For Valentine's Day this year, my dog Flora Jayne, and I are out hunting for truffles. This time of year
they are seducing all manner of earthly creatures with their lusty scent.
The first time I smelled a truffle, it reached inside me and made me want it more than anything in the world. I inhaled notes of violets and strawberries, toasted walnuts and aged cheese, earth after a rain, and the intimate crevice of someone I once loved. The aroma traveled through my body, lighting up pleasure centers that I hadn’t known existed inside me.
Truffles send out rootlike filaments called hyphae that create an intricate underground system that absorbs water and nutrients from the soil. The hyphae of truffles latched onto the roots of trees to create relationships called mycorrhizae. Like other mycorrhizal fungi, they help the host plant access more water and nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, creating healthier trees and more robust forest ecosystems. Leaves on a tree enable it to photosynthesize sunlight, creating sugar and starches, it then passes these to the fungi through their roots. As these underground networks strengthen and spread, they increase resiliency in an ecosystem by helping protect trees from soil-borne pathogens and enhancing their ability to withstand drought. As there are more studies on these systems, scientists are learning that underground fungi enable entire forests to communicate with each other – and come to other trees and plants' aids when distressed.
As truffle mycorrhizae grow underground, they seek out other genetically similar mycelial colonies. The truffles' networks fuse underground; they coalesce, and as they intertwine, knots form. Fitting with the truffle’s seductive scent, unlike most other types of fungi that reproduce by spreading their spores in the air, truffles reproduce sexually.
This was discovered in 2008 by Frencesco Paolocci, a researcher from the Institute of Biosciences and Bioresources in Perugia, Italy. His research found that that truffles were split male and female forms, and could only reproduce when a member of each sex partnered. A female partner would deliver nutrients to the new tissue and a male partner deliver the DNA. The female is always found in the ectomycorrhizal – but male truffles are difficult to trace and tend to only reproduce once or twice before disappearing. (Don't fall in love with a male truffle!)
And then the earth tilts, and temperatures change. Lightning pulls nitrogen from the air, summer
thunderstorms deliver it to the soil, setting molecules into motion, and the knots swell into mature
globules, rough-skinned, dirt-caked nuggets shaped like contorted brains, and amorphous hearts. When they are ready to send out their spores for reproduction, they develop their scent.
Each truffle is a new experience; their scents are fruity, nutty, garlicky, wet wool, violets, dusk, sunshine, music, dark fruit, spice, mushroom, diesel, love, desire, and dirt.
Wish us luck.
(Two truffle dogs, Flora Jayne, and Gia Cannoli, reenacting their favorite scene from Lady and the Tramp.)