White magic: truffle auction hits new high

Truffles are famously expensive, but a charity auction attended by some of Britain's most famous restaurateurs set a new record yesterday - £63,000 for a tartufo bianchi weighing 1.2 kilos. Terry Kirby licks his lips
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The smell, when it first hits your senses, is almost overwhelming. Musky, fungal and earthy, the aroma of decaying leaves and autumnal woodland. And, says one leading chef, almost sexual in its allure, leading to its reputation as an aphrodisiac.

"Sorry, but I can't really describe it in polite terms," says Alex Aitken, a Michelin-starred chef who specialises in cooking fungi. "It is just so special. And so strong that people cleaning several of them develop headaches." And then there is the taste, again unique, but a more subtle, lingering, smokier version of the aroma and just as unforgettable. "You eat the smell, really," said Priscilla Carluccio, another enthusiast, yesterday.

The white truffle of Alba, tartufo bianchi - which comes from the woods of the Italian province of Piedmont, where it is dug from the earth by specialist hunters and their dogs - is the king of all fungi, one of the world's most sought-after and most expensive delicacies, overshadowing relatively commonplace treats like caviar and foie gras and commanding prices which make it more valuable, per gram, than gold. And all for something that is at its best when simply grated over a humble plate of plain pasta or scrambled eggs.

But the appeal of the tartufo bianchi was dramatically underlined in London yesterday when a bidder from Hong Kong paid a staggering €95,000 (£63,000) for a 1.2 kilo Alba at a three-country charity auction organised by Christies, making it the world's most expensive truffle and dwarfing the £28,000 paid for an 850g truffle at a similar event last year.

It was the first time the annual auction, run by Christies at Fiore restaurant in St James's, had been held in London and drew notables from the capital's restaurant scene such as chef Tom Aikens, Simone Zinetti, head chef of Gordon Ramsay's eponymous Chelsea restaurant, and critic Fay Maschler. It was linked by satellite to other auctions in Alba and Hong Kong.

Marco Pierre White, the celebrity chef and entrepreneur was the biggest British spender yesterday, spending €13,700 (£9,200) on four of the five white truffles on offer. Pierre-White was said to have promised jockey and business partner Frankie Dettori one of the truffles as a present while the others are likely to be served in Luciano, his new London restaurant and his rural pub, the Yew Tree in Buckinghamshire. The fifth went to Fiore restaurant owner Claudio Pulze who spent €2,600 (£1,750) on a 234g nugget.

The 1.2 kilo specimen was sold in an auction between the three locations connected via satellite link. Alba and Hong Kong made the early running, but a huge cheer went up in London as Bruno Giorgi, representing French chef Pierre Gagnaire, holder of three Michelin stars, entered the bidding at €68,000. Chants of "Bruno! Bruno!" failed to tempt him to break his ceiling price of €72,500 and he dropped out of the bidding before the auction reached its climax.

As befits something so valuable, the greyish truffles, each the size and shape of a clenched fist, were held under tight security in the restaurant overnight after arriving from Alba on Saturday. Displayed in the entrance for bidders to inspect as they arrived, they filled the air with their distinctive smell.

Although Alba truffles have been on sale, and on the menus of leading British restaurants, since the beginning of October, Giuliana Manica, Piedmont's regional minister for tourism, claimed that those auctioned yesterday were the first certified ones to leave Italy this season. This baffled some British chefs yesterday, who buy from reputable dealers, either in this country or Italy. Mrs Carluccio, who runs the Neal Street Restaurant in London with her husband Antonio, the fungal enthusiast and chef, said: "I don't understand that. A white truffle is a white truffle, it simply cannot come from anywhere else except Alba. Although it is recognised that they get better as the season continues. " Mrs Carluccio did admit that they were once offered "truffles" that came from the Saudi Arabian desert. "They were like raw potatoes - no smell and no taste. You certainly could not offer them as truffles. I've no idea what they were ..."

