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A Guide to Truffles

For the uninitiated who ask “What is a truffle?” the delicacy is found within the mushroom family and they grow out of sight, beneath the ground. It seems somehow wrong to refer to the growth as a form of fungus, but technically, that’s what truffles are, appearing as small growths on the roots of trees, such as oaks and beech trees. There are different varieties of truffles, but there is an extraordinary difference between the two significant types. Black truffles are far more common and far less expensive. White truffles are highly sought after and the most precious is the Alba White Truffle. The truffles look like small rocks, but some can grow to significant size, in fact, a four-pound white truffle fetched over $60,000 at auction a few years ago! Admittedly, that was an exceptionally high price, but those on a budget can purchase medium-sized white truffles for far less – the market value last year in Alba was slightly less than $6,000 per pound. Believe it or not, the process represented a recent historic low for the precious commodity. Yes, truffles are expensive and since the best ones are found in Alba, there is a lot of money changing hands during its annual White Truffle Fair. In the world of supply and demand, you might wonder why in the world are they so expensive?

Truffles are not a cultivated crop. Attempts to do so have had poor to mixed results and just as in the case of a precious metal such as gold, finding the truffles takes a lot of labor. For centuries, female pigs were used to locate the truffles. The scent emitted by truffles is remarkably similar to that of a male pig (at least to the nose of the female swine). The problem however, was that the pigs tended to eat the truffles rather than give them up! Since 1985, it has been illegal to use pigs as truffle hunters. In the regions where truffles are found, trifolao search with the aid of specially trained dogs. Each hunting party heads out to find the root-growing fungi and on a great day, they may come back with a quarter pound of truffles. That requires a lot of dogs and a lot of trifolao to find enough truffles to satisfy world-wide demand. This beautiful, quaint little town of Alba has truffle buyers from around the world descending upon it during truffle season; in fact, the $60,000 truffle mentioned previously was bought by an Asian company. With such a small amount to be found on a hunt, there are a lot of people and dogs required. This amount of labor and the scarcity of the find is what has driven prices to the levels that we find today.