There are few individual ingredients in the world of food as misunderstood as the truffle. Separated from large swathes of the public by virtue of its sheer expense alone, there are those who view it as a curious little marker of extreme wealth. Others still experience it only through their exposure to mid-range oil-based products: an aspirational glimpse of the true thing, seen skewed through the prism of a Pizza Express springtime menu, via chemically reproduced smells that have never met an actual tuber.
Even those with the requisite disposable income can find themselves fooled by an industry that is built around the idea of the truffle more than the impact and effect the goods actually have on a dish. Some of the most prized truffles in the world – those marketed as Italian whites or the Périgord blacks of France are in fact shipped in from less glamorous locations simply to ensure the mystique of the truffle is preserved.
The quest to find clarity or even just reliable information about the truffle can, at times, seem as convoluted as a forest-bound hunt for the mysterious tubers themselves. It is to Rowan Jacobsen’s credit, then, that he has produced a book that so effectively pulls back the veil on a baffling and fascinating industry. Mesmerised by the heady stench of a white Tuber magnatum he stumbles upon during dinner on a trip to Italy, Jacobsen began to explore the shadowy worlds that provide the world with their mucky little olfactory stimulants, travelling across Europe and North America to understand where the truffle industry has ventured thus far, and the promise its future holds.
It has been, relatively speaking, a pretty good year for the truffle in culture. Last year, as cinemas reopened, I found myself absolutely enamoured by The Truffle Hunters – an unscripted, narrative-free documentary that reverentially followed the mostly elderly men who dominate the Italian truffle-hunting industry. Stubborn and occasionally treacherous in their insistence on protecting the hallowed grounds in which they hunt, this ageing group of eccentrics risk taking their secrets to their graves as they withhold all that they have learnt from the generations that will follow them in far smaller numbers. Around the same time Nicolas Cage offered up his most revered acting performance in years in Pig, an American-set drama that plays out a little like Taken, if Liam Neeson was looking for his truffle pig instead of his daughter and, also, was frankly too tired of his own existence to punch anybody.
Jacobsen’s book offers a far broader view of the industry than The Truffle Hunters’ fairly blinkered view, which touched only on a small group of individuals in Italy seeking out the Tuber magnatum and fails to even acknowledge the large amounts of this white truffle that are imported from the likes of Hungary and Croatia to fulfil the Italians’ tremendous demand. Though he meets eccentric local hunters, Jacobsen also encounters a curious mix of figures that each have their own distinct approach to truffles. In England he meets Zak Frost, a former DJ who has since made his name as tuber supplier to many of the nation’s top restaurants. In Hungary he meets the members of The Saint Ladislaus Order of Truffle Knights as well as their sworn enemy István Bagi, who has managed to exploit the nation’s strict truffle-hunting rules to his advantage. Everybody is presented with an empathetic sense of humanity that nevertheless highlights the strangely heightened world the truffle fosters.
Much time is spent championing the dogs at the heart of the hunts as well. Unlike Nic Cage, most truffle hunters prefer dogs, who are less desperately keen on the quarry and thus less likely to take off your finger as you attempt to pry it from their mouth. Jacobsen clearly is fascinated not only by the truffle dogs, but also by the different approaches their owners take to training them – in Italy they are often treated as working dogs; in the US, which is presented here as something of a New World for truffles, they are pampered and spoiled, spoken to with unashamed love. Once the main narrative of the book has rounded up, tucked between the acknowledgements and a section on recipes, Jacobsen offers an unexpected bonus chapter on an unlikely hero of America’s truffle dog championships. Told from the perspective of Gustave the chihuahua, it’s an odd little moment that nevertheless continues to celebrate the unexpected figures at the heart of the industry.
From those that hunt wild truffles Jacobsen moves on to the individuals who seek to actively cultivate truffles themselves – a practice that has been in ongoing development for hundreds of years, but has only begun to find its footings as science has begun to understand the nuances of truffle farming. From Spain, whose farms provide well of 90% of the black winter truffles passed off as French, to North American farms that defy our previous expectations for the possibilities truffle cultivation holds, Jacobsen’s travels seem to confirm two things: first, that there are truffles everywhere, if only you know how to find them and second, that if you aren’t looking for them, somebody else already is.
Ultimately, the book becomes less about the truffle itself and more about the tales of human (and animal) spirit that are rife throughout this industry. Jacobsen’s message seems to be that there is magic in the world, and with the right approach we can make a little of it our own. It’s a lovely idea for a tremendously likeable and engaging book that, had it focused in more depth on the mycorrhizal-level science could have been a much drier read that elicited far fewer out-loud laughs. Which isn’t to say that Truffle Hound doesn’t offer fascinating insight into the science of the truffle – it just always brings it back to the humans making the discoveries.
Nevertheless, this is an approach that perhaps shies away from the less charming elements of the industry. In last year’s The Truffle Hunters documentary the sheer charm of chasing eager Lagotto dogs through the woods is, at one point, brought to a sharp close as one truffle hunter loses his companion in the woods. We see him searching around his vehicle, and hear him hunting off camera. And then, in the next scene, discovers that his beloved truffle hound has been poisoned by a rival hunter. Worse still, it is the second dog that he has lost to poison in a matter of months.
Truffle Hound isn’t afraid to explore the complicated politics and economics that impact the way the truffle industry operates but, crucially, it always finds something to champion – be that the heady petroleum whiff of an as-yet unloved species of tuber, or the endeavouring spirits of those who, like their dogs, are getting dug in nose first to the truffle universe. But like a hunt for the prized goods themselves, Jacobsen could seek to dig up both the light and the dark, and it might have been interesting to have spent a moment longer lingering on those darker flavours.
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars
Buy this book
Truffle Hound: On the Trail of the World’s Most Seductive Scent, with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs
£20, Bloomsbury Publishing
Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas