An Elusive Treasure Becomes Rarer Still

Adapted from and article published in The New York Times: October 31, 2007


There are never enough white truffles. Their rarity and their seductive, earthy aroma help drive epicures wild.

But as the white truffle season starts this year in northern Italy and Croatia, some people in the business say they have never seen such scarcity. They fear it may be a sign of what’s to come.

Last year at this time, said Paulo Lima, export manager of Appennino Funghi e Tartufi outside Bologna, his company was shipping 35 kilograms (77 pounds) of white truffles every week. This year he’s been unable to ship more than a kilogram (2.2 pounds) a week. He said wholesalers are paying $4,000 a pound in the United States, where the weak dollar makes imported delicacies even more expensive.

Joe Bastianich, a partner in Del Posto, Babbo and other New York restaurants, said large truffles, the size of baseball, are selling for as much as $6,000 a pound, if they can be found.

“Basically what it means is we won’t make any money on them, because I can’t charge more than $10 to $12 a gram,” he said.

A serving of truffle is often five or six grams.

One reason for the scarcity is the weather. Since early spring, little rain has fallen in the heart of truffle country in Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, the Marche and here in Tuscany. The summer was unusually hot, parching the earth.

“It’s not that we’re not finding truffles; we are,” Mr. Lima said. “But they’re as small as raisins. They’re around, but they didn’t grow.”

A lack of snow last winter had an even more damaging effect, said Rengenier Rittersma, a Dutch researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, and a leading truffle authority. Snow penetrates slowly into the subsoil, providing the humidity essential for truffle growth.

But the weather could not be wholly to blame, many feel. Dr. Rittersma says he thinks overharvesting is taking place, a reason for long-term concern.

“There are too many cavatori,” he said, using the Italian word for truffle hunter, “and they search for truffles all year long.”

After the white truffle season, which ends around Christmas, hunters, enticed by ever higher demand and prices, have been searching for black truffles and, later, for summer truffles.

While truffle hunters need to pass a test from the forestry service to get a license, the test involves mostly scientific information. New hunters, enticed by stories of buried treasure in the woods, go digging without being taught how to protect the terrain, knowledge that old-timers have.

“The terrain, then, is constantly being disturbed,” Dr. Rittersma said, “and the truffle mycelium” — the underlying structure that supports truffle growth — “has no time to rest, no recovery period. The truffle is a very fragile plant in a fragile environment, and once the environment is destroyed, it doesn’t return.”

In some areas, the truffles’ environment is being completely destroyed. Dr. Rittersma said that in northwest Piedmont, vineyards are replacing much of the woodland, because of the growing demand for Barolo and other wines.

“So all the different oaks and hazelnut trees, in whose root systems the truffles are hidden, have been cut down,” he said. “And vineyards have been planted even on north-facing slopes. It’s the funeral of the truffle.”

Alessandro Bonino, export manager of Tartufi Morra, one of Alba’s oldest and most respected firms, could not remember a worse harvest than this year’s. “But I’m still young,” said Mr. Bonino, who is 39. He recalled 2003, another year of high temperatures. “We had very few white truffles, but more than we have now,” he said.

One hope may lie in an area that truffle lovers, especially Italian ones, once laughed at: Croatia, whose truffles are now considered by many to be on par with Italy’s. Croatia’s harvest is not quite as bad as Italy’s.

“The climate is not that different,” said Mr. Lima, who recently visited there, “but they have truffles.”

And these days, no matter what the price, there are people who will pay.

“All of a sudden there’s Russia, Dubai, Vegas,” Mr. Bastianich said. “It’s pinching the global demand. Now everyone is rich, and everyone wants to eat truffles, and they don’t care what it costs.”

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