A truffle is the fruiting body of an underground Ascomycota fungus. Most truffles belong to the genus Tuber, but there are also other kinds of mushrooms belonging to this category including Geopora, Peziza, Choiromyces, Leucangium and over a hundred others. Truffles belong to the class Pezizomycetes and, with a few exceptions, to the order Pezizales. Truffles are mycorrhizal mushrooms and grow close to the roots of trees. The dispersion of the spores of truffles occurs thanks to mycophagous, animals that feed on mushrooms.

Some species of truffles are an extremely valuable, refined and expensive food essence while others are considered of little value. Truffles give off a typical penetrating and persistent scent that develops only after maturation and that has the purpose of attracting wild animals (pig, wild boar, badger, dormouse, fox), despite the cover of land, to spread the spores contained and hand down the species. The search for truffles is carried out with the help of dogs, or pigs, and collected by hand.

On December 16, 2021 the search and extraction of truffles in Italy officially entered the list of oral and intangible heritage of humanity preserved by UNESCO.

The origin of the name

The origin of the word “truffle” has been debated for a long time by linguists who, after centuries of uncertainties and discussions, came to the conclusion, considered probable but not definitive, that truffle derived from territùfru, vulgarization of late Latin terrae tufer (growth of the earth), where tufer would be used instead of tuber.

Recently, the historian Giordano Berti, founder of the Historical Archive of the Truffle, has convincingly demonstrated that the term truffle comes from terra tufide tubera or even from terra tufule tubera. This title appears at the head of an illustration of the truffle collection contained in the Tacuinum Sanitatis, an illuminated codex with naturalistic content dating back to the fourteenth century, known in several versions.

According to Berti, the term truffle derives from the similarity that linked this hypogeal mushroom and the tuff, porous stone typical of central Italy. The term then contracted in terra tufide and in the dialects tartùfola, trìfula, tréffla, trìfola. The term truffle began to spread in Italy in the seventeenth century, but in the meantime the vernacular diction had already emigrated to Europe taking on various conditions, such as Truffe in France, Trüffel in Germany and Truffle in England.

Truffle and Zeus

The first certain information about truffles appear in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. In the first century AD, thanks to the Greek philosopher Plutarch of Chaeronea, the idea was handed down that the precious mushroom was born from the combined action of water, heat and lightning.

From here various poets drew inspiration; one of these, Juvenal, explained that the origin of the precious mushroom, at that time called “tuber terrae”, is due to a lightning thrown by Jupiter (roman mythology of Zeus) near an oak (tree considered sacred to the father of the gods).

Since Jupiter was also famous for his prodigious sexual activity, truffles have always been attributed aphrodisiac qualities. The doctor Galen wrote: “the truffle is very nutritious and can dispose of voluptuousness”.

How to recognize a quality truffle

The truffle is undoubtedly an absolute protagonist for all lovers of cuisine, a true king of the table able to enhance the most refined palates. As rare as it is precious, it is not easy to navigate between the various types that have different characteristics and qualities. However, there are specific rules to recognize a quality truffle regardless of the type we are facing. Or rather, there are rules to recognize when we face a really cheap truffle!

As reported in our section, each type of truffle has its own scent that makes it unique and inimitable. For example, the Superior Black Truffle has a delicate and enveloping scent, reminiscent of the undergrowth, unlike the Winter Truffle, which instead has a stronger scent, with strong notes of musk, which reminds a little ‘that of nutmeg. The Summer Truffle has a scent reminiscent of that of roasted barley malt, the Uncinatum Truffle has a scent reminiscent of hazelnuts, porcini mushrooms and grana. while the Superior White Truffle has a very intense scent, with strong notes that recall hints of garlic and undergrowth, notes of hay and wet grass.

If smelling the truffle you perceive a different smell similar to ammonia is good to be careful: you are in front of a truffle gone bad. And if despite the smell you should be tempted to try to use it anyway it is good not to, because its flavor will inevitably ruin your dishes. 

In addition to your sense of smell you can rely on your touch. Consistency can also help you spot a truffle gone bad. If you feel a gummy consistency then it is good to discard the idea of buying it because a quality truffle must not have soft parts or, indeed, rubbery. 

A proper mention should be made on the presence of some traces of mold: if the texture and smell of the truffle are still good, just brush it and store it in the fridge; if, on the contrary, in addition to mold the truffle also has a low consistency and a smell of ammonia, It’s better to discard.

Being a natural product of the earth, it is possible to come across even small unwanted guests such as larvae. They are not harmful to health, but still indicate a truffle that is good not to choose.