The truffle Spectator

It’s the holy grail of truffle production. Tuber magnatum, the Italian white truffle, the most expensive truffle on the planet, has wilfully resisted all efforts to cultivate it in plantations. Now an article by Elizabeth Luard in that British magazine institution, The Spectator, suggests that success is close at hand. You’ll need to register to read the article in the “Irregulars” section of this week’s issue (06/11/04), but it’s worth the effort, if only to read something in the relatively mainstream press that goes beyond the obvious caviar and champagne metaphors and isn’t afraid to use a few scientific terms. Thanks to Tony Vickery of the erstwhile enchiridion blog for drawing my attention to it.

I visited SantAngelo in Vada in November 2000, as part of my European research trip for the still unfinished book. It’s a charming place, and the scientists at the truffle research centre are just as charming, if in a slightly oddball way. Perhaps that’s why Mrs Luard fell for the pheromone stuff:

Pheromones, for the uninitiated, are the stuff produced by football fans when they do the Mexican wave, by cabbage whites to warn other butterflies where they’ve laid their eggs, and by people and pigs to attract a mate. They are also, as it happens, produced by truffles as a means of spreading their spores. Not to put too fine a point on it, when ripe and ready, the truffle reeks of sex. You don’t get the full impact unless you’re there. A sow will automatically search for truffles thinking, from the smell, that there is a boar around.

It’s a seductive theory, and a tale I’ve retold myself, but it isn’t true. A French scientist demonstrated quite convincingly that pheromones have nothing to do with it. The most active part of the smell of truffles as far as mammals are concerned is a chemical called dimethyl sulfide, or DMS. It’s the smell of cooking cabbage. There is a substance very similar to androstenol – the pheromone in question – in the aroma of black truffle, and when researchers discovered that they leapt to an obvious, if erroneous, conclusion. Good stories take a long time to die.

Mrs Luard gets some other stuff wrong as well:

While the Perigord black, Tuber melanosporum, prefers oak and lime, poplar and hazel appeal to T. magnatum Pico, the Piedmont white. (Lesser species are more likely to go for beech and fir.)

Actually, melanosporum likes oaks of various kinds, hazels and some pines, while magnatum likes limes and poplars.

So are the good Dottores of SantAngelo in Vada succeeding in their quest? I may have to email my contact, the very charming Dottore Gianluigi “Gigi” Gregori to find out. There’s only one slight problem. He speaks no English, and I no Italian. We spent three days in 2000 conversing in broken French. I’ll keep you informed.

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