The history of the truffle

La storia del tartufo

The ongoing love affair between man and the truffle began a long time ago. According to historians, almost 5,000 years ago.

First to bring the truffle to the table, according to recent historiographical sources, were the Babylonians and subsequently the Sumerians. We can therefore date the discovery of this prized underground mushroom and its use in cooking to the year 3,000 BC.

The first written records date back to the first century of the Christian era.

In his Naturalis Historia, Latin scholar Pliny the Elder claimed that the truffle, referred to as the tuber at that time, was considered a miraculous product of nature as it was born and grew without roots. In the same century, the Greek philosopher Plutarch of Chaeronea reported the idea that the precious mushroom was born from the combined action of water, heat and lightning.

This fantasy inspired the Roman poet Juvenal, who attributed the birth of the truffle to a thunderbolt hurled by Jupiter which fell near an oak tree, a tree sacred to the lord of the gods. The link with Jupiter, a character who featured in mythology for his prodigious sexual activity, led the physician Galen to claim that the truffle possessed aphrodisiac qualities.

The De re coquinaria of the cook Apicius, who, amid praise for the precious tuber and various recipes, remembered that Nero called the truffle the “food of the gods”, also dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. News of the culinary use of truffles became more consistent from the Renaissance onwards. We know that, in the 18th century, Piedmontese truffles were so highly prized that the Savoy family used them as a “diplomatic gift”, sending them to all European courts.

The first scientific studies also date back to the 18th century. It was a physician from Turin, Vittorio Pico, who, in 1788, named the highly prized white truffle Tuber Magnatum, or “truffle of the powerful”. Hence the botanical name Tuber Magnatum Pico.

The Alba white truffle gained international fame thanks to Giacomo Morra, founder of Tartufi Morra and creator of the Alba Truffle Fair. It is to Giacomo Morra, described by The Times as the “King of Truffles” in 1933, that we owe the idea of giving a large “trifola” to the world's most powerful people or famous artists every year.

(Information and Photographs by concession of the Centro Nazionale Studi Tartufo)