Truffles are one of the most unique foods on the planet, and they're difficult to categorize in many ways: They are fungi, but they're not mushrooms, and their taste can veer from oaky and nutty to sweet and juicy. One thing is crystal clear, though: They're expensive. Prices vary depending on the market, but white truffles can cost $4,000 per pound, and black truffles, like the ones shown above, can cost anywhere from $300 to $800 per pound. Why do these lumpy, strange-looking tubers command such a price? We talked to Olga Urbani, a fifth generation truffle expert and owner of Urbani Truffles, to find out.
First, truffles grow underground in wild forests for only a few months out of the year. You can't plant them in your garden, unfortunately; even farmers who cultivate them find them finicky. That's because truffles are extremely high-maintenance and require a complex combination of conditions to grow. First, they have symbiotic relationships with particular types of trees, and grow near their roots. They also need cool winters and damp springs followed by hot summers with moderate rain. They grow slowly (it can take six to seven years to get a harvest) and have a short season. The most well-known truffle hotspots are in France, Italy, and Spain, although the Pacific Northwest and Australia are also on the truffle map.
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Finding these little nuggets requires trained dogs (pigs are traditional but have fallen out of favor among hunters, as they know a delicious food when they smell it and will stop at nothing to then eat it). After the dogs find the truffles, hunters must carefully dig them up out of the ground, which is a labor-intensive process. And then there's the storage issue: Truffles don't keep long. "I always say you're a lucky person if you have a truffle in your hand," says Urbani. "Eat it immediately!" Truffles will stay fresh for about a week; after that, they'll lose their flavor.
On the topic of eating, there's a pleasant flip side to all the fuss about procuring truffles: They're easy to use as they're best eaten raw. Cooking would destroy their intense flavor and aroma. A classic way to enjoy them is to shave them over pasta, risotto, pizza, mashed potatoes, cauliflower purée, or egg dishes.
For all their mystique, though, fresh truffles aren't impossible to obtain. You can buy them in some specialty food shops and online; an ounce (which goes quite far) will run you between $50 and $100. If you're looking for a splurge to celebrate a special occasion, truffles are an excellent option. As Urbani says, these foods—which were once on the tables of emperors and kings—should be tried by everyone at least once in their life.