Truffle Aroma – The Truth at Last

By Dr. Sandro Silveri
Agriculturalist & Mycologist

Taxonomic classification of truffles: ( Eriksson O. E. , et al. )
Division : Ascomycota
Class : Pezizomycetes
Order: Pezizales
Family : Tuberaceae
Kind: Tuber

“Tartuffe”, Molière’s comedy on stage in 1664 for the first time, is a satire against hypocrisy.
By describing the protagonist’s perversions, the author wants to criticise hypocrisy and the fanatic morality of the influent people of the royal court, which was centred on religious practices and faith.
This satire attracted fierce criticism and Molière defended himself saying that he only wanted to attack false devotion. Only in 1669 the king allowed the comedy to be put on stage with the title of “Le Tartuffe ou L'imposteur”.
In ancient French language the name Tartuffe meant both truffle and a dishonest person. The child of a poor family, the protagonist of the comedy was a dishonest man who used hypocrisy to reach his goals, being deprived of economic means.
As the author wrote: having few means and a lot of ambitions, being deprived of all the gifts that were necessary to meet his requirements honestly and being resolved to do that at any cost, he chose hypocrisy (“Lettre sur la comédie de l'Imposteur”). The scholar Giovanni Macchia wrote: The Tartuffes can be found in those societies that are ready to accept them.
Today we could rewrite Molière’s comedy with a new protagonist “the false truffle aroma”, but with a difference, hypocrisy is not its choice, and Giovanni Macchia’s statement about society is still applicable.

I was born and brought up in a rural society where I had the chance to fill my nostrils with the true smell of truffles that came from the ground, satisfy may taste with just-harvested truffles and admire the work of dogs when they looked for truffles and found them from underground. Unfortunately, only few people had this chance. Many young people do not know and will never know what the true smell of truffle is like, something very different from the stuff that industrialisation and technology have developed and applied to a variety of foods.
Around the mid-seventies, truffle gatherers and a number of restaurant owners discovered by chance that some foods have a special characteristic: if they are stored in a closed environment together with some kinds of fruits, they absorb the smell and taste of the latter. Some people understood that this phenomenon may be turned into a profitable business and started its exploitation.
This secret was unveiled soon, however, and food transformers and a number of chemists became interested in this phenomenon. It was in the early eighties and what used to be a precious asset of agriculture, a source of income for rural populations and an edible satisfaction for the rest of population, became interesting also for chemical researchers and businessmen involved in the production of food seasonings and aromas.
What consumers appreciate in truffle is its smell, more than its taste. Dogs can find it from underground because of its smell, a combination of aromatic substances that arise during growth and that are released from the fruit only when it is ripe.
Although our era is characterized by remarkable scientific revolution in all sectors, when we speak of truffles we may still use the expression “truffle, an unknown fruit". Leaving aside the reasons why several aspects are still unknown, we can state that one of them is the aromatic characterization of the various species. We know that there are several aromatic components contributing to the typical smell and taste of each species, that the same molecules may be present in different species and/or may prevail over the others, but unfortunately we do not have a complete, final knowledge of the matter.

Among the molecules present and/or prevailing in different Tuber species, the most typical one is a hydrocarbon, especially available in white truffles, which attracts most attention because of the profitability of this business and of the economic interest that pushes men to find that “something” that may release them from the dependency on nature and of the amount, now quite limited, of natural produce.
In a race for commercial deals, it is imperative to work out a mixture and/or identify one or more molecules that reproduce the smell of white truffle.
No one is willing to use true truffle, because it is too costly and too limited in quantity. Everyone tries to find something reproducing the aroma of truffle without using true fruits or using them in small quantities, so that production is not limited and profits may go higher. No matter if this means cheating consumers and even worse if public health may be endangered. On the other side, this is not the first cheat to consumers nor the first time that foods are prepared with unhealthy ingredients.
Business interest is not limited to producers and/or entrepreneurs, but it involves researchers and chemists, who in most cases get interesting gains from their findings while staying in strict incognito for a pretty long period of time, although those laboratory findings are far away from any idea of truffle smell.
All this happened up to the mid-eighties, until researches had to share their knowledge with aroma processing industries which in the meantime had grown commercially and conquered the market little by little.
I have been involved in truffles for thirty years now, covering any aspects from species identification and study, to micorization, truffle cultivation, processing techniques and technologies and study of new products and applications, always with a scientific approach.

