Primo and Scilla led the way deeper into the woods near Amandola, in central Italy. Across a gurgling brook, up a muddy slope, over mossy tree limbs, through a tangle of brambles and vines, the dogs covered acres of terrain. For nearly three hours, their olfactory senses were on high alert for white truffles, a delicacy with soaring prices, in large part because they are under extreme threat by climate change.
Gram for gram, the white truffle is one of the most expensive foods on the planet. In Italy, fresh white truffles run as high as 4,500 euros per kilogram (or nearly $2,200 per pound), according to Coldiretti, Italy’s biggest agricultural trade group. Once they get shaved onto a plate of risotto or roast quail in the finest restaurants in the world, the price will multiply again, underscoring their “white gold” nickname. Acquerello in San Francisco offers a $495 truffle tasting menu (excluding wine and tax). Trufflephiles in London and Dubai can expect a similarly pricey check.
Last year, at an auction in Alba, Italy, a one-and-a-half-pound specimen fetched a record price of €184,000 (nearly $200,000). Supply constraints notwithstanding, bidders are set to converge on Alba, Italy’s truffle capital, on Sunday to do it all over again.
Monti Sibillini National Park as seen from the hills around Amandola.Credit…Emanuele Camerini for The New York Times
With more extreme weather, a shrinking woodland habitat and high demand, sky-high prices will be the norm, truffle experts say.
The Tuber magnatum Pico, or white truffle, has always been tricky to find.(Efforts to grow it in truffle farms have resulted in some breakthroughs by scientists, but they are not enough to feed truffle fans’ soaring demand.)In Italy, the truffles grow in select spots, colonizing near the roots of oak, beech and poplar trees.
Truffles draw nutrients from their woody neighbors and nourish them, too. Given enough moisture and cool air, they fruit and ripen underground, signaling to dogs and woodland creatures where they are.
On the recent hunt in the woods near Amandola, Alessio Galiè, a 38-year-old tartufaio, or truffle hunter, pointed out the scenes of past conquests, including the six he had unearthed earlier in the week. Meanwhile, Primo and Scilla patrolled, nose to the ground. Every now and then, they picked up a scent. The anticipation of a score seemed as thick as the morning mist.
There were many false alarms on the hunt. Here, Alessio Galliè caught sight of his dog, Primo, excitedly digging near a tree.CreditCredit…Video by Emanuele Camerini
As the hours wore on, Mr. Galiè resorted to some tricks to keep the dogs focused. When he lost sight of them, he would hide a few truffles deep in the soil. When the dogs caught a whiff, they would circle back and dig them up, earning a treat. But that is as much action as the dogs got. There were no truffles that day, Mr. Galiè glumly concluded, swinging his vanghetto, aharpoon-like spade.
When truffles can’t be found, something’s wrong.
A bone-dry summer and an autumn drought have messed with this year’s truffle trade. The same could be said of last year, and the year before that. “The climate’s no good,” said Mr. Galiè. (The climate is also being blamed for Italy’s olive oil crisis.)
Ancients called these aromatic fungi, which come to market a few weeks each autumn, “the food of the gods.” Some consider them aphrodisiacs for the endorphin-pinging essence they pack.
“The calls start coming in the summer,” months before the official mid-October start to the season, said Roberto Saracino, founder of Liaison West Distribution, a distributor of Italian truffles based in Vernon, Calif., whose clients include top restaurants in Las Vegas, San Francisco and neighboring Los Angeles. It is important that he manage their expectations, he said. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Last year was even worse, when the usual spring and autumn rains stayed away, and the yield was down. The price hit €5,000 a kilogram then. “With global warming, or whatever we want to call it, it’s definitely creating a downtrend on the availability of truffles,” Mr. Saracino said.
Having picked up the scent of white truffles, Scilla digs to get at them until Mr. Galiè calls her off.CreditCredit…Video by Emanuele Camerini
The high price tag is a big discussion point among Italian truffle hunters, which Coldiretti estimates to number more than 73,000. Most Italian truffle hunters see the pursuit as an excuse to bond with nature, dogs and fellow truffle lovers, said Giancarlo Marini, who runs an Italian truffle exporting business, Marini Tartufi, in Italy’s Marche region.
“But in the back of his mind, every time the hunter enters the woods, there’s that chance today will also be a good business day,” he added. The big-payoff mentality has a dark side; the pastime has been marred by a rash of dog poisonings by territorial truffle hunters.
After coming up empty in the woods, the next stop was a truffle fair in Amandola. In a room near the community’s theater, vendors displayed their aromatic finds. A seller removed a truffle from under glass and weighed it: 16 grams, no bigger than a walnut. Price: €40. The vendor refused to negotiate. Sold!