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For some, the best time of year is holidays when snow is on the ground and presents are under the tree. For foodies, it’s white truffle season. Beginning in mid-September and running through January, it's prime time in Italy for the rare white truffle to be harvested. It's such a momentous event that there's an entire festival in Alba dedicated to the delicacy.
And although we are several months away from the major harvest, you can still enjoy white and black truffles all year. In the meantime, we wanted to learn a bit more about the fancy fungus. So, we tapped Eataly's vice president of global partnerships Dino Borri to reveal everything you’ve ever wanted to know about truffles and answer the top question, why are truffles so expensive?
What Is a Truffle?
You hear the word truffles and you might think of the chocolatey dessert. That’s not the case when it comes to the rare delicacy. So, what is a truffle? True truffles are a subterranean fungus. "Ancient Romans believed that the truffle was created when lightning struck damp earth," said Borri. "Now, we know that the small tuber grows underground in the wild forests of northern and central Italy in the woods, meadows, and mountains of Umbria and Tuscany."
Black Truffle vs. White Truffle: What's the Difference?
Most people think there are only two types of truffles—white and black—but there are actually three varieties: white, black, and burgundy. It was a professor in the 18th century who classified these three types. But, you’ll more commonly see white and black truffles served. What’s the difference between the two? White truffles are smooth and have a beige color while black truffles have a rough bark-like exterior and a darker hue. When it comes to smell, "the white variety is pungent with notes of shallot, the black is earthy and robust, and burgundy tends toward the delicate and aromatic," revealed Borri. You will also notice a difference between white truffle price and black truffle price due to the rarity. White truffles can only thrive in certain environments and times of year while black truffles are more flexible leading to the different pricing.
What Do Truffles Taste Like?
Truffles have a unique taste and vary slightly depending on the variety. The more pungent white truffles have a garlicky flavor. It is more intense than a black truffle, so it’s often used sparingly in dishes. Black truffles have a more subtle flavor with some nuttier notes.
How Much Do Truffles Cost?
If you’ve ever seen truffles on a menu, you might experience some sticker shock. So, why are truffles so expensive? To put it simply, there is no way to mass-produce them which determines the truffle price. "Truffles cannot be planted, tamed, or cultivated, so each variety is only available a few months out of the year," said Borri. The truffle price also varies depending on several factors like type and size. White truffle price, in general, tends to be higher (selling for an average of $214 an ounce) because they’re more rare. Black truffle price is less ($92 an ounce for winter black truffles) since they’re easier to grow.
How Are Truffles Harvested?
Farmers use truffle dogs for the harvest. A trained truffle dog is the animal that can hunt for truffles. "There are actually schools to train the dogs on how to hunt for truffles, and the most famous one is in Piemonte," said Borri. "The dogs and truffle hunters usually hunt for truffles during the night and early in the morning to avoid noise. They can also find and hunt in rare and secret places." Truffle pigs used to be used to find the delicacy, but they would often eat too many while working. So, now truffle dogs are the animal of choice to help with the harvest. Both truffle pigs and dogs were the animals of choice as their keen sense of smell can find the buried truffles easily.
Where Do Truffles Grow?
Truffles are native to Europe (France and Italy are the most popular), but can be found all over the world now. The Pacific Northwest in the U.S. is now a hot spot as is Australia and New Zealand. "Truffles grow in the ground close to the roots of specific plants—il nocciolo, il tiglio, il carpino, il pioppo. "The best white truffles can be found in the hills of Langhe of Piemonte, and around the town of Alba."