At yesterday's auction, each truffle was authenticated right down to its exact weight, the name of the truffle hound that found it and the type of tree it was found under. Such things are all part of the mystique that surround the work of the truffle hunters, or trifolau, who every year from October to December comb the woods of Le Langhe, the hillsides around Alba, the regional capital, with their specially trained dogs in pre-dawn dark. "Truffle hunting is very exciting," said Mrs Carluccio, whose husband, currently in Australia on business has done much to popularise all types of fungi in this country. "The hunters have all these deep secrets about where and how to find them. They tap the earth to try and hear for them." Truffle hunters, often elderlyl men, who are usually also farmers or shopkeepers, pass their secrets down from father to son, jealously guarding their favoured locations. A truffle hunter will often park his van or car in a prominent place and then cycle miles in the other direction to throw competitors off the scent. The white truffle is found in five different varieties, determined by the species of tree on whose roots it originates. Depending on whether it is associated with the willow, oak, poplar, hazelnut, its colour can range from white, sometimes veined with pink, to grey verging on brown.

Truffles are part of the vast family of fungi, found all over the world. Unsurprisingly perhaps, some ancient peoples considered all fungi to be excrescences of the earth itself, while the Greeks and Romans believed truffles to be "the daughters of lightning". More prosaically, the tuber itself is born - like most fungi - underneath the leaf mould, in the early summer months, attaching itself to the tree roots as the parasite it is. Sufficient rain in August can swell them in size. Attempts to grow them commercially have failed.

Black summer and winter truffles also grow in parts of France - where they are hunted using pigs in the Perigord region, Italy, Spain, and Croatia. Some black ones have also been found occasionally in British woods and there is clearly money to be made by anyone who locates a large amount. Alex Aitken, chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Le Poussin at Whitely Ridge, in Hampshire, where he specialises in using all types of mushrooms, was once taken in secret to one in a garden, where it had grown underneath a compost heap. "It was fine and we have kept an eye on the site, but it hasn't reappeared since, unfortunately." Last year, about 10kg of black summer truffles were found growing underground, near the village of Little Bedwyn on the Wiltshire/Berkshire border. They were thought to have been spread through the dropping of cattle imported from France. Such is the capriciousness of truffles. But while black truffles are accorded appropriate respect, they still have to defer to the tartufo bianchi of Alba.

Alba itself has become the centre of the truffle trade, with a weekly market where fungi from all over central Italy are bought and sold, while shops sell related products - such as highly flavoured truffle oil or preserved truffles. At the market, which opens at 4am, all dealings are in cash and truffles are graded and priced according to size, texture - they must be firm - and colour, by men who have spent decades immersing themselves in truffle lore.

A truffle's life is a short one: "I reckon three days for grating over dishes, perhaps another two days for risotto," said Mr Aitken. "I'll store it in rice - which acts as natural silica gel to keep it dry. And then I'll use the rice, which absorbs the flavour, to make risotto." Other chefs store them among eggs, cheese, butter or anything that absorbs the extraordinary smell. The Carluccios keep theirs wrapped in kitchen paper - changed daily - in the fridge and sometime freeze them in butter.

One thing that all chefs, from the grandest of Michelin-starred establishments to ambitious home cooks, agree on is the absolute necessity of keeping it simple when using the tuber, in order to show off the remarkable smell and taste. You don't actually cook with white truffle - eaten raw and grated or shaved, it should adorn your cooking, they stress, unlike their black cousins, which can more easily be added to a casserole or a more complicated dish.

At Whitely Ridge, Mr Aitken ceremoniously grates it over a cup of cauliflower soup or a carpaccio of squab (young pigeon) as an exquisite starter, reserved for special guests, while the Carluccios serve it in their restaurant more traditionally, shaved onto hand-made tagliolini pasta with butter and Parmesan, while having it at home, grated on baked eggs, with champagne, is a Christmas Eve treat. And Gordon Ramsay, London's highest rated Michelin chef, is currently serving white truffle and mushroom pizzas at his Maze restaurant.

Those not rich enough to join in the bidding at yesterday's auction sampled it on plates of potato cream and uncooked egg yolks, while Mr Pulze intends to share his truffle with friends, shