How much would you pay for a white truffle weighing in at 4.16 pounds? At least one person is willing to pay $61,250 for what has been called the “World’s Largest” truffle – that was the winning bid at a Sotheby’s auction.
Vittorio Giordano, of Urbani Truffles USA, has some insight into why, exactly, truffles are so expensive. According to the expert, whose company has been in the truffle trade since 1852, part of the truffle’s high price comes from the fact that a truffle cannot be cultivated on farms, they can only grow in the wild. They are hugely unpredictable, which can drive the price up or down depending on the season. Despite years and years of trying, no one has managed to successfully farm truffles: some have been able to force truffle growth by planting trees that are conducive to truffles, like oak and hazelnut trees, but the yield is generally not large enough for profit and the truffles often grow out of their prime too quickly to harvest.
So how are truffles procured? For Urbani, they depend on a crew of 18,000 to scour the forests floors of Italy for truffles. One truffle hunter, with a four-legged companion, may be able to find up to a quarter of a pound – not nearly enough to keep business afloat. That’s why it takes 18,000 truffle hunters to keep business running, and having that many employees creates a lot of overhead, driving prices up even further.
Dogs are the preferred animal companion these days, although female pigs used to be the favorite. Sows can find truffles easily because they smell like testosterone, which attracts the female pig. The problem with pigs? They’d much rather eat the truffle themselves than give it back to the hunter. They are also prohibited in some countries due to the damage they can wreak on truffle beds. Dogs, on the other hand, are happy to trade a truffle for a dog treat and are gentler on the truffle beds than over-zealous pigs.
A truffle hunter, once a truffle is sniffed out, unearths the fungi and leaves behind a portion to promote repopulation. Fungi don’t need specific reproductive organs, and any part of the organism can act as a spore. Time is of the essence when it comes to picking truffles, because they will begin to dehydrate immediately due to evaporation. As a result, the most critical part of the truffle trade is making sure shipping and delivery is speedy. A truffle can be shipped out to restaurants and groceries within 36 hours of it being unearthed; this need for quick delivery drives the price up even further.
So how much could you expect to spend on a truffle? A black truffle can sell for $95 an ounce, while white truffles can cost $168 or more per ounce. Can’t shell out that kind of dough? Truffle butter is a lot more reasonable, and it’ll give you that umami flavor that makes truffles so precious.