A Mold Sold at the Cost of Gold
Haniya Rais Tirmizi
No, not the chocolate ones. We’re talking about the other ones—perhaps the priciest food on earth, comparable only to gold leaf sheets and caviar. At a recent Sotheby’s auction in New York, a 4.16 pound white truffle is reported to have sold at a “bargain” price of $61,250, to a phone bidder in China (mentalfloss.com). Black truffles, the more common variety, currently cost about $95 per ounce while white truffles top the list at $168 per ounce. No wonder they are called ‘black diamonds’ in France. It’s no surprise that the cost involved has brought organized crime into its trade, creating black markets and leading to theft of both truffles as well as its diggers, the highly valued truffle-sniffing dogs. Prices drop a little bit only when the harvest is good in years of abundant rain.
Believe it or not, they are really just knobby, ugly lumps of fungus that grow near roots of trees and come in two colors: black and white. They are a wild product, the production of which cannot be controlled. Their harvesting is mainly in Italy, Spain, France, Croatia, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, China, and the Middle East. The combination of European red soil and rainy summers produces the rich, earthy flavor of European truffles, not to be found in any of the others. The Asian variety, called the Himalayan, also doesn’t match up to the European. Recreating conducive habitats has yielded little success in Australia and in the United States.
Allison Brustin, a food connoisseur and hostess of Chicago Consular Corps Ladies Club social events, talking about her experience at the Truffle Festival in Alba, Italy says, “It is amazing to meet the people who actually hunt the truffles, and to experience the continuing traditions that have endured for so long. It can’t be duplicated by modern technology. Sampling the old traditional dishes afterwards was a delicious experience. Brie, with truffle-infused honey served on baguette, and minced mushrooms, in truffle oil served on crackers, were the two most memorable treats.”
According to gourmetfoodstore.com, the summer black truffle is “not as spectacularly fragrant and aromatic as the white truffle, but it does have a very nice perfume, much more subtle, but still quite lovely. They are better utilized by being cooked, to bring out most of that subtly earthy, chocolaty flavor as possible.”
Black or white, they are indeed delicious. Just an ounce of shavings on risotto or pasta can make all the difference in taste. They are delicacies in French, Croatian, Georgian, Bulgarian, Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, and Spanish cuisine, as well as in international haute cuisine, the finest of French dining. You can find them at tables of elegant restaurants in the United States.
The most widely collected ones are the Middle Eastern Terfez truffles, also known as “desert truffles”. They are harvested in the semi-arid regions of North Africa and the Middle East, from Morocco to Iraq, where they have been unearthed from the desert, after heavy rainfalls, from time immemorial. They are traditionally cooked with dishes such as couscous. This variety, some say, is overpoweringly perfumed. It is white, and the harvesting season goes from late December to early April.
Ancient civilizations, such as the Greek and the Roman, credited truffles with both therapeutic and aphrodisiac power. The recipes for truffles by the Roman chef, Apicius, are as old as the early fifth century. The Arabs used to call them Banat Ar-Ra’d, or the “Daughters of Thunder” (islamweb.net) and valued them as food and medicine in Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him [PBUH]) time. Sa’id bin Zaid reported the Prophet (PBUH) as saying: “Truffles are a kind of ‘Manna’ which God sent down upon Moses and their juice is medicine for the eyes.”—Sahih Muslim, Book 36, Hadith 220.
Given the fact that they have been mentioned together with the finest of dates (the Ajwah), it appears that truffles were comparable in their value to them. Abu Hurairah narrated that the Prophet (PBUH) said, “Al- ’Ajwah is from paradise and it contains a cure for poison. Truffles are a form of manna, and its liquid is a cure for the eye.”—Jami at-Tirmidhi, Vol 4, Book 2, Hadith 2066. Qatadah said, “It was narrated to me that Abu Hurairah said: ‘I took three truffles, or five, or seven, and pressed them. Then I put their liquid in a bottle, and I liquid the eyes of a slave girl of mine with it and she was cured.’” —Jami at-Tirmidhi, Vol. 4, Book 2, Hadith 2069.
So what exactly is this ‘water of the truffles?’ It has been explained by Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim (13th century theologian) as having three possible interpretations. It was not to be used alone but mixed with other eye medicine, as historical evidence suggests, based on procedures followed by Abu Ubayd, a Persian physician from the 11th century. It may also have been used after it was exposed to fire for purification before application. A third explanation is that the water could very well be rainwater on the truffles, though this appears to be the weakest interpretation. According to Imam An-Nawawi (another 13th century theologian), the truffle should be squeezed and its water dropped into the eyes. (www.islamweb.net). He also claimed that he and other men saw completely blind persons recover their eyesight by applying its water.
Nature never fails to fascinate us with what it brings forth. I’d certainly like to have more opportunities to taste this intriguing treasure of the earth…and I’d better start saving for it!
Haniya Tirmizi is the Content Manager of Halal Consumer© Magazine. She is an educationalist who specializes in second-language instruction. A trailing spouse of a diplomat, she’s a foodie who also writes poetry, and is a weekend yogi.