Have you ever tasted a fruit that’s worth hundreds of thousands of euros? Probably not — not too many people have. But you may have at least heard about the two-pound truffle that was sold at 103,000 euros (about $117,796) in November 2021. This eye-catching sale was actually a part of the 21st World White Truffle Auction that took place in Piedmont, Italy. However, the record for the most expensive truffle still stands with a Croatian truffle that weighed around 2.86 lbs and was sold way back in 1999 for a whopping €289,913 ($330,000).
So why are truffles so damned expensive?
You might understandably be wondering why this truffle (that sounds like the dessert choco truffle) is auctioned at such high prices. There are many reasons and we’ll go through them in a bit, but before we jump into that, you need to know that not all truffles are that expensive; some are not even edible.
There are more than 40 truffle species found on Earth, out of which only a few white, burgundy, and black truffle species that come with a distinct aroma and earthy taste are considered highly valuable by chefs and culinary experts.
Truffles are the fruiting bodies of a select group of fungi. Specifically, a truffle is the fruiting body of a subterranean ascomycete fungus, particularly those from the Tuber genus. It’s not exactly a fruit, but sometimes it’s referred to as being a fruit. Remarkably, they’re not a new thing: researchers have found evidence that they’ve been around for over 150 million years. But despite being around for so long, they’ve remained elusive — some species were only discovered in the past 20 years, and no doubt, other species haven’t even been discovered.
For starters, truffles are notoriously difficult to grow; for some species, it’s nigh impossible.
Unlike mushrooms, the truffle tuber grows underground and cannot be easily produced on a farm; for instance, if you have just started cultivating these edible fungal fruits, then you may have to wait for more than six years before you get to harvest your first healthy truffle. They require very specific conditions and are naturally found in forests where nights are cold, and the soil (with pH ranging between 7.5 and 8.3) is rich in moisture, even on warm days. Moreover, truffles are seasonal and grow in certain types of climatic conditions and require a host tree to survive.
Truffles grow due to the symbiotic relationship between a fungal colony and the roots of trees like oak, birch, poplar, hazel, pine, hornbeam, etc. The fungi receive carbohydrates from these plant species, and in return, they provide various nutrients and minerals (potassium, sulfur, chloride, etc.) to trees. Therefore, truffles also play an important role in maintaining plant health and biodiversity in our ecosystem.
Experts claim that due to these special conditions required for truffle growth, it is almost impossible to produce these edible tubers in a lab or large farm setting, and even if you somehow manage to provide all the favorable conditions required for growing truffles in a forest, still there is no guarantee that you’ll get to harvest something. Stephen Parker, a chef from a New York-based restaurant, says, “even with the most perfect conditions, there is no forcing Mother Nature to work her magic.”
So if you want to find truffles, you’re best off trying to find them in nature. But actually finding them is not an easy task.
Nowadays, trained dogs are used for this purpose, but previously, pigs were employed to hunt truffles. Pigs are great truffle hunters because the aroma of this rare fruit consists of a chemical called androsterone that male pigs also release, and they’re also smart and quick to pick up the scent.
However, currently, swine are not preferred because they tend to eat every expensive truffle they find quickly, using their excellent digging skills. This is why dogs are trained to smell truffles — once a dog spots a location that is likely to contain one, the human hunter starts digging the soil carefully (with hands) to avoid any damage to the fresh truffles. Then, truffle-finders have to do their very best to preserve the aroma of the truffles as long as possible.
Another reason why truffles are so expensive is because they’re so quick to lose their taste and aroma and even go bad; once a truffle is dug out, it immediately starts degrading, and this is why they have a very limited shelf-life. For instance, black truffles last for a week or a maximum of two, whereas white truffles remain usable for four to five days only. Good truffles typically find their way into fine restaurants days or hours after being foraged.
