Vittorio Giordano knows that the holidays are best celebrated with truffles. He doesn’t mean the overwrought chocolate kind that come wrapped in colorful foil, but the exotic fungus that grows underground and is considered a delicacy worldwide.
“Truffles are rare, unique and can’t easily be cultivated,” says Giordano, vice president and U.S. truffle buyer for Urbani Truffles, based in New York City. “That’s what makes them exciting.”
Those characteristics also make truffles the world’s most expensive food, commanding as much as $250 per ounce from chefs and foodies across the U.S. Despite the high prices, truffles often are in short supply, and Urbani’s seasonal stock of white truffles, the rarest of all, will soon be gone.
“The white ones from Italy’s Piedmont and Alba regions are only available for several months of the year,” says Amanda Dentici, purchasing manager and truffle buyer for Glorioso’s Italian Market, 1011 E. Brady St., Urbani’s outlet in Milwaukee. “They are the perfect luxury commodity, precious and getting more so all the time.”
However, the pending shortage does not concern Dentici. In addition to ordering fresh truffles for special clients, she stocks a full line of preserved truffle products that offer shoppers the famous taste at significantly less cost.
Like their mushroom cousins, the potato-shaped truffle constitutes the fruit of their fungi. There are hundreds of varieties – from marble to golf ball-sized – all of which are ectomycorrhizal, meaning it has a symbiotic relationship with trees and is usually found close to their roots. The spores of stemmed mushrooms are spread by the wind, but truffle spores are spread by the feces of animals that eat them.
The first appearance of truffles in recorded history dates back to the neo-Sumerians in 2000 B.C. Nineteenth-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called them “the diamond of the kitchen.” Many truffles are imported from Italy, France and Spain. But a growing number come from Oregon, Australia and other areas where the climate and soil conditions are conducive.
Traditionally, female pigs were used to hunt for truffles, because the fungi fruit mimics the scent of male swine sexual excretions – which drives the female pigs wild. But pigs that weren’t muzzled tended to eat the truffles once they found them, Giordano says.
“Today, more truffle hunters use dogs that have been trained to the scent,” he says. “They won’t eat the truffle, but instead wait for a treat or a pat on the head from their masters.”
Consumption by pigs, not to mention voles, squirrels and other woodland creatures, have taken a tiny bites out of global production. But there are other socioeconomic and climatic factors that have reduced truffles harvests significantly over the past century and may threaten their future.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the global truffle crop is estimated to have been around 1,000 tons annually. But changes in the French agrarian lifestyle and the
interruption of agriculture by two world wars have taken a significant bite out of nature’s yield. By the 1960s, only 200 to 300 tons of truffles were sold each year, and the effects of environmental pollution and global warming have continued to take a toll.
Like all fungi, truffles are sensitive to rising temperatures and water depletion. The 2010-11 season saw just 25 tons of truffles sold. “You don’t market the truffle, you manage its scarcity,” said Jean-Charles Savignac, president of the French Truffle Growers Federation, to Agence France-Presse last year at this time.
Those interested in truffles this season should place their orders soon, Glorioso’s Dentici says, if they want to have an ample supply for holiday events.
“Customers can order whatever truffle is in season by the ounce, by contacting me,” says Dentici. “The truffles will arrive the next day.”
Currently, Black Burgundy Truffles ($40 per oz.) are nearing the end of their season. White Truffles ($215 per oz.) are peaking, and the season is just beginning for Black Winter Truffles ($150 per oz.)
Glorioso’s also offers truffle sauces, truffle honey, truffle oil and truffle-infused balsamic vinegar.
“If you want to experience truffles without spending big bucks, there are a lot of products available at the store that will give you the flavor at a much lower price,” she says.