x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A secret no more

In deciphering the genetic mysteries of the truffle, have scientists robbed it of its mystique?

Black truffles grow underground in the roots of certain trees in France and Italy.
Black truffles grow underground in the roots of certain trees in France and Italy.

Hurrah! The genome of the ambrosial black truffle has been discovered. It is news, surely, to make our eyes mist over with tears. Is that not one of the mysteries you have longed to solve? Who killed JFK? Did man really land on the moon? Exactly what kind of DNA produces the musty taste and smell of a mushroom's cousin, the black truffle? Properly speaking, we should call it the Périgord truffle, for it is named after that region in France, or, more scientifically, the Tuber melanosporum. The evocative qualities of the latter term are rather lacking, however. Fettuccine with shavings of T. melanosporum does not sound like something you'd willingly swallow. Fettuccine with shavings of Périgord truffle, on the other hand, is a dish many of us might pick should we find ourselves choosing our last dinner.

More casually, they are known as "black diamonds" because they fetch up to ?3,500 (Dh17,400) per kilogram at the market. And now, a team of scientists has figured out, or "sequenced", their genetic make-up, which comprises 125 million base-pairs (those little "rungs" you find on a double-helix DNA ladder). These rungs encode 7,500 genes, 6,000 of which the truffle shares with other fungi. But here's the nub of the thing - 1,500 genes they do not share, and these govern certain aspects of the development that we now know include that pungent, earthy smell and flavour. Until now, it has been unclear whether such attributes were created by the truffle itself or by the microbes and conditions surrounding it.

The joint Franco-Italian team that made this discovery was made of up 50 researchers, which seems a large number, in a project that has taken five years. What scientist could resist a project studying black truffles for half a decade? What all of it means, firstly, is that fake truffles will be more easily spotted. In recent years, encroachments from the Chinese truffle market have bamboozled some into paying enormous wads of cash for them. Chinese truffles, you see, are nearly identical to our friend T. melanosporum, and often come soaked in truffle juices to enhance their aroma. But their western counterparts are superior in taste. Now scientists will be able to distinguish between them thanks to their genes.

Of course, some may say cruelly that if you are the sort to spend thousands of dirhams on an expensive fungus then you deserve to be tricked, but what curmudgeons they would be. Have they never eaten foie gras drizzled with truffle oil? Cheese with truffled honey? Truffle risotto? Truffled scrambled egg? Rare treats, all. It's bountiful news for the gourmands who delight in just these kinds of indulgences, because the discovery means that in the future scientists may be able to develop strains of truffle with stronger or more delicate flavours. However, François Martin, one of those who worked on the project, warned that connoisseurs might turn up their noses at a modified fungus.

"When you taste the black truffle on hot pasta, that is something you cannot forget," Martin told the science journal Nature, which reported the findings in its online edition last week. Happy, too, will be truffle producers, who hope to be able to refine their cultivation methods and meet greater success with their crops. The process is often seen as one that relies more on luck than careful management because so little is known about what makes a truffle grow in the roots of one tree and not another. This new research, it is hoped, will prove especially helpful, given the decline in truffle production, from 1,000 tonnes in France at the beginning of the 1900s to about 20 tonnes today. Good news for everyone.