What inspired my passion for truffles? It all began so many years ago when my father took us children morel hunting in early spring, sparking my love for mushrooms and for being in the woods. When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in the 1980’s I joined an effort that was keen to map-out, protect and explore ecology of the Old Growth Forests of Oregon. I sought out Jim Trappe, then a professor of Forest Science and expert mycorrhizologist at Oregon State University– to learn more about fungi found in these cathedral forest stands. He inspired me, and so many of us who became his students, with his capacity to elucidate the role of truffles–underground mycorrhizal fungi–as key species in supporting these magnificent forests and all their creatures.
I became fascinated by mycorrhizae—this was my first in-depth exposure to the concept of mutualism and the possibility that the fittest organisms on our planet today are those that have evolved in symbiosis. A new twist on survival of the fittest for me. In addition, I was enjoying the glorious mushroom feasts we prepared with the fruits of so many mycorrhizal fungi from the spruce, hemlock and fir forests.
For the last 20 years I have lived and worked in Spain, and here I have had a wonderful opportunity for focusing on fungi of Mediterranean forests, especially working with a truffle cultivation program at the Forest Science Center of Catalonia. The black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, has enjoyed culinary acclaim for thousands of years due to its unique aromatic qualities. These are earthy and beguiling scents, and the mystique and desire for black truffles have increased with declines in natural abundance. Questioning how to grow truffles has led to critical scientific advances in understanding how plants and fungi interact and the ever-unfolding world of belowground ecology linked to what’s going on up above.
I love all there is to learn from this impetus to understand black truffles—and particularly the significance of their aromas. How else might an organism that has no eyes or ears or touch communicate with the multitude of other organisms in a very dynamic social life below ground? These aromas are semiochemicals–“natural chemicals released by an organism that affect the behaviors of other individuals”—attractions, repellents, warnings—truffles emit hundreds of chemical messages over the course of their life cycle!
What’s most gratifying for me today is sharing what we are learning through creating experiential, collaborative and delightful events—tours and feasts and sharing truffles with family and friends in the kitchen. And the question I like to ask is this one: what are the truffles telling those of us who are drawn to their aromatic messages?