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A history of truffle cultivation

A history of truffle cultivation

The idea of growing truffles is very old and although it is difficult to establish the precise date this cultivation began, it is interesting, nevertheless, to take a look at the fundamental stages and see how it has evolved over time. According to Ceruti (1986), truffle cultivation is divided into four main eras:

FIRST ERA
During the first era from antiquity to the early nineteenth century, attempts were made to cultivate the truffle directly. The criterion was to plant a part of, or the entire fructuous body in the same way as crops were seed­ed without the help of any tree, as the symbiotic relationship between plant and truffle was then unknown. In his “Opusculum De Tuberi­bus” (1564), the author, Alfonso Ceccarelli, advised scattering the ground with moist soil mixed with finely grated truffles, whereas in his “Letters” (1780), Count De Borch suggested burying whole, rotting tubers in drills a few centimetres deep. In his treatise on “The cultivation of truffles” (1827), De Bornholz gave instructions to “remove the truffles delicately from the place they grow and, without removing the soil clinging to them, transplant them in another place in special holes filled with clay and manure, after having covered them with branches of oak, and then to water them”.

SECOND ERA
In the second era from the early nineteenth century to approximately the mid-twentieth century, they discovered the relationship between plant and truffle and the indirect method to grow truffles using trees began. Culti­vation used empirical evidence; common truffle-associated plants were grown on common truffle-associated land. They usually collected acorns from the ground of the plants which produced truffles, and sowed them in areas rich in natural truffle grounds; the prerequisites (truffle spores and mycelium scattered in the ground) enabled the new seedlings to develop with a good probability of making a mycorrhizal symbiosis with the truffle and of starting production. The story goes that in 1810, a French farmer named Talon from Provence discovered the indirect cultivation method after he had sown acorns to reforest one of his own lands and several years later collected some black truffles beneath the young oak trees. The method became widespread thanks to a shopkeeper in the same area, who created numerous productive truffle grounds (Loubet, 1866). Subsequently, a type of cultivation began based on a type of cultivation of truffles with the reforest­ation of suitable areas. This was welcomed in Italy, due also to the writings of Mattirolo (1908, 1909, 1920, 1928). This author said that “in a final analysis, truffle cultivation is the same as reforestation under specific environmental conditions, with specific tree species, on the roots of which the truffles will grow.” From this moment on, reforestation was used as the commonplace technique to cultivate truffles, as the experimental plantations in various Italian provinces and regions testify, first by Francolini (1919, 1931, 1932) then Director of the Itinerant Chair of Agriculture in Spoleto, followed with increasing success by Mannozzi Torini (1956, 1958, 1965, 1971), Inspector for the State Forestry Department for the regional government of the Marche, who set up numerous cultivated truffle grounds in Central Italy with truf­fle-associated seedlings produced in the nursery. These truffle grounds, still in production, were successful examples of cultivation. The Mannoz­zi Torini method became the basis for current methods and used acorns previously immersed in a watery solution containing very ripe, crushed truffles and sugar as adhesive (to help the spores attach to the acorns better). The acorns were sown in twos or threes in seed trays filled with soil from the natural truffle grounds and then placed in the nursery in specially prepared beds and kept there throughout one growing season.

THIRD ERA

The third era stretched from the early ‘60s to the early ‘80s, when seedlings were used, which had previously been mycorrhized in a labora­tory and grown in a greenhouse. During this period, following studies on the ectotrophic mycorrhizas of Tuber and other hypogeous fungi, the first mycorrhizal syntheses were obtained between sterile plants and truffles in the laboratory (Fassi and Fontana, 1967; Palenzona, 1969; Fontana and Palenzona, 1969; Fontana and Fasolo Bonfante, 1971). At the same time, an attempt was made to cultivate their mycelium in a pure culture (Fontana, 1968, 1971). It is the era, in which research and experiments focused main­ly on cultivating the prized black truffle, whose biology and ecology were becoming better known. In fact, numerous truffle grounds planted in this period were mainly of Tuber melanosporum, whereas very few were of Tuber magnatum. As the latter has a more complex biology and great­er needs compared to the various ecological factors, the first, permanent, mycorrhizal syntheses that were safely reproducible were only obtained much later (Palenzona and Fontana, 1979).

FOURTH ERA

The fourth era beginning from the early ‘80s is the current period, in which attempts are being made to also safely cultivate the prized white truffle. The main objective is to encourage the most favourable condi­tions for the fructiferous bodies to form after planting; conditions which presuppose specific mycorrhization have been continued. In fact, studies are being made of the factors influencing the mycorrhization of woodland plants with Tuber magnatum (Zambonelli, 1983) and safer techniques are being fine-tuned to achieve the mycorrhizal synthesis with that particular truffle (Tocci et al., 1985). The parameters, which determine growing in a greenhouse, are also being examined (Gregori and Ciappelloni, 1988).