In the mid-eighties I demonstrated that natural products could be obtained by exploiting the extreme instability of aromatic molecules characterizing the most important Tuber species, and by using the absorbing capability of different foods and/or raw materials, especially if they contain lipids and amino acids. Driven by the boldness of young age and by a spirit of competitiveness, I pioneered the formulation of a lyposoluble aromatic basis of synthetic origin, that resembled the smell and taste of white truffle quite closely. This was certainly the best formula ever worked out, especially if used not in a too high concentration. What was going to be a challenge to me, was also– and still is – a source of inestimable and unlimited income for others.
Several people started reproducing the taste of white truffle in laboratory and add it to any food to confer them the truffle aroma. I was astonished when seasoning manufacturers, asked whether their product was black or white truffle aroma, answered “it’s truffle aroma”, showing great superficiality and deep ignorance. This was another challenge to me as a young man. So, in a relatively short time I worked out a lyposoluble aromatic mixture that tasted laboratory-made black truffle to please all those who were already applying the first laboratory finding.
Time went by and the use of laboratory-processed stuff to season foods of any kind, where true truffle was used in a limited if not null quantity, was spreading and concentrations were steadily increasing, which worsened the taste and health of food. Now all truffle-aromatized foods have the same terrifying stink of hydrocarbon and sulfur-based substances. When these foods are consumed, they provoke a sense of vomit – obviously depending on the individual sensitivity and the quantity of food swallowed – which is natural due to the characteristics of molecules and their low digestibility.
No one can now afford to say that the substances used to aromatize vegetable oil seasonings and several other foods have a natural origin or come from vegetable or animal raw materials without saying something hypocrite or mischievous.

I am ready to demonstrate the non-authenticity of truffle aroma, not to mention the non-conformity of labels that can range from mischievous publicity, to cheat or fraud.
The aromatic composition of truffle is still mysterious because it is made up of a mixture of various substances such as proteins, amino acids, sulfured compounds and many other things. Besides, this subject is little studied due to its complexity and the fact that no industrial company has ever invested in R&D and there are few researchers and/or universities that are interested in it. In addition, companies have been involved for twenty-five years in the most characterizing compound of the aromatic fraction of truffle, that we find in all Tuber species but especially in white truffle (Tuber magnatum Pico) and precisely Bis(methylthio)methane
(CH3SCH2SCH3), synonyms: Dimethylthiomethane , Formaldehyde dimethyl mercaptal.
It is also true that truffle contains the molecule of Bis(methylthio)methane, dimetilsulphide
(CH3 – S - CH3) and several other molecules, but these are mixed with proteins, amino acids and many more things of natural origin that confer on truffle that special, unmistakable smell and taste. This is not true when the same molecules, obtained with a wide range of different systems, are mixed with other substances to try and reproduce our precious underground mushroom.
Time and glory go by, only the eternal things that rest in nature and in human beings remain. Recently I have come back to my first research finding which allowed me to fix that unstable and volatile substance that had to enrich foods with that true truffle aroma, although only in smell.
To produce a lyposoluble white and black truffle aroma distinctively with no need of chemical processes and/or using substances other than truffles is no longer impossible. I have developed a process and system that can make the aromatic fraction of truffle quite stable, especially that portion of the aromatic fraction that is extremely volatile.

I have managed to recover truffle smell and taste quite totally and also to diversify their concentration. Obviously, production is not unlimited because it depends on the availability of mushrooms – yes, let’s say mushrooms because I can get the same result with boletus mushrooms too.
This important chance I have given to a farm in Umbria, which has worked for years under a controlled regime of organic agriculture and where I have applied the production of lyposoluble aromatic substances that taste of white truffle (Tuber magnatum Pico), black truffle (Tuber melanosporum Vitt), boletus mushrooms (Boletus edulis and its group) and that is certified as organic agriculture produce according to EC rule 2092/91 and NOP-USDA ORGANIC .
The time has come to make any possible effort to increase the cultivation of mushrooms, especially truffles, so that foods can not only smell of, but bear the aromatic fraction of natural truffle. However, truffles must be gathered from the ground correctly, with the help of dogs and not in an indiscriminate way, so that species can reproduce themselves and our future generations can inherit natural products and not only the worst things that man can obtain in laboratory.
Speaking of truffles may go on infinitely. So, let’s to conclude this short information with a promise: I will come back to it shortly.


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Onverse said...

I personally like truffle aroma. Those of us who can't afford to cultivate or buy truffles can surely benefit from a cheap substance that allows us to at least get close to being a part of cuisines that others may be able to afford/grow. I buy mine direct and mix my own, it's extremely cheap and I can't tell the difference.

Places sell it out there, such as:

Can't beat that price vs thousands for real truffles!

Thanks for the story/info. Good stuff!