Truffles: What They Are and What Makes Them So Expensive

(Image: Truffle Festival – Canberra Region)

Yes, they’re very expensive and have an acquired taste, but here’s what you didn’t know about truffles:-

  • A truffle is actually any of several species of fungus that grows entirely underground, living inside tree roots, developing into a network of threads that wind around and into the roots of trees like beech, poplar and oak.

    Related: Truffle Festival, Canberra Region – June to August 2017

  • The strong-smelling underground fungus that somewhat resembles an irregular, rough-skinned potato, was very common (and affordable) in France till the 1900s. However due to heavy damage from WWII, most of the truffle forests in the French countryside were lost permanently, making truffles much rarer now than they have been for centuries.
  • White truffles cannot be cultivated or farmed commercially, making them the more rare variety and thus more expensive than black truffles. White truffle season starts in October and on average they trade around USD 170/ounce. However, the most expensive white truffle sale from Alba has been recorded to have traded at USD 2,000/pound a few years ago.
The Truffle Festival, Canberra Region
(Image: Truffle Festival – Canberra Region)
  • The (inferior) black or Périgord truffle can be cultivated and are currently trading at around USD 95/ounce. Moreover, black truffles are now mass produced in China, making them even more affordable – but of course, they are not as delicious nor as sought after as their white counterparts.
  • Since the growth (and therefore supply) of white truffles cannot be controlled, their unpredictability also contributes to their extreme prices. Furthermore, high labour costs associated with finding truffles, and fewer truffles due to global warming and leeching of fungicides into the soil also push up the annual prices.
  • Truffle hunters have to rely on sniffing dogs (or female pigs in olden days) to find the rare treasure.
  • Once the truffle is unearthed, a generous portion of it has to be put back into the ground to act as a spore to allow for re-population for future harvests, thus reducing the yield that each hunter can bring in, limiting it to only two to three pounds at one time.
  • Add to this the delicate nature of the fungi and the fact that they immediately begin losing water to evaporation as soon as they’re dug up – thus speed becomes essential to a successful truffle delivery. This pushes the price tag of the truffle even higher, as no expense is spared to get the truffle delivered to where it needs to be – ideally, within 24-36 hours from the time it was dug up.

So now that you know why truffles are as expensive as they are, savour their heady aroma and complex yet delicate taste. Enjoy them shaved over risotto or pasta, or even infused into oil.

And if you’re really a truffle enthusiast, check out the Truffle Festival, Canberra Region happening right now June to August 2017.