The amount of time invested in growing truffles, their limited production, the labor-intensive extraction process, and short shelf life are what make truffles so expensive. Even if they are frozen, they will lose their distinct aroma, which eventually affects the taste as well. This is why gourmets and chefs who are experts in truffle recipes rarely miss a chance to participate in a truffle auction because they know the musky scent and pungent garlicky flavor that any fresh truffle could add to their pasta, risotto, fries, salads, or other dishes, is impossible to achieve with anything else.
What truffles taste like
Truffles are cherished for their earthy and nutty taste and aroma. They have a sort of earthy, savory, umami flavor about them, and can give depth and complexity to pretty much every dish they’re added too. Sometimes they are likened to a combination of garlic, mushrooms, cheese, and caramelized onions.
Truffles can be shaved over pasta or risotto or other similar dishes. They work very well with savory dishes, both heavy and light; they’re excellent on some cheesy pizzas as well as some salads, or simply with fries and omelets. They can also be mixed with oil to make truffle oil or with butter.
They are a highly sought-after delicacy because of the richness they add to dishes and to their uniqueness, drawing in foodies and culinary enthusiasts with their unique aroma.
You shouldn’t be scared by the extreme price tags — if you truly want to try truffles, truffle-infused oil or dried truffles can be bought for a much lower price; it will still be expensive, but manageable-expensive.
Where do truffles grow
If you want to try your hand at finding truffles, your best bet is in the temperate forests of Mediterranean Europe, western North America, and Australia. They like lush forests with ample rainfall and cool temperatures.
They commonly grow around trees like oak, hazel, or beech, with which they develop a symbiotic relationship. They’re buried and finding them without any aid is almost impossible.
If you want your own tubers, you probably have a better chance at growing truffles. Notably, in 1890, truffle plantations in France covered 750 square kilometers and a whopping 2,000 tons of truffles were produced a year. Truffles were sold at weekly markets in large quantities and they were food for the middle class — not a luxury, as today.
However, production has fallen by up to 99% since then. Much of the knowledge regarding truffle cultivation, soil, and seasonality was lost as the people moved from rural to urban areas. Many of the natural forest habitats have been destroyed for grazing, and many of today’s newer forests are closed off, which means truffles don’t grow there. Because of all this, truffles have become a luxury and are one of the few foods that are cultivated less today than in the past.
According to a report, the edible truffle market is expected to cross the mark of $6 billion in the coming 20 years. However, since you are not that money-minded (or are you?), this is not the only exciting piece of information we have for you regarding truffles:
With an annual production of 7.7 million tons, China tops the list of truffle and mushroom-producing countries. However, the most expensive and rarest kind of truffles comes from Italy and France. The black truffles from the Périgord region in France are often called the diamonds of Périgord. In the US, states like Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina are known for producing burgundy and black truffles.
A report reveals that since truffles are ranked among the most expensive natural food items globally (some European white truffles are valued at more than $3000 a pound), they have also attracted black market mafia and high-profile criminals. Surprisingly, these illegal organizations now not only smuggle edible fungi but are also involved in the kidnapping of dogs that are trained to hunt truffles.
In an interview with CNBC, Vittorio Giordano, vice president of an American truffle company named Urbani Truffle claimed that in order to effectively manage the demand for their truffles across the globe, they have employed more than 18,000 truffle hunters.
Many people believe that the readily available and budget-friendly truffle oil is made of rare seasonal edible fungi, as its name suggests, but this is not true. Most of the truffle oils available in the market contain 2,4-dithiapentane, a synthetic compound with a truffle-like aroma.
One-fourth of the human population cannot smell androsterone (the chemical responsible for truffle scent), and the smell receptors in 40% of humans are believed to be hypersensitive to the same chemical. Therefore, not every human being is fortunate enough to be able to sense the unique truffle aroma.
Famous French lawyer and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once said, “In fine, the truffle is the very diamond of gastronomy.” The rising popularity of truffles among food lovers and culinary experts suggests the same and also serves as a reminder of why mother nature is still the best chef around.