Department of excellent reads: While The New York Times chronicles the efforts of U.S. growers to produce that most ephemeral of fungi, the truffle, Elatia Harris turns in an epic tone-poem on the history and mystery of truffles that makes it abundantly clear why the truffle is one of the most valuable and sought-after commodities in the world. The piece, which appears in the Web magazine 3 Quarks Daily, starts out with a long-ago dinner in a Paris restaurant. The “elderly esthete” to Harris’s right declines a conventional appetizer and entrée in favor of ordering merely a dish of eight golf-ball-sized truffles, lightly sautéed and splashed with cream. When he places one of his prizes into her mouth, she has an awakening:
Best just to liken it to the entrance into the room, naked, of that person whom you know will make all the difference. Time passed—I’m not sure how much—and as I licked my lips and refocused on the table I saw that people—all but one—were smiling those faint, intent smiles not at the truffles but at me.
This must have set her on a quest, for the rest of the article is a heady history of truffles, from the age of antiquity, when nomadic peoples prized the desert truffle for its medicinal properties, to the news that the truffle’s genome has been sequenced, the better to detect truffle fraud. Along the way, Harris drops highly entertaining anecdotes and lore. “Rossini tells how he wept to see a truffled turkey he was rowing to a picnic go overboard into the Seine, one of three times in his life the composer would admit to shedding tears. Nor was Byron immune to truffles, although he did not eat them but kept them on his writing table, stroking them, finding the aroma a stimulant to creative juices.” But the most telling story about the value of the little nuggets comes near the top:
A Parisian banker, discovering that his cook had served his only truffle to two of her friends, made television news by shooting her. The investigating magistrate refused to bring the banker to trial for what was “obviously a crime of passion, completely understandable and completely forgivable.”