White Alba TrufflesWhite Alba truffles from the Piedmont region of Italy—and black winter truffles from Périgord, France—are a fount of gastronomic legends.

A black truffle and foie gras soup, served with a puff pastry topping, is the signature recipe of the late, great French chef, Paul Bocuse.

My first indelible taste of a White Alba truffle came shaved atop a Carnaroli Risotto Biologico with a Castelmagno Mousse, served at Per Se, Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant in Manhattan—at $175 per plate (2011 price).

Why do these exotic truffle nuggets captivate our senses in the course of depleting our pocketbook?  Their wafting aroma creates a pheromonic stage for intense consumer demand—expensive to satisfy, at least authentically.  Worldwide commerce in scarce truffles in turn engenders some peculiar and perhaps surprising intellectual property law issues.

“Mozart” and “Black Diamond” Truffles

Truffles are the most precious representatives of goût de terroir (“taste of the earth”) in the world.  They are “the fruiting bodies of mychorrhizal fungi associated principally with the roots of oak trees in forests and oak plantations.”[1] “In general, truffles have no stalk, no gills and its mycelium grows underground.  Rather than having the soft and fragile feature of common mushrooms, mature truffles tend to be firm, dense, and woody.”[2]

When the Italian mycologist, Carlo Vittadini, discovered the Périgord black truffle in 1831, he gave it the scientific name Tuber melanosporum.  Tuber, the genus, is a Latin word meaning “a lump or swelling”; whereas the specific epithet melanosporum means “black spores.”  In French haute cuisine, they are known as “black diamonds” and the “jewel of cookery.”[3]

The White Alba truffle, Tuber magnatum, is characterized by a pale smooth exterior and cream or ochre interior.  White truffles are found in the Piedmont region of northern Italy and the Motovan Forest of the Istrian Peninsula in Croatia.  Their spore-bearing material is marbled by white membranes in a random wandering form rather than any regular pattern.” [4]  An Italian composer refers to White Alba truffles as “the Mozart of mushrooms.”[5]

We Feast First With Our Eyes”

Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 47 spawned the maxim, we feast first with our eyes.  Yet, applying that adage to mushrooms buried in dirt is problematic.  One commentator aptly states:

There is no point in trying to describe the shape of a truffle; they are the ultimate in shapelessness.  Blobs, sometimes more or less spherical but quite often multi-lobed, the outer surface of the Périgord Black Truffle is dark brown to black, covered in small crazed polygonal sections with shallow rivers between them—not unlike limestone pavement, but less regular in size and not aligned in any systematic way.[6]

Another scientific paper puts it more bluntly: “truffles are rounded, ugly and potato-shaped mushrooms with a subterranean habit.”[7]

Continue Reading The Intellectual Property Allure of Truffle Mushrooms