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Top Truffles at $1,200 a Pound Mean Mushrooming Costs for Chefs

  • Prices soar 67% after dry spell in Italy's main growing area
  • Just a shaving of white truffle quadruples cost of pasta dish

At some of London’s fanciest restaurants, there’s little profit in selling one of the world’s most expensive foods: white truffles.

The mushrooms -- usually sold in shavings by the gram -- fetch about $1,200 a pound wholesale, up 67 percent from last year and the highest since 2012. Dry weather in Italy led to a smaller harvest and made the seasonal delicacy as costly as an ounce of gold. For chefs like Angela Hartnett, truffles are so pricey that she forgoes a profit to serve them.

White truffles
White truffles
Photographer: P. Piel/ullstein bild via Getty Images

“I’d much rather charge the money that covers the cost of the truffles and then people enjoy them, and be generous with them, rather than be stingy,” said Hartnett, the owner of Michelin-starred Murano in London’s Mayfair district and a former protege of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. “It’s about celebrating the dish, not trying to make loads of cash from it.”

White truffles, a fungus typically found in the foothills of the Italian Alps and only available for a few months of the year, are the ultimate luxury for many diners. Prized for a nutty flavor and earthy, musky aroma, restaurants often design entire tasting menus around the delicacy or charge patrons an extra fee to have it shaved over their dish.

Maximum prices for medium-to-big truffles are 2,500 euros ($2,660) a kilogram, compared with 1,500 euros last year, according to data from the Trade Agriculture and Craft Chamber in Asti, Italy, which provides prices during the harvest months of October through December.

Truffled Risotto

At Novikov, which hosts an upscale Italian eatery in Mayfair, diners can order beef carpaccio, scrambled eggs or risotto with truffle shavings. Adding the mushroom, which is flown in from Italy and sold at 13 pounds ($20) per gram, usually quadruples the bill for a plate of pasta that costs just 12 pounds.

“Caviar, oysters -- they can be farmed,” Marco Torri, head chef of Novikov’s Italian restaurant, said in an interview. “White truffles are one of the few things that are still not possible to farm. That’s why they are so important and special.”

The high prices are a dramatic change from the last two years, when lots of rain in Italy’s Piedmont region boosted the size of truffles and caused prices to fall to the lowest in a decade. In July, rainfall in the Tanaro River basin, which runs in the middle of the valley where the best white truffles are found, was the lowest since 2007, according to data from the region’s environmental agency.

Italian Exports

Italy is the biggest European exporter of all truffles, with sales of 34 million euros last year, which include the white variety and cheaper black ones that are less fragrant, according to data from Eurostat.

The delicacy is popular in Asia, too. Last year, a Taiwanese buyer paid $61,000 in a Sotheby’s auction for a white truffle that weighed 4.2 pounds (1.9 kilograms).

The mushrooms grow among the roots of oak and hazel trees, and hunters use highly trained dogs to find them. Female pigs will naturally search for truffles because the scent is almost identical to male pheromones, though collectors are banned from using the animals because their digging damages the ground.

There’s more demand for white truffles this year after the vineyards of Italy’s Langhe-Roero and Monferrato were picked as UNESCO World Heritage sites, spurring a boom in tourism, according to Ugo Alciati, chef at Guido Ristorante in Serralunga d’Alba, Italy. In one week, he bought three truffles weighing a total of 800 grams (1.7 pounds) to meet demand.

“It’s very difficult to get, and the prices are through the roof,” said Francesco Mazzei, an Italian chef who will take the helm at London restaurant Sartoria when it reopens at the end of this month. “You have to live with it. As chefs, we always go mad at the end of September. It’s a really big thing for us. It’s magical.”

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