The stillness was broken only by the sound of breathing. All around us, rolling foothills and oak-covered peaks stretched into the distance, a gently shimmering tapestry of fall foliage. But the outward peace of this halcyon setting masked a burning secret. Beneath the roots of these forests, there was buried treasure–truffles, worth millions of euros and sitting in the cross-hairs of Italy’s legions of truffle hunters.
What is it about these warty fungus lumps that makes them so coveted? Is it their beguiling scent, an indescribable mixture of musk, mushrooms and earth? Is it their ability to make unremarkable dishes, like pasta or eggs, instantly pop with flavor? Or it is perhaps simply the cachet of unobtainability that drives their demand?
Their appearance may not be particularly eye-catching, but these small grubby morsels are one of the most expensive food products on the market. During bad harvest seasons, the price of white truffles can easily rise above €6000/kg. (For reference, this is about one-fifth of the price of gold.) And so, to better learn about this jewel of Italian gastronomy, we ventured to the king of truffle purveyors, Urbani Tartufi.
Clockwise: a basket of prized white truffles waiting for cleaning; black autumn truffles; Urbani’s Accademia del Tartufo, an educational center for the culinary usage of truffles
As the world’s largest truffle company, Urbani Tartufi holds a whopping 70-75% of the global truffle market, with distribution in over 60 countries, from Brazil to Japan. About 80% of the fresh truffle market is supplied by France, Italy and Spain, and truffles can be found outside of Europe in select countries like China and the US. On the demand side, it is primarily wealthy G20 nations (plus Dubai) who consume truffles. To avoid contamination in the factory, we each donned white lab coats and trooped off to the cleaning room.
Inside the fresh truffle cleaning room, the odor of truffles was intense, a permeating onslaught of olfactory stimulation. Four hundred kilos of prized white truffles had just arrived, and workers were carefully cleaning the nuggets by hand with brushes and small knifes. The delicate tuber magnatum white truffle is the most aromatic, and consequently the most expensive variety, selling for around €4000/kg with a shelf life of 4-5 days. Just a few days ago, a gargantuan 900-gram truffle was auctioned in Alba for €105.000. It will be prepared and served this weekend at a dinner gala in Hong Kong.
Urbani also sells black truffles, which are washed in cold water, then sorted by size and quality. Some of these will then be processed into truffle paste and added to a broad variety of pastas, sauces, oils and confectionery products. Using a patented infusion method, Urbani is the only company in the world that uses genuine truffles in their oils. (All other competitors use bismethylthiomethane, a synthetic derivative.) In total, Urbani manufactures 1500 items, starting from one fresh product. Below us, the warehouse held about €150 million worth of goods. Export manager Alessandro explained that Urbani hopes to democratize and improve access to the truffle, rather than relegate it to an elitist circle. “Today, we had a large order come in for a German supermarket chain. It makes no sense to say truffles are a niche product…We are pushing to make truffles available to all people, and awareness is the most important thing for the future of this product. We are happy that normal people can now taste truffles around the world.”
To be honest though, I was maintaining a healthy air of skepticism about these so-called legendary truffles. I had bought truffles once before in Italy, when my roommate and I pitched in to buy a white truffle and a black truffle from a vendor out of a pick-up truck, and the experience was a total flop. Upon slicing into the white truffle, I shrieked in surprise when it started moving. Much to my dismay, dozens of tiny white worms began writhing out of the truffle onto my cutting board, not exactly the most appetizing of sights. Undeterred, I poached an egg and shaved some of the black truffle on top (after cutting it in half to make sure it was invertebrate-free). Hmm, you could faintly smell something earthy, and there was an added hint of…cardboard in the mouth? All in all, it was an epic fail. I spoke to a few of my classmates, who quietly agreed that they too had had underwhelming experiences with truffles. Sure, it is a unique aroma, but is it really worth the exorbitant price? What exactly is the big deal? Was the emperor wearing no clothes?
A partial answer was provided by Alessandro, as he explained the different types of truffles. It is not sufficient to refer to truffles by their color because there are various species of truffles whose quality ranges widely. For instance, the “real” white truffle (tuber magnatum) is often substituted by the lower-quality tuber albidum summer white truffle, which costs only €100/kg and is often substituted by unscrupulous restaurants as the true white truffle. On the other hand, the well-regarded tuber melanosporum black truffle costs about €1000/kg, while the tuber aestivum summer black truffle runs about €250/kg. Based on appearance, it is difficult to distinguish between the two types of white truffles, but albidum truffles smell different from magnatum truffles. The better melanosporum black truffle is entirely black inside and out, with a thinner skin than the aestivum truffle, which has a white center.
Thus, it turns out that I bought a pair of inferior quality albidum and aestivum truffles, one of which was wormy and unusable. For the future, I have since learned that reputable truffle sellers will core a slice out of the truffle to verify that it is worm-free.
Outside of the Urbani factory, we met truffle heiress Olga Urbani, who is the fourth generation of the family to run the company. She invited us into the Accademia del Tartufo, a learning center to teach the culture of truffles and their culinary uses. “At the beginning my family thought I was crazy,” she said. “This has nothing to do with profits, but I’d like to think this is Urbani’s contribution to history and tradition.” With this stroke of genius, the company no longer has to pay for magazine advertising, said Urbani. Instead, journalists ask if they can visit the Accademia to write feature articles.
Inside the Accademia del Tartufo, the floor-to-ceiling glass walls looked out onto the autumnal Umbrian forests. When Urbani was planning the building’s design, she jokingly remarked to the architect that she would like to be able to turn 360° and see truffles everywhere. Sure enough, you can turn in circles and see truffle trees in every direction while inside the Accademia.
Running the world’s largest truffle empire requires a certain amount of steely will and chutzpah. Urbani explained that the truffles are purchased from truffle hunters, free-lance professionals who bring their wares to Urbani and negotiate for the best price. “They scream, they fight with each other, it’s like a movie really. If you saw it, you’d think this is not a truffle factory but a psychiatric hospital!” said Urbani. To further complicate matters, the lure of money means that more and more people are entering the truffle hunting business, and not all of them are respectful of nature. Most hunters use dogs while searching for truffles, but these days, less respectable hunters employ knives in the truffle beds, destroying the spores and damaging the trees. (Pigs are no longer employed by truffle hunters because as it turns out, pigs like truffles just as much as humans do. In the old days, truffle hunters could be recognized by the missing fingers they had lost to uncontrollable pigs.)
On the flip side, accommodating prima donna chefs can be equally exhausting. “They organize a white truffle party in a bad season, then they call and when there are no truffles, they shout, they get angry, and they start making demands,” said Urbani. “This is not a normal job; it’s a pretty anxious environment.”
All this for an ectomycorrhizal fungus? Part of the problem stems from the truffle’s stubborn resistance to widespread farming, which limits the supply of truffles. Inoculating the roots of an oak with truffle spores produces truffles only sporadically, and agricultural experts were short on explanations as to why. However, just a couple weeks ago, Italian researchers made a new discovery: the truffles were just sexually frustrated.
It turns out that truffles have mating types, either male or female, and they only reproduce sexually. This distinguishes them from other fungi which reproduce asexually or self-fertilize. The complications do not end there though. Researcher Francesco Paolocci noted, “We found that individual trees are only colonised by a single sex of the fungi. Even when we started with a mixed colony, it quickly became dominated by one sex or the other.” To produce truffles, you must rely on another vehicle (dogs, pigs, insects) to move spores from one tree to another. And I thought my middle school dances were awkward.
Here’s to a bright future with a truffle on every table.