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The Greek History of Truffles: It All Started With a Thunderbolt from Zeus

truffles truffles greek zeuss
Truffles have long been used in a variety of cuisines around the world. Ancient Greeks debated the origin of the fungus, and some even attributed it to the god Zeus. Credit: Oldsoft/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

The history of truffles is one of folklore and intrigue, but very few people know of its links to the ancient Greek god Zeus. The pricey, much sought-after fungi has played a prominent role in Greece for its nutritional value, aphrodisiac properties, and delicious taste.

Dating as far back as Ancient Greece, truffles were the topic of great discussion amongst the country’s greatest thinkers.

Many ancient Greek philosophers were completely puzzled by the fungus, which is found underground. Philosophers from across the ancient world actually fiercely debated the origins of the delicious truffle.

Did truffles come from Zeus?

The ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch believed that truffles came about through a complicated combination of natural and spiritual processes.

According to Plutarch, “hydnon,” or truffles, came into existence after Zeus launched one of his powerful thunderbolts down to earth. The heat of the thunderbolt, combined with the natural moisture found in the ground, created the subterranean fungus near an oak tree.

While it seems a bit farfetched to the contemporary reader, Plutarch’s theory has some basis in truth. Truffles, and other fungi of its kind, form a symbiotic relationship with plant life, meaning that the prized delicacy is usually found growing near the roots of trees.

Similarly, the ancient Roman thinker Juvenal claimed that truffles were made up of thunder and rain. Cicero, the Roman statesman and writer, believed the fungi were born of the earth itself.

If that’s not exciting enough, truffles have been considered to have aphrodisiac properties since ancient times. The ancient Greek physician Galen praised the fungus, writing that not only was it a delicious delight, but that “the truffle is very nourishing and can direct voluptuousness.”

The fungus is a favorite ingredient in many dishes

It seems that, although popular in antiquity, truffles fell out of favor in Medieval Europe, as they are rarely mentioned in writing from the period.

However, during the Renaissance, Caterina de’ Medici and Lucrezia Borgia make mention of the fungi at fashionable banquets all over Europe, used in exquisite dishes.

King Francois I of France was particularly fond of the ingredient, and truffles were frequently used to flavor the dishes at his royal banquets.

While the fungus was widely consumed amongst peasants in the areas where they were found in abundance, the uptick in popularity during the Renaissance made the price of the ingredient skyrocket, and limited its availability to only royals and members of the upper classes.

The legend continues on from there as the underground fungi found its way into modern history as a pricey ingredient in sumptuous dishes.

Nowadays, Greeks use truffles, often in the form of truffle oil, in a number of dishes such as meat, pasta, rice, chick peas and soups.

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