Why do some foods make us feel good? Is it cultural or chemical? Or something else...
At the 17th Festival del Tartufo Vero in Montefortino, a little gem of a village perched in the Apennine Mountains of Central Italy, the theme is 'Truffles and the Mediterranean Diet'. Truffles are documented as being a part of cuisine in Mediterranean countries before the birth of Christ.
Is there any food more laden with history, folklore, culture and fantasy in the Western world? Madame Pompadour reportedly used truffles to heat her blood for amorous encounters, Pope Gregory IV ate truffles before his battles in the 800s, Aristotle called truffles the fruit of Venus, and apparently the Marquis de Sade found them a useful stimulant -- but a few examples of millennia long cultural history.
Dr. S. Fioravanti, president of the A.T.T. truffle association, explained some of the science behind the perceived effects of truffles. Tests in Germany have shown the chemical properties of truffles are similar to related steroids produced in the testes of human males and secreted by their armpit sweat glands. The University of Birmingham (1982) tested the influence of truffles by showing normal photographs of women to one sample group of students who had inhaled the aroma of truffles, and to another group with no exposure to truffles. Those who inhaled the truffle aroma rated the images as more sexually attractive, supposedly suggesting truffles have a psychological effect.
To this I can testify, a confession... If you munch a whole fresh truffle raw, crunching it like an apple, without anyone present, without wine or other foods, in an unromantic atmosphere there is a strong feeling of well-being beyond the ordinary. This factor is hugely multiplied by a conducive setting -- Italian mountains at sunset and a fire in an ancient hearth -- great wine, wonderful company and freshly harvested truffles.
Steeped in history like the truffle, the Mediterranean Diet was recognized by UNESCO in 2010 as a 'human heritage'. In Italy the Mediterranean Diet is as much about traditions and culture from the earth to the table, as the food itself.
Both truffles and the Mediterranean Diet will likely be pleasurable in any location due to their chemical properties and cultural associations.
But if you first try the Mediterranean Diet in winter in Northern Finland, or only sniff a truffle for the first time in your life, never having eaten one, in a university lab in Birmingham UK, the impact is so different from at the place of origin, it can't really be considered the same food.
The greatest feel good factor comes from eating food at its source in its natural context.