Why Are Real Truffles So Expensive?
Luxury cousins of the mushroom, truffles are an indulgent food enjoyed across the world. But these fragrant fungi will cost you. In 2014, the world’s largest white truffle was flown to New York accompanied by a security guard and sold at auction for $61,250.
It was discovered in Italy, this gigantic fungus weighs 1.890kg. That’s almost 2 kilos.
What is it that makes them so expensive?
There are a lot of types of truffles. There are at least 40 species, many of which aren’t edible, and new species have been discovered recently as of 2018. You’ve probably seen luxury truffle products in supermarkets or fancy restaurants. But the unique truffle flavor you recognize might not be real truffle at all.
Cheap truffle oil hasn’t been anywhere near a real truffle. Many cheaper truffle products use 2,4-dithiapentane, it is a synthesized compound containing one of the main aromatic components of foot odor, guaranteed to give it that “earthy” taste.
Real truffles are seasonal and pricey with a short shelf life. They were originally sniffed out using truffle pigs, but while pigs are very good at finding truffles, they are also very good at eating them too. And these days, dogs are much more common truffle-hunting companions.
These fungi can be found across the world, but they all require a very specific climate to grow. While different varieties may have somewhat different requirements, one thing is certain. You can’t have truffles without trees.
Even when you have exactly the right conditions, truffles aren’t guaranteed, and hunting them is a labor-intensive process. Once you know where to look, you have to sniff out and dig up each truffle by hand, and they can be tricky to find.
It may take a while, but finding a good one can make it worth the work.
Truffles also have a short season, often appearing for only a few months of the year. And even when you do get your hands on them they don’t last for long.
After just five days out of the ground, that pungent truffle smell will have halved. You can farm many truffle varieties, besides the rare Italian whites.
Many people have been successful in setting up truffle orchards, but it’s not easy. Trees need to be planted in the right soil conditions, inoculated with truffle fungus, and often irrigated constantly.
It can take as long as six years before you get a good truffle harvest, and there’s no guarantee that the fungi will grow at all.
So after all that effort, what do they actually taste like?
For some people the flavor is actually quite subtle, there is a nuttiness, earthy flavor, quite light and fragrant, it tastes a lot nicer than it smells. For some people, it tastes like a mushroom but more of a meaty flavor.
These days, farming has taken over as our primary source of truffles, and today, 70% of the world’s truffles are cultivated.
Through the loss of woodland and climate change, the number of wild truffles has decreased significantly.
Since the 19th century, production in France has fallen from over 1,000 tonnes for a season to just 30 tonnes. And climate change could mean that truffles will disappear altogether in the future.