Norcia Truffle – etymology, history and properties

The way you consider the origin of the word “truffle” very much depends on whether you speak English – and thus consider the word “truffle” – or Italian – and therefore consider the word “tartufo”. As far as the English word is concerned, English acquired truffle, probably via Dutch truffel, from early modern French truffle, a derivative of Old French truffe (which survives as the modern French term for the fungus). This in turn came via the Provençal trufa from a Vulgar Latin term tūfera, an alteration of the plural of Latin tūber ‘swelling, lump, tuber, truffle’ (from which English gets tuber (17th century). As far as the Italian word is concerned, the Italian historian Giordano Berti has recently convincingly demonstrated that the word “tartufo” stems from the resemblance perceived in the Middle Ages between this underground fungus and tuff, the porous stone typical of Central Italy. The term then evolved into terra tufide (Latin) and into the dialectal words tartùfola, trìfula, tréffla, and trìfola. Use of the word “tartufo” started to spread in Italy in the 17th century.

The first definite news on record of the truffle appeared in the ‘Natural History’ of Pliny the Elder. In the 1st century AD, the Greek philosopher Plutarch of Chaeronea launched the idea that the magnificent fungus was born as a result of the combined action of water, heat and thunderbolts. Based on this theory many poets, including Juvenal, explained that the origin of the precious fungus was due to a thunderbolt hurled by Jupiter close to an oak tree (a tree considered sacred to the father of the gods). Jupiter was also famous for his extraordinary sexual dynamism. This is why the truffle has always been recognized as having aphrodisiac properties. The ancient Greek physician Galen put it like this: “the truffle is very nourishing and can direct voluptuousness”.

Among the various Renaissance authors, one that should be highlighted is the Umbrian physician Alfonso Ceccarelli, who wrote a book on the truffle, Opusculus de Tuberibus (1564), in which he summarized the opinions of Greek and Roman naturalists and various historical anecdotes. This book indicates that the truffle was always very much appreciated, particularly on the tables of the nobility and of senior prelates. For some of them its aroma was a sort of “quintessence” that had an “ecstatic effect” on human beings.

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