Christina Wedén puts Swedish truffles on the world map
13 June 2022
Godsent, the devil's invention or simply a mushroom that puts a golden lining on the dinner table? 25 years after Christina Wedén found an unexpected culinary treasure in the Gotland soil, she is one of the world's foremost experts on truffles. This summer, she returns to Visby to lead a university course on the much-coveted delicacies.
Truffles are a delicacy that through millennia has fascinated and stimulated the human imagination. Where the Prophet Mohamed saw the truffle as a gift from Allah, the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder described the mushroom as a miracle of nature. The Roman Catholic Church, for its part, condemned truffles as the devil's invention before a change in taste in the 16th century made them bless the mushroom. In Sweden, however, truffles remained a relatively exotic phenomenon, until the day Christina Wedén during a degree project in biology located a truffle habitat on central Gotland.
“Until then, 65 truffle species had been found in Sweden, but the coveted Burgundy truffle only on three occasions. During a weeding in the summer of 1996, a Gotlander pulled up some strange lumps from her garden, which was surrounded by hazel and oak, two trees that truffles thrive near. We travelled there, and after some inspection of the soil, I found a 225-gram truffle. It became the start of my doctoral project and the truffles on the site provided the landowner enough money to acquire Gotland's first truffle dog,” tells Christina Wedén, today a researcher and teacher in Pharmacognosy at Uppsala University.
A quarter of a century later, Christina's work has contributed to the identification of close to fifty natural truffle habitats in the Gotland soil. She has also played a central role in establishing truffle plantations on both Gotland and several neighboring Baltic countries. Over time, her efforts have promoted the position of truffles in Swedish cuisine, and in 2008 Christina published the acclaimed book Truffles - food for gods, gotlanders & hogs, a popular scientific summary of the history of truffles, spiced with a large collection of recipes by restaurateur Norbert Lang.
“Interest in mushrooms, both as food and their function in nature, is on the rise. The bookstores offer an increasing number of titles on the subject, and even the newspapers' financial pages have discovered its economical values. Not least truffles have a dedicated crowd of aficionados, and since five years Uppsala University offers the summer course Chemistry, Biology and Ecology of Truffle-Forming Fungi on Campus Gotland. We have chosen an interdisciplinary approach, illuminating the truffle's entire journey, from life underground to its function in ecology and kitchen landscapes.”
In fact, the course, despite the mushroom's rich history, is completely unique in its kind. Every year, participants from numberous countries arrive in Visby to visit natural habitats and plantations where they are also given the opportunity to learn how to identify a selection of the economically important truffle species. Among the recurring guest lecturers is Andreas Hedlund, Chef of the Year 2002 with several Nobel dinners on his curriculum vitae, who talks about how to best utilise the precious delicacies.
“A prominent substance in many of the most appreciated truffles reaches its boiling point already at 38 degrees, so they are definitely not up for slow cooking. As for its allegedly high price, it is partly explained by the fact that mushrooms are often sold at a kilo price, but like saffron, even a very small is enough to have impact on the taste. Above all, truffles exudate a very distinct aroma, which is also a prerequisite for its spread as the odor attracts animals that dig up and eat the mushroom and then spread it via droppings. In the past, many used domestic hogs in their hunt for truffles, but today there are specially trained dogs that are not as keen on consuming their findings.”
Christina herself conducts her search in the company of a welsh springer spaniel, her third truffle dog to date. Together, in addition to many truffle habitats, they have discovered a new species for Sweden, the black edible Bagnoli truffle. She describes the search for and growing of truffles as a demanding job that rarely brings in any riches. Among those entering the market, it is often the devotees who persevere, others prefer to lease out their land. In Christina's case, most of her truffle findings are brought to the laboratory at Uppsala Biomedical Center for further analysis.
“To me, research is a source of inspiration, with the truffles providing important knowledge about how and where chemical substances are formed in fruit bodies and their role in nature, which in turn can contribute to new discoveries of drug molecules in nature. But my profession also opens many other inspiring paths. Among many things, I am since three years holding plate 16 in the Swedish Gastronomic Academy, where king Carl XVI Gustaf is also a committed member, and in just a few days I will travel to Visby for this summer's truffle course, a meeting place for curiosity and discovery that is always very enjoyable.
- A truffle is the fruiting body of a subterranean ascomycete fungus.
- Some truffles are used as edible mushrooms or spices, a number of species are considered delicacies.
- Chemistry, Biology and Ecology of Truffle-Forming Fungi (5 credits) is a freestanding course given in summer and mixes distance learning with two weeks on Campus Gotland.
- Chemistry, Biology and Ecology of Truffle-Forming Fungi (5 credits)
- Tryffel – mat för gudar, gutar & svin (Truffles - food for gods, gotlanders & hogs)
- Research in Pharmacognosy at Uppsala University