Trees, Truffles, and Beasts: How Forests Function
Taming the Truffle: The History, Lore, and Science of the Ultimate Mushroom
For those interested in truffles, there’s been a recent surge in new titles sure to entice. When I received these two books, I presumed them to be pretty similar in content. How wrong I was! While both are highly recommend to anyone with an interest in truffle fungi, the two have many sharp differences.
Taming the Truffle is a beautiful book from start to finish (think coffee table book in appearance, but with meat to it). No mycophile or gastronome passing through a bookshop could walk past the cover without picking it up! And the book is filled throughout with high quality color photographs. The prose matches the elegant pictures nicely, even humorously at times, and takes the reader through the history of truffle hunting and cultivation—beginning way back in Medieval times. All the lore surrounding truffles—and there’s tons of interesting and amusing legends—is brought to light by the authors. Ian Hall has devoted his life to the pursuit of cultivating truffles and is doubtless the most qualified person on the planet to discuss the topic. To anyone interested in purchasing a few inoculated tree seedlings and starting a truffière this book is a must read. But for the rest of us, there are many other chapters that are worthwhile. The chapter on truffle identification is excellent as are the photographs (including micrographs of spores); North American species are well represented as are truffles from Europe and Asia; false truffle species get a brief mention. (For a much better presentation on false truffles, see the review of the truffle field guide in this issue of FUNGI.)
With Trees, Truffles, and Beasts I was very pleasantly surprised to find so much information on the ecology of hypogeous (subterranean) fungi and on the biology of mycorrhizae. Of course, who is better qualified to write on the subject than Jim Trappe? In contrast to the work by Hall et al., Trees, Truffles, and Beasts is not printed on as high of a quality of paper and, while throughout the book there are ample photographs and illustrations to be pedagogical (with eight colorplates in the center), many of the pictures are of low resolution or appear fuzzy. Nonetheless, the book more than makes up for this in the content of information. The authors, all keenly qualified to write on the topic, begin by discussing the importance of sustainable ecosystem policies and preserving our environment, and then point out that to be able to do that, one must have an understanding of those environmental systems. What follows is an entire college course on just how forests work. The story begins with the interactions, below the surface of the soil and at the microscopic level, between mycorrhizal fungi, their host plants, and the other organisms in and on the soil. I have long been intrigued by mycophagous animals and this book is an excellent review of all that is known on the subject—with regards to mammals, anyway. I was disappointed to see really no mention of mycophagous invertebrate animals (which we mushroom hunters are all—frustratingly at times!—aware of; invertebrates are far and away the largest and most important group of mycophages in the forest.) And I think the book would have been better organized if all the discussion of mycophagy would have been contained in a single chapter. Several discussions on the subject are sprinkled throughout the book. Additionally, not all of the animals discussed can be easily found using the index and some listings in the index don’t match up with their pages.
Both books get high marks for having excellent sources and citations to scores of references. Taming the Truffle has them all grouped together at the end; Trees, Truffles, and Beasts has them arranged by chapter, which I find to be a little more easy to use. In its defense, Taming lists a website with updated references and where they relate to the text. Both have excellent appendices: Beasts lists plants associated with truffles, as does Taming which is handy for those wanting to try cultivating truffles. In fact, Taming goes further, with tables listing just about all environmental and physical factors you’ll need to know to grow truffles, as well as suppliers of materials to get you started. Beasts has a very useful glossary at the end that Taming lacks.
In summation, both books are highly recommended and the authors should be applauded for their efforts. Trees, Truffles, and Beasts will likely appeal more to students studying forest ecology or mycorrhizal fungi. Taming the Truffle would certainly appeal to the beginner-through-advanced mycologist but has the allure and witty prose to inveigle those who never imagined they could share our love and interest in fungi.
— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi