For Americans, this time of year means turkeys and pumpkin pies. For Italians, and owners of the world's most expensive restaurants, it means white truffles. From late October until Christmas, the ten-week season is one of the shortest — and most profitable — on the culinary calendar. But this year, a hot, dry summer has left many patches barren, and some are calling it one of the scarcest truffle seasons ever. Even still, restaurants don't seem to be having too much trouble tracking truffles down this year. How so? We tracked truffles from Italy to restaurant tables in the U.S. to find out.
Of course, it behooves people in the truffle business to play up the low-stock, high-quality angle since it drives prices astronomically high. “The season hasn’t started as well as we would have liked,” Andrea Pirotti, the mayor of Acqualagna, says. Acqualagna, located in the Le Marche region of Italy on the eastern slope of the Apennines, is considered one of the most important white truffle regions in the world. It’s not as famous as Alba to the north, where people flock for its much followed white truffle auctions in October. But when Alba postponed the auctions with little warning this autumn, Acqualagna and its young mayor were forced into the unlikely role of telling the world what to expect from the 2012 crop. "We've seen prices consistently at 3,000 Euros and higher per kilo," Pirotti says. (That's $3,817 for about 2.2 pounds; truffle geeks can follow the near-daily fluctuations in Italian truffle export prices here.)
This kind of pricing naturally lends itself to all sorts of marketing gimmicks. Oscar Farinetti, the founder of Eataly, held a press conference at the megamart's Rome location in October to declare the quality of this year's limited crop exceptional. When, last weekend, a one-kilo truffle was found near Acqualagna, Farinetti offered to give it to President Obama to celebrate his reelection. The catch, of course, is that Obama has to pick it up himself at Eataly's New York location.
But how does export price actually affect American restaurants? The price of a decent white truffle — which depends not only on weight, but also on shape, hue, and age — has topped $3,400 per pound this year, says Huntington Beach, California, importer Roberto Saracino. (That's about twice as much as the export prices.) Restaurant owners are understandably secretive about where they buy truffles and how much they pay for them, but when Saracino and I spoke a few weeks ago he told me he'd shipped about one pound of fresh white truffles to Sirio Ristorante at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Sinatra at the Wynn, and Le Cirque at the Bellagio, where a truffle tasting menu goes for $395 before tip, tax, and wine.
In fact, I knew about that truffle sale before Saracino told me. In the hills above Roccafluvione, a tiny Italian town in the Le Marche region with a single functioning traffic light, 6,000 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, I met Bruno, a shaggy Lagotto Romagnolo — a breed favored by truffle hunters. Bruno had unearthed the biggest white truffle in the batch that was later shipped to Saracino, and then on to his Las Vegas clients. Bruno’s find was a lovely plum-sized specimen, a speckled hazelnut shade (the ideal hue). The dog dug it up on a Monday. It was brushed clean, weighed, and packaged on a Tuesday morning and then shipped by Bruno’s owner, Silvio Trivelli, to Saracino. It arrived in California less than 48 hours after being dug up from the woods of Roccafluvione.
Stories like that help build the truffle myth and justify high prices. But the idea that all Italian truffles are unearthed by lone hunters and their trusty pets isn't exactly true. “Americans, they refer to white truffles as Alba truffles,” Saracino sniffs. “But the truth is Alba doesn’t have enough truffles to supply the entire world. And my clients aren’t interested in anything other than Italian truffles.” That's why Saracino and other distributors turn to people like Trivelli and his truffle company in Roccafluvione, a family-run exporter with a secret weapon: Aside from its network of hundreds of local truffle hunter suppliers, Trivelli has dozens of hectares of woodland reserves densely packed with trees inoculated with the truffle fungus. The truffle nurseries ensure that even when there's a truffle shortage, as there is this season, there's enough stock to reliably meet demand year after year.
The shipment Saracino received from Trivelli was a mix of white truffles discovered by hunters in the wild and those dug up by Bruno and his other four-legged friends on Trivelli reserves. Domenico Trivelli, Silvio’s son, explained to me how the truffle business has modernized in recent years. “It used to be that twenty years ago, 90 percent of what we sold came directly from the hunters. Before long, 90 percent of what we sell will be from planted reserves,” he says.
Later, Trivelli and I drove back into town and ordered some tagliatelle con tartufo bianco in a roadside trattoria beside the town’s lone traffic light. As we ate, I asked him if we were eating a “farmed” truffle or one discovered by a hunter. "Does it matter?" he asked back. He says even he can't tell the difference just by tasting.