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Tuesday, 14 November, 2000, 13:10 GMT
Fungus and the moneymen
Credit: Urbani Truffles and Caviar online
White truffles: Worth their weight in gold ... and then some
Truffles are the gourmet's Holy Grail; the ingredient that is guaranteed to get hardened foodies foaming at the mouth. And now they cost more than gold.

At a specialist auction near the town of Alba, in northern Italy, bidders set a new record for the price of a white truffle - 280 an ounce. That compares to the current rate for gold of 185 an ounce.

Amsterdam-based chef Lorenzo Tuffoletti set the record sum, shelling out 4,635 for a white truffle that weighed just over a pound.

Sainsbury's mushrooms the other end of the mushroom market
Although experts agreed the total was probably inflated by the fact auction proceeds would go to charity, across the board prices for the current season have showed a marked increase on those of last year, which themselves were a record high.

The white truffle, or tuber magnatum pico, is the culinary world's most favoured delicacy, even more exquisite than its pricey cousin, the black truffle.

But how can a knobbly cream-coloured fungus that grows wild in the woods command a price tag similar to that of a small car?

Looks aren't everything

Aesthetics is obviously not an issue. The white truffle has been described as looking like a hybrid of a pickled walnut and a golf ball.

Antonio Carluccio
Happiness is a plate of soggy rice and white truffle
Much of its charm lies in its pungent aroma. Close up, it is said to emit a distinctively rich, nutty, gaseous scent that is vaguely garlicky.

From a distance, though, the fragrance is too slight for a human to detect. Instead, specially trained dogs are used to sniff out the edible treasure, which grows at the foot of oak, hazel, poplar and beech trees in the woods of northern Italy.

The dogs are guided by local farmers who turn truffle hunters - trifulao - for the picking season between October and December.

Dark secret

Trifulao work alone and mostly at night, using the darkness to cover their tracks from fellow truffle hunters. Given the big sums involved, it's no surprise that they hide their favoured spots.

Hold the parmesan
In the kitchen, white truffles are not treated like normal mushrooms. They are used as a garnish rather than a basic ingredient, grated onto pasta, rice, polenta, meat and vegetables.

Asked to sum up his vision of perfect happiness, BBC TV chef Antonio Carluccio replied: "A plate of steaming risotto topped with freshly-shaven white truffle."

The magic is not immediately apparent to everyone. It is said that a batch of magnatum pico was despatched to the Vatican shortly after John Paul II took over the papacy in 1978.

Water dreadful mistake

Unsure what had arrived on their doorstep, the pontiff's Polish entourage decided to boil them.

"These are not nearly as good as our Polish potatoes," was said to be the Pope's verdict.

Pope John Paul II
Allegedly not a fan
So, white truffles smell and taste exquisite, to most people at least. But this alone does not explain why prices have rocketed in recent years.

As with cod in the North Sea, and caviar in the Caspian Sea, the problem is scarcity.

While demand has shot up, the truffle's natural habitat is under threat from large-scale intensive farming has been widely blamed.

White truffles, which have proved almost impossible to farm, are seen as sensitive barometers of pollution levels, growing only in uncontaminated areas. In addition, the trees that truffles grow under have been sacrificed for building developments.

Experts fear the future of this particular fungus is bleak for one two reasons: either it will become priced out of the market, or edged out of existence.

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02 Oct 99 | Europe
Truffle armistice plea
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