In the field of mycorrhization, current experiments are working on the production of the truffle mycelium to be used to inoculate the seedlings (Lo Bue, 1990) or on the micro-propagation of seedlings, the production of which is becoming increasingly consistent (Zambonelli, 1990; Zuccarelli, 1990). The ecological needs of the prized white truffle are also under minute scrutiny over a vast territory in Central Italy, which includes the regions of the Marche, Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria (Mirabella, 1983; Elisei and Zazzi, 1985; Tocci, 1985; Bencivenga and Granetti, 1988). A knowledge of truffle soil becomes fundamental in order to cultivate symbiotic fungi (Filipello Marchisio and Luppi Mosca, 1983, 1984) and investigations have been made to characterise the ectomycorrhizas of other fungi, found in natural and cultivated truffle grounds of the white truffle, and to evaluate the interactions in the rhyzosphere (Gregori et al., 1988). The knowledge of what happens in mycorrhization, once the mycorrhized seedlings have been planted out, is becoming increasingly important (Fontana et al., 1982; Granetti et al., 1988). Methods are being fine-tuned in the event the desired mycorrhiza is not kept in an open field (Lo Bue et al., 1988). Lastly, we should remember the first productions of carpophores of Tuber magnatum, which began in cultivated truffle grounds (Giovannetti, 1988), but unfortunately without any objective success. The results achieved in recent decades and the new impulse given to truffle growing, now undertaken on a scientific basis using modern methods, have been the topic of special conferences. After the 1st International Congress on the Truffle held in Spoleto in 1968 and the international confer­ence in Souillac on truffle cultivation in 1971, scientific meetings became increasingly frequent from the 80s onwards. In 1988, once again in Spoleto, the 2nd International Congress on the truffle was organised by Cavaliere del Lavoro, Paolo Urbani, followed in 1991 by the 3rd congress in L’Aquila. An inter-regional meeting was held in Campoli Appennino in 1996, to discuss the problems of the white truffle and to evaluate the advan­tage of using the lesser prized truffles for truffle cultivation. In 1999, in Aix en Provence, the 5th International Congress was held on the “Science and cultivation of truffles” which, due to the number of participants and quality of the works presented, will certainly remain a milestone.

At the beginning of the nineties, people began to talk of biotechnology linked to the truffle and of DNA as regards methods of certification. In 1994, an international congress was held in Urbino regarding such applications and attempted to give an up-to-the-minute report on the situation. In 1996, the 1st Scientific Meeting on the biotechnology of mycorrhization was held in Sant’An­gelo in Vado, followed, in 1997, by the 2nd Meeting on the topic in Campobasso and in 1998 by the 3rd in Alba. Important European meetings were held in the field of mycorrhization not necessarily linked to the truffle, but extended also to other edible fungi. We should remember the meeting in Dijon in 1986, in Prague in 1988, the meetings in Berkeley, Granada and Uppsala in 1998. In 2001, another meeting on this topic for operators in the sector took place in Sydney, Austral­ia, a producer country of excellent Tuber Melanosporum Vitt, also distributed throughout the world by Urbani Tartufi. In France, however, Truffle cultiva­tion came to a standstill in 1855, the year in which the Paris Universal Exhibition was held, where the first batches of truffles were presented, obtained from the reforestation made by sowing “truffle-associated acorns”, as the French called them. In 1880, there was an epidemic in France of “Phylloxera”, which killed all the vineyards and shook the entire world of the precious French wine. Howev­er, all those lands were cleared and converted into the cultivation of truffles which became a true agricultural activity until, in 1884, the year in which an official study by the French Ministry of Agriculture reported that “a good truffle ground is worth twice the same-sized vineyard.” After the First World War, truf­fle cultivation was abandoned as the result of numerous failures and too much approximation. Only in 1970, do we find the use of mycorrhized plants in France imported from Italy, the introduction of which, however, was made without a sufficient analysis of the environmental conditions and the use of cultivation techniques borrowed from intensive fruit growing, which often led to mediocre and irregular productive results.

TRUFFLELAND: FROM TRUFFLE GROWERS TO NURSERYMEN

This is another reason why Truffleland decided to begin. With a very high percentage (over 70%) of mycorrhizas present in the root system of every plant and polluting factors maintained at zero, the success of truffle grounds with the name of Truffleland is guaranteed. Something good often comes from bitter disappointment. From the 60s onwards, the Urbani family has been dedicated to cultivating truffles, purchasing plants here and there, but always obtaining poor results. And for he who had made the truffle his raison d’être, those fail­ures are today the foundation of an enthusiastic passion, based on very serious, scientific criteria for the most modern truffle cultivation, where the degree of failure has been totally eliminated.