Primo and Scilla led the way deep into the forest near Amandola, in central Italy. Across a gurgling stream, up a muddy slope, over moss-covered tree branches, through a tangle of brambles and vines, the dogs covered acres of ground. For nearly three hours, your olfactory senses were on high alert for white truffles, a delicacy whose prices are skyrocketing, largely because they are under extreme threat from climate change.
Gram for gram, the white truffle is one of the most expensive foods on the planet. In Italy, fresh white truffles cost up to 4,500 euros per kilogram (or almost $2,200 per pound), according to Coldiretti, Italy’s largest agricultural trade group. Once they are shaved into a plate of risotto or roasted quail in the best restaurants in the world, the price will multiply again, underlining their “White gold” nickname. Acquerello Offers in San Francisco a truffle tasting menu for $495 (without wine or taxes). Truffles in London and Dubai You can expect an equally expensive check.
Last year, at an auction in Alba, Italy, a one-and-a-half-pound specimen brought a record price of 184,000 euros (almost 200,000 dollars). Despite supply constraints, bidders will gather on Sunday in Alba, Italy’s truffle capital, to do it all again.
With more extreme weather, shrinking forest habitat and high demand, sky-high prices will be the norm, Truffle experts say.
The Tuber magnatum Pico, or white truffle, has always been difficult to find. (Efforts to make it grow in truffle farms have led to some scientific advances, but they are not enough to satisfy the growing demand of truffle fans). In Italy, truffles grow in select locations, colonizing near the roots of oak, beech and poplar trees.
Truffles draw nutrients from their woody neighbors and nourish them as well. With enough moisture and fresh air, they bear fruit and ripen underground, telling dogs and forest creatures where they are.
On the recent hunt in the forest near Amandola, Alessio Galiè, a 38-year-old tartufaio or truffle hunter, pointed out scenes of past conquests, including the six he had unearthed earlier in the week. Meanwhile, Primo and Scilla patrolled, their noses to the ground. From time to time, they caught a smell. The anticipation of a score seemed as thick as the morning fog.
As the hours passed, Mr. Galiè resorted to some tricks to keep the dogs focused. When he lost sight of them, he would hide some truffles deep in the ground. When the dogs caught the scent, they would return and dig them up, earning a treat. But that’s all the action the dogs got. There were no truffles that day, Mr. Galiè concluded grimly, swinging his vanghetto, to harpoon-like shovel.
When truffles are not found, something is wrong.
A completely dry summer and autumn drought have affected this year’s truffle trade. The same could be said for last year and the year before. “The climate is not good,” said Galiè. (The climate is also blamed for Italy’s olive oil crisis.)
The ancients called these aromatic mushrooms, which arrive on the market a few weeks each autumn, “the food of the gods.” Some consider them aphrodisiacs for the essence that contains endorphins.
“The calls start coming in in the summer,” months before the official start of the season in mid-October, said Roberto Saracino, founder of West Distribution Link, a Vernon, California-based Italian truffle distributor whose customers include top restaurants in Las Vegas, San Francisco and neighboring Los Angeles. It’s important to manage your expectations, he said. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Last year was even worse, when the usual spring and fall rains failed to occur and yields declined. The price then reached 5,000 euros per kilo. “With global warming, or whatever we want to call it, it’s definitely creating a downward trend in the availability of truffles,” Saracino said.
The high price is a big topic of discussion among Italian truffle hunters, which Coldiretti Dear All until adding more than 73,000. Most Italian truffle hunters see the chase as an excuse to bond with nature, dogs and other truffle lovers, said Giancarlo Marini, who runs an Italian truffle export company. Marini Tartufiin the Italian region of Marche.
“But deep down, every time the hunter goes into the woods, there’s a chance that today is also a good work day,” he added. The big-profit mentality has a dark side; The pastime has been marred by a series of dog poisonings by territorial truffle hunters.
After finding ourselves empty-handed in the forest, the next stop was a truffle fair in Amandola. In a room near the community theater, vendors displayed their aromatic finds. A vendor pulled a truffle out from under the glass and weighed it: 16 grams, no bigger than a walnut. Price: €40. The seller refused to negotiate. Sold!