.

Even to me – not the least foody of folk in a very rich country – truffles constitute a luxury so recherché that they might as well not exist at all. I suppose I have a better chance of eventually eating truffles than I do of eating peacock's tongues, but I'm 56 and gaining, and I'd better start concentrating on truffle-eating as a bucket goal if I intend to get it in.

But to quote a fellow English professor, most of my experiences are vicarious anyway. So I was happy to encounter the truffle in Zachary Nowak's wryly informative global history of the fungus, for the Reaktion Edible series. Nowak explores the contradictions and controversies that have beset this "culinary diamond" since antiquity. At times as common as dirt and at others worth near their weight in any precious stuff you can mention, truffles, like many foodstuffs, expose the essentially arbitrary value societies assign to what they eat.

Nowak observes that classical and medieval food hierarchies were as vertical as their social organizations. The best food flew highest; anything that grew underground was clearly peasant fodder. Ordinary mushrooms were low enough; truffles, growing below the surface, were seen as any other root vegetable. Their status as a foraged, uncultivated food was another strike against them.

Roman writers, in fact, thought that the truffle was a large, yellow insipid vegetable full of sand. Nowak demonstrates that Pliny et al. weren't crazy; they were talking about a North African desert delicacy that is still regionally available, but only distantly related to the legendary black and white truffles of France and Italy. In the middle ages, the desert truffle faded from view as Europe lost close economic contact with North Africa, and the forest truffle of more temperate regions came into its culinary own.

Nowak sees the culinary rise of the truffle as part of the "French Taste Revolution," a watershed a little earlier than the French Revolution proper and considerably less bloody, at least for the humans involved. A cultural shift away from cuisines based on balancing humors, an emphasis on restrained, supportive sauces rather than overpowering complements – these things allowed the truffle to flourish in all its simplicity. In the great mixture of continental foodways that followed Columbus, the truffle became an Old World champion. Yet it was sometimes confused with a New World interloper, the potato. Since both grow underground, truffles were even given a scientific generic name (Tuber) more suited to the spud.

You can't see truffles growing, and they're typically brought to distributors by wise old men and their faithful dogs, even to this day. As such, they became prized rarities in the early modern period, even to the extent of influencing diplomatic and dynastic destinies. The House of Savoy, Nowak notes, built its political successes to some extent on canny distribution of truffles. Early on, Italians named the potato tartuffali after tartufo, the truffle, and Germans borrowed the term, which is why "potato" in German is now the odd-sounding Kartoffel. As usual, you can learn most of history just by learning etymology.

Just as with caviar in the early Soviet period, truffles, in late 19th-century France, became a bargain food for the general public. Canning technologies – originally invented in part to preserve the notoriously perishable qualities of fresh truffles – and new propagation techniques led to a glut of truffles on the market. Truffles grow in symbiosis with the roots of trees, and French cultivators learned to "inoculate" seedlings with truffle spores. It was patient work – both tree and truffle have to grow to maturity, and the harvest is still hidden and must still be foraged – but as vast areas of the south of France were forested with truffle-bearing oaks, prices fell and crops burgeoned to levels unthinkable a few years earlier – in fact, unthinkable today.

Nowak blames urbanization (93-94) for the bust of the French truffle boom, which depended on steady mixed use of the forests (including the pasturing of livestock on forest mast and undergrowth). As French people moved to the cities, truffles became rarer again, till by 2015 they are again the ghostly, chance finds of woodland truffle specialists. Prices are astronomical again, and wealthy foodies have the best of both worlds: a delicacy to savor, and the knowledge that few other people can savor it at the same time. Nowak is especially sharp on recent controversies over Chinese truffle species invading European markets and perhaps European terroirs. The invaders, cheap and hardy, might be good to eat, but if they make truffles inexpensive again, how can their status survive?

The recipes in Truffle range from heirlooms to elaborate contemporary salads, risottos, and pasta dishes. I didn't try to make any of them, for want of a truffle anywhere in my vicinity. So many vicarious experiences, so little virtual time.

Nowak, Zachary. Truffle: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2015.