I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Edward Banatt.
I’d like to thank James Harbeck for the opportunity to submit a guest post. I stumbled upon Sesquiotica via Twitter and I often enjoy the etymological explorations and wordplay on this blog.
Set aside what the word itself means for a moment, and let’s embark on a little logogustation. Truffle kicks off with tr, which opens the mouth slightly, as if to receive a forkful of pasta with truffle shavings. Roll the r if you want to add an air of decadence to your pronunciation – cheap trills perhaps? Short u follows, as in yummy, scrumptious, luxurious, then your glottis relaxes for the voiceless labiodental fricative double f, with the top teeth touching the bottom lip. Imagine the tines of the fork sliding past the lips as you say it. Finish with an l, the tongue touching the front of the palate softly, and pause for a delectable moment to savor the silent e. Truffle.
The letters of the word stay below the middle line, mostly. The t stands there solemnly, perhaps a truffle spade in miniature. The r almost resembles a sapling with a single branch. U dips down, as if scooped out by the snout of a truffle pig. Swelling out of the word like a fruiting body are the letters ffl, and e sits lazily at the word’s end, wearing what I like to call a truffle-eating grin..
What is a truffle exactly? Truffles are the belowground fruiting bodies of an ectomycorrhizal fungus, the mycelia of which form a symbiotic relationship with several types of trees. Ectomycorrhizal is a tasty word (it inspired this post), and it describes the Twilight-esque nature of the symbiosis – the threadlike hyphae of the mycelium never penetrate the roots of the tree. The hyphae act as a sort of fertilizing agent, providing phosphates for the plant, and the hyphae of the fungus benefit from sugars derived from the tree roots.
Fungi have always fascinated me – they’re plant-like, yet taxonomically speaking, are more closely related to animals. It amazes me that we humans have learned to eat potentially toxic fruiting bodies of fungi by trial and error. (Pause here for the ancient foragers who laid down their lives that we might enjoy eating fungi). If you survived the poison, you may have had a mind-bending experience. Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland after he had experimented with Amanita muscaria and those perceptual changes Alice experiences after eating mushrooms were influenced by Carroll’s own hallucinogenic mushroom intoxication.
Edible fungi provide more flavor than nutrition. Truffles contain three different types of umami substances in the form of glutamate, insinuate, and guanylate, all of which create taste cravings. They have an earthy, pungent flavor (especially the white variety), and are not sweet like the candies that bear a passing resemblance to their namesake.
Want to taste the diamond of the kitchen by adding a little truffle oil to your dish? Truffle oil isn’t anyone’s best friend, my friend. Most truffle oil is more like snake oil, by which I mean it’s a fraud, a sham, a culinary humbug. It contains no truffles! “Most commercial truffle oils are concocted by mixing olive oil with one or more compounds like 2,4-dithiapentane.” I’ll pass.
The etymological root of truffle is the Latin tuber meaning “swelling” or “lump”. Humble beginnings, you might say. Truffle farmers often employ hounds or hogs that have an exceptional sense of smell to find and dig up these lumpy treasures. Pigs dig the taste of the truffle like we do, so the farmer must stay vigilant, stopping and denying the poor porcine the object of her tantalized snuffling before she devours it. So, the next time you are enjoying a swell dish of tajarini al tartufo, offer a toast to the terrific talents of the humble pig that may have unearthed the earthy diamond that flavors your dish.