The truffle, through myth and reality

The truffle is a hypogeal fungus that is born and grows underground. Mainly made up of water, fibre and mineral salts, it lives in symbiosis with the roots of certain plants that send it organic substances, including Turkey oaks, lime trees and hazelnut trees. There are many characteristics that make it so distinctive and appealing to our palates, but it is not easy to describe its flavour.

Antonella Brancadoro is the Director of the National Association of Cities of the Truffle, and she describes the significance of this achievement to us with great enthusiasm:

"For us, this recognition was a very special prize. An award for commitment and dedication, a podium won thanks to a long process that took 10 years: collecting documents, interviews, photos, and organising and reconstructing memories, which are often oral, and have become knowledge and expertise.
In Italy, the truffle has always been present, with seasons that have been more or less successful and areas that are more or less prolific, in terms of quality and quantity. Our task was to reconstruct a tradition and document it anthropologically and archivistically, bringing an oral heritage that is typically private out from the homes of individual truffle hunters, in order to raise it to the level of broader community knowledge, give it value, formalise it. A heritage that is generated and constantly regenerated by communities as a response to their interaction with the environment and their history, helping to create a sense of identity and continuity, and therefore promoting respect for biodiversity, cultural diversity and human experience."

What are the next steps?

"We have reached an important milestone on our path, but the journey continues with new and increased responsibility: we have to carry out the promises included in the application file in the best possible way, and enrich it with new initiatives.
We need to take steps so that the correct tools and techniques are widely adopted, in order to pass them on to new generations of truffle hunters; encourage the transition of truffle cultivation from an individual level to associative activity; and look after areas where truffles grow to make sure they remain renewable.

Indeed, the culture and practice of truffle hunters gains a lot of its potential from their in-depth knowledge of the natural environment, which allows them to interpret factors including the climate, rainfall, the characteristics of the soil, and recognise plant associations and their relationship with the animal world. The art of extraction works in a way that doesn't alter the conditions of the soil, thanks to the manual use of a special tool - a little spade or a hoe - which allows ecological balance and plant biodiversity to be maintained, as well as keeping up a tradition that ensures seasonal biological regeneration and the renewability of different species of truffle. This in-depth knowledge needs to be promoted, enriched and passed on."

If we take a journey through the different historical periods, we discover that the truffle has always been considered a magical food, surrounded by myth and legend. Especially when truffle hunting and extraction was a practice confined to the nighttime, and truffle hunters were symbolically associated with wild animals that entered into a symbiotic relationship with nature and its rules, sparking popular imagination. At different times, it was believed that the truffle was a plant, an animal, a degenerative growth of the soil, and it was even defined as the food of the devil, or witches, containing toxic or deadly poisons.

The Sumerians and the Babylonians used truffles mixed with other plant-based foods, such as barley, chickpeas, lentils and mustard. The Athenians appreciated them so much that they gave citizenship to the sons of Cherippo, creator of the recipe for a truffle pie. Plutarch was fascinated by them, too: in his opinion, this fungus was created by the combined action of lightning, water and heat.
In Cicero's Rome (106-43 BC), the truffle was the "child of the Earth"; Nero spoke of it as "food of the gods"; and in his Natural History, Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) described it as a "callus of earth".
In the Middle Ages, truffles were considered to be a magical, sinful food (making them even more tempting!): black truffles were thought to be "devil's dung" and witches' food, a meeting point between fauna and flora, as they were believed to prolificate near snake nests, the burrows of venomous animals and the rotting flesh of corpses.

So, this is a tradition and a practice passed down through stories, fables, anecdotes and proverbs. Could we say that, historically, they have represented, and still represent, a cultural identity?

"The very fact that this heritage has not been lost over time, but has been passed down, albeit informally, from generation to generation, shows how much it represents the historical identity of different populations.
You only have to visit the truffle villages, towns and cities to see how this practice profoundly influences the culture of a region, defining its distinctive characteristics and the principles of its identity: it marks festivals and calendars, and conditions the economy and structure of the city. From the anticipation of the season, to hunting and selling, the truffle is the centre of a wide-reaching tradition that influences everything about local life."

Does this recognition as a practice at a national level, rather than local, maybe risk sacrificing the differences and peculiarities of different areas?

A unique heritage, and a strong identity, now projected towards the future with the task of keeping their activities sustainable.


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