Walking through the center of the northwestern Italian city of Alba, there is a sudden powerful whiff of something earthy and garlicky. It’s coming from a streetside stall where knobbly pale yellow lumps are lined up on a table. They are white truffles, a fungus lauded by gourmands, highly sought-after by restaurants around the world and staggeringly expensive. October and November is truffle season, and a trip to the annual International Alba White Truffle Fair shows there’s a lot more to the misshapen tuber than meets the eye.
White truffles grow spontaneously in the woods around Alba and in fall, hunting season begins. Truffle hunters with expertly trained sniffer dogs seek out the pungent tuber that grows underground in symbiosis with trees such as birch, lime and oak.
At the fair, which is running until December 5 this year, hunters and vendors display their wares like precious diamonds, and the prices add to the illusion. In a good year, truffles fetch around $2000 per kilo. This year, relatively little of the fungus has been found meaning prices are hovering around $6000 a kilo.
With sums like this at stake, the truffle fair takes quality very seriously. Before vendors can tout their tubers, each must be carefully inspected by a formidable panel of Sensory Analysis Judges. These experts scrutinize the truffles for imperfections, ensure they are well cleaned of soil, and weigh each lump. The most common transgressions are offering truffles that aren’t fresh — they normally last about a week — or need a dusting. But head judge Stefano Cometti explains that there is the occasional brazen trickery to watch out for. “Vendors used to glue smaller truffles together to make one big one [generally larger truffles fetch higher prices per kilo] and even put fishing weights inside,” he recalls. The judges have a keen eye for such skullduggery and Cometti adds that any culprits are banned from selling at the fair.
Cometti’s job is more than catching out fraudsters, however. His professional nose can not only tell you where a truffle comes from — the tubers are found in various places throughout Italy and Europe — but even what tree it developed beneath. “This one is from a lime tree, can you smell the intense garlic scent?” he says as he proffers a particularly hefty specimen. Those that grow from poplar trees, instead, recall fresh mushrooms, garlic and honey.
Scent is critical because, despite being a foodstuff, the tuber doesn’t actually taste of very much. It is 95% smell, Cometti explains, with an aftertaste of truffle that comes after each mouthful. As such, the food it is paired with has to help amplify the scent and flavor. Enrico Crippa, chef at the three-Michelin starred restaurant Piazza Duomo, says the least complicated dishes are best. “The white truffle is a main actor and it doesn’t love to share the stage,” he says. On this season’s menu are classics like deer or wood pigeon topped with truffle and Puccia di Langa, an ancient local recipe of polenta and veal with a Marsala sauce.
The success of the “Alba white truffle”, denominated as such on menus throughout the world, is not just a case of skillful marketing. Cometti explains that its flavors are particularly well-balanced and it doesn’t crumble when sliced. “We can identify a white truffle from its smell among many other specimens from other places,” he says. Soon, there may be whole schools dedicated to identifying and distinguishing truffle aromas.
But looming over the highly lucrative business is the shadow of climate change. White truffles need adequate rainfall during the summer months in order to develop. The steep prices this year reflect the droughts the region suffered this summer, stunting the tuber’s growth. It is a dire outlook, considering the truffle currently only grows naturally.
Earlier this year, there was a flurry of excitement over the possibility of cultivating the fungus, but Antonio Degiacomi, president of the National Center for Truffle Studies, says it was just a “small step ahead”. Centuries ago, there was already talk about cultivating the white truffle, he adds, but all these years later “we’ve hardly moved forward.”
Instead, the center focuses on boosting the current environment to stimulate truffle growth. They encourage the maintenance of the forests and the planting of appropriate trees but, as Degiacomi notes, we will only see the effects of this replanting in decades’ time. Will that be too late for Alba’s prized white truffle?