New book on truffles mixes Serbian Mafiosi with Culinary Experiences

2023-12-13

“We want to open the doors to everything that is fun about truffles,” says Christina Wedén, researcher at Uppsala University, that in her new book Tryffelfeber (Truffle Fever) tells about mushrooms receiving official funerals and how your local grocery store can sell bags of truffle chips for a few bucks even though the kilo price of the raw material sometimes is sky high.

Christina Wedén, researcher and truffle expert at the Faculty of Pharmacy
Christina Wedén, researcher and truffle expert at the Faculty of Pharmacy

Few delicacies are as mythical as the truffle. Already the Egyptian pharaohs had their palaces filled with the mushrooms. In the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church blessed the black diamonds of the forest, and in the newly released book Truffle Fever: Among Food Nerds, Mafiosi and Billionaires, researcher Christina Wedén and author Steven Ekholm take us on a worldwide odyssey that offers everything from violent showdowns and grand culinary experiences to, according to the reviewers, "an exciting and fascinating read".

“Truffles have rightfully fueled our human imagination for millennia. With this book we want to tell their fascinating story and, above all, open the door to everything that is fun about truffles. The fact is that they can be both good and simple as aroma and flavor enhancers in cooking, and we want to help more people discover this,” says Christina Wedén, truffle expert and researcher at Uppsala University.

Truffle fever: Now in a bookstore near you
Truffle fever: Now in a bookstore near you

Truffle fever kicks off in Belgrade where chain-smoking men first eliminate any potential scent of truffles. Deep in the Serbian forests, however, the authors get close to what connoisseurs call super-premium products, dictating kilo prices that make the fingers of the local mafiosi itch. That the hunt for fortunes makes the region a risky environment became painfully clear in the fall of 2020 when two brothers murdered two other siblings in the search for the lucrative mushrooms.

“The most prestigious truffles, however, are sold in the city of Alba in northern Italy. The Italian trufles are genetically identical to the truffles found in, for example, Serbia, but thanks to successful marketing that has been going on for almost a century, they have become synonymous with exclusivity. Less known is that Tuber magnatum is impossible to grow commercially, which means that their mushroom relatives are imported from nearby countries and sold as alba truffles at astronomical prices,” says Christina Wedén.

A white truffle that was actually found in Italy, more specifically in Tuscany, brought in 42,000 euro shortly after the turn of the millennium. The buyers, a constellation of owners and regulars at the Michelin-starred restaurant Zafferano, proudly displayed their investment to impressed guests before the chef took off on a well-deserved vacation. When returning to the stove the following week to prepare the truffle, it had - hold on to your hat - started to rot. The chef buried the remains in his backyard, where they probably would have remained today had not its hometown of San Miniato inquired about the possibility of giving the now world-famous mushroom a fitting Tuscan burial. That happened, but with stories like these: How can your local grocery store sell a bag of truffle chips for a few measly bucks?

Christina Wedén lecturing at BMC
Christina Wedén lecturing at BMC

“The answer to that is easily found in the list of contents. If it says "flavored with truffle aroma", it is actually a chemically produced, sulfur-scented molecule that is so common today that many mistake it for real truffle. The fact is that truffles rarely add much taste, what the chef mainly wants is its distinctive scent - which is also a prerequisite for the spread of the species as it attracts animals that dig up, eat and spread it via droppings,” says Christina, who herself is accompanied in the forests by her specially trained truffle dog Polly.

In the book's final chapter, we arrive at Gotland, the island in the Baltic Sea, where Christina Wedén during a degree project in 1996 found a truffle weighing a whopping 225 grams. This unexpected find became the start of a PhD project, and since then Christina's efforts have contributed to identifying another fifty natural truffle habitats in the Gotland forests. This achievements have advanced the truffle's position in Swedish kitchens, and since six years Uppsala University is offering the Summer course Chemistry, Biology and Ecology of Truffle-Forming Fungi.

“The burgundy truffle is the world's northernmost real truffle, and those that grow on Gotland are, thanks to the Baltic Sea's cool climate, the absolute best of their kind. In Visby, the annual Truffle Festival is also organized every November and I myself lead the summer course, that is always inspiring to welcome curious mushroom enthusiasts from all over Northern Europe to, and hopefully our book will contribute to stimulating even more people's interest in truffles!”

FACTS

  • Tryffelfeber: Bland Matnördar, Maffia och Miljardärer was published in 2023 by Norstedts.
  • A truffle is the fruiting body of a subterranean ascomycete fungus.
  • Some truffles are used as edible mushrooms or spices, a number of species are considered delicacies.
  • Chemistry, Biology and Ecology of Truffle-Forming Fungi (5 credits) is a freestanding course given in summer and mixes distance learning with two weeks on Campus Gotland.

LEARN MORE

CONTACT

Christina Wedén, researcherChristina Wedén, researcher
Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences
Christina.Weden@farmbio.uu.se

Text: Magnus Alsne, photo: Erika Lidén, Mikael Wallerstedt

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Last modified: 2024-04-04