Truffles: Their complex journey to your plate
At least the ones that weren’t devoured by truffle-sniffing dogs and pigs
Whether the black or white variety, shaved truffles elevate the taste of eggs, pasta, risotto, or pizza. In recent years, truffles have also been used to improve upon burgers, steaks, sushi, soups, cheese, and even upscale desserts.
What is known about truffles is: they have a unique aroma and taste; can be difficult to come by; and as a result of significant demand and shorter supply, are quite expensive. What is less known about truffles is their complex relationship with the natural environment before they find their way to your plate.
So let’s focus briefly on the science of the truffle. Truffles are the reproductive organs and “fruiting bodies” of fungi that grow underground and exhibit an interdependency with the roots of nearby trees on which truffles grow. The truffle fungi provide needed water and mineral nutrients from the soil to the tree roots. In return, the fungi receive needed sugars to grow that the tree produces through photosynthesis.
Truffles are typically harvested by dogs that are specially trained to sniff out ripened truffles underground, preferably without eating their bounty. Although pigs also have developed olfactory senses that are ideal for smelling and locating truffles, truffle hunters often find it more challenging to prevent pigs from eating the truffles they find (who can blame them?).
As noted by Merlin Sheldrake, biologist, mycologist, and author of the fascinating book “Entangled Life,” truffles have developed desirable aromas as a means of reproduction. Growing underground, truffles can not distribute their spores via wind currents, as with other mushrooms, and cannot be seen. Instead, their aromas pass upward through the soil into the air and draw the attention of animals, which hunt and eat the truffle and then spread the truffle spores elsewhere through the animal’s feces.
There are actually thousands of truffle species, most of which do not appeal to the human sense of smell or taste. As between the popular white and black truffles that make their way to market, the white truffle is more rare, more delicate, has a shorter harvest season, and is accordingly more expensive. Indeed, white truffles from the town of Alba in Italy’s Piedmont region, which is known for its high-quality truffles, currently sell online for between $4,000 to $6,000 a pound, depending on the truffle size.
Perhaps shocking until you realize that a prized white truffle from Alba weighing 900 grams once sold at auction to a South Korean wine critic for $145,000 and was reportedly enjoyed by the buyer, her family and friends.
What accounts for the high cost of edible truffles? There are many reasons, namely truffles: (1) are hard to cultivate; (2) grow only under certain environmental conditions and take years before ripening; (3) are difficult to locate in nature once ripened; and (4) have a short shelf life ranging from a couple days to a couple weeks of freshness, which can be extended in the case of black truffles by storing in a freezer. To ensure that the truffle has maintained its optimal aroma and taste when served at a restaurant, measures are also taken to ensure proper packing, rapid transport and expedited customs procedures, all of which add to its cost.
So the next time you order a dish featuring shaved truffles at a fancy restaurant, take a moment to not only appreciate the plating of the dish, but also the complex harvesting process that enabled the truffle to travel from dirt to dinner. And enjoy!
Danilo Diazgranados is an independent investor in the global food and wine, financial services, real estate, and the hospitality sectors.