I’ve been lucky enough to have been generously fed the Dordogne’s black Tuber melanosporum known as the ‘black diamond’ more than once, shaved generously over an omelette of eggs warm from the chicken coop. But with the exception of the renowned Creme Brulee aux Truffes of the Michelin-starred Vieux Logis in Tremolat, the truffle experience doesn’t seem to have rubbed off.
Until I was put in front of a dish of Italian white truffle pasta.
North Italian Tuber magnatum pico from Alba are the world’s rarest and the most expensive of the more than 100 varieties of the tuber. They sell for between €1800 and €4000 for 500g. But with global demand outstripping a supply now reduced to only a few tens of tonnes, they can go at auction for as much as €60,000 per kilo.
In 2017, a set of white Alba truffles weighing just shy of 1kg sold for more than €85,000. That’s only €4000 less than the basic price of a 2018 Mercedes Benz S-Class sedan.
The sad reason for the rocketing prices is that truffles are dying out.
Gnarled fungi believed by Plutarch to result from a combination of lightning, warmth and water in the soil, they are as old in origin as they look. Acknowledgement of their existence goes back as far as 20BC, when they were mentioned in neo-Sumerian inscriptions critiquing the eating habits of their enemy, the Amorites.
In the Dordogne only a century ago, hundreds of tonnes of black truffles were collected each season. These days, the region only manages fewer than ten tonnes, which explains their exorbitant price, despite being a lesser variety than white Italian truffles.
Part of the reason for their savage reduction in number is the changing climate. French truffle growers depend on storms and humidity during August to develop the truffles. But the month has become a series of long dry weeks. As a result, a kilo of fusty-smelling subterranean lumps will fetch, at the cheaper end, around €4,000.
When the mature truffles come up for sale at the Dordogne’s January markets, good tubers weighing roughly 100g apiece can cost as much as €10,000 a kilo.
This is why your Petit Soufflé aux Truffes Noires, or whatever other exotic tuber-scented dish is on offer at your local Michelin-starred restaurant, is so very expensive.
Truffle production in Italy has also been in radical decline, forced by an alteration in land use and the resulting loss of wild habitat and the oak, hornbeam, poplar and willow trees growing on it among whose roots the tubers nestle, waiting for trained dogs and pigs to snout them out.
But in February came news which should delight truffle enthusiasts or aspirants.
France's National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE) has spent the past nine years with a truffle grower, Robin Pépinières, trying to cultivate white truffles in orchards across France in regions with differing climates. At last it reported successful results.
The scheme goes back to the 1970s, when French truffle growers developed techniques that delivered nutrients to encourage fungi to produce vegetative filaments which become truffles. These techniques now account for 90% of French black truffle cultivation.
Applying these to Italian white truffle cultivation, they have just managed for the very first time to harvest white truffles in the Rhône-Alpes, Bourgogne Franche Comté, and Nouvelle Aquitaine.
Black diamonds better watch out. And the rest of us may soon be able to eat white truffles affordably.
Until then, buy a less expensive black truffle from the Dordogne, or a jar of their shavings. Even a small amount of them will go a long way, across several celebratory, transforming, meals. Shave them over an Easter omelette of the best eggs you can buy. Or make this luxurious pasta dish.
- 150g butter
- 100ml stock
- 400g/ fresh tagliatelle
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 30g truffle, shaved
In a pan over low heat, melt the butter in the stock then whisk to amalgamate into a sauce. Set aside.
Bring a pan of salted water to a boil, add the taglietelle and cook for 3-4 minutes till al dente - more chewy than you think right. Drain and toss with the butter and stock and season to taste.
Divide into warmed bowls and shave the truffle over each.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the April 2021 edition of The Bugle.