Truffle History and Festivals
Truffles were a mystery to ancient peoples. According to Greek mythology, truffles were
the result of divine intervention: they grew at the exact spot where Zeus threw his
thunderbolt and it hit the ground. The goddess of love, Aphrodite, loved truffles. The
Roman Cicero called them Earth’s offspring.
Truffles persisted during the Middle Ages in spite of the Medieval Theory of Humors. This
was a complicated medical-philosophical-religious belief system which decreed that foods
that grew in the ground were undesirable, or even outright damaging. Valued foods were
those in the air, such as birds, and fruit that grew at the top of the tree, which was
reserved for nobles. Foods that grew in the ground, like carrots, were left to the peasants.
By the middle of the 17th century, truffles were beginning to make an official comeback.
They appeared in a handful of recipes, simply prepared: washed, sliced, and sautéed in
butter or oil. By the end of the 18th century, however, they were used in many high-end
dishes like pâté, and with pheasant or oysters. They also appear in dishes by themselves,
as salad or ragoût.
The French Revolution in 1789 does not seem to have changed the way the French used
truffles – in expensive, luxurious dishes. Perhaps the most famous truffle dish was created
by the great celebrity chef, Antonin Carême. The Rothschilds had Carême on an annual
retainer for what today would be the equivalent of almost $200,000. Carême created
Salmon à la Rothschild for a dinner in 1825. It is “one enormous salmon” poached in four
bottles of Champagne. Then a pound of truffles are sliced into half-moon shapes and laid
on top of the salmon to mimic its scales.
The Italians had different, more accessible uses for truffles. In 1891, Pellegrino Artusi
published his famous cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. This
book was written for home cooks, so it has recipes that are easier to make. One is
Crostini di Tartufi, made with cooked truffle purée. Others are chicken breasts with
truffles, and veal topped with slices of truffles and slices of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
In November, while Americans are chowing down on turkey and pumpkin pie, Italians give
thanks for truffles. Tuscany is the venue for multiple Truffle Festivals. Beginning the last
weekend of September, through the end of November, there are five separate truffle
festivals throughout Tuscany. The jewel in the Truffle Festival crown is the last three
weekends in November. The Truffle Fair takes place in the medieval town of San Miniato,
which is in the center of Tuscany, and also in the middle of a white truffle zone. During the
truffle festivals, all the local restaurants feature truffle dishes on their menus – truffle
pasta, truffle risotto, truffles shaved over egg dishes.