A short while ago there was much speculation among the agricultural community regarding the introduction of truffles into Cyprus as a viable crop. It was reported that the government was going to import the spores and distribute them among interested farmers to be grown among the roots of olive trees. This might have seemed like a good idea over a truffle laden lunch in darkest Brussels, when the cost of a drizzle of oil, or a grating over the pasta, could double the cost of the meal.
It is a sub-terranean fungi which is edible, scarce, and highly valuable. There are any number of them but the most highly prized are the French Tuber melanosporum and the Italian T.magnatum. They are highly aromatic and enhance the flavour of savoury dishes.
When young, the odour of melanosporum is said to resemble young strawberries, it looks like a warty potato and is black. They mainly occur in the region of Perigord, and are an essential ingredient of ‘Perigord pie’ – better known as pate de foie gras.
When the fungus ages, the aroma becomes extremely pungent but never unpleasant. The Italian truffle is called white but is a pale ochre colour and about the size of a medium fig, it has an irregular lobal shape and when opened is the colour of lambs liver with white streaks. It has a very strong garlicy smell which increases with age and is mostly associated with pasta dishes.
Truffles lead a largely symbiotic existence among the roots of deciduous trees and are found between 10 and 15cm below the surface. The French variety are a winter crop, while the Italian is rooted out from late summer through autumn. They are rarely grown commercially but their locations are known within certain families and are closely guarded.
Truffles favour oak, beech, willows, and poplars; the soil can range from clay to calcarious. The reason for the strong aroma is to attract animals to eat them because this is the way it is propagated: squirrels, rats, hogs and hedgehogs will root up truffles, so it was not surprising that early truffle-hunters used pigs with sensitive snouts to uproot them. However, it was found that the effort to keep the pig from eating the prize was too exhausting and now dogs are used.
Nobody I know has ever found a truffle under an olive tree. There is a great deal of chicanery surrounding the gathering and sale of truffles so maybe there is hope, the English have an inferior native truffle which used to be passed off as French in Victorian markets.
My belief is we should concentrate on oil production and not believe in fairy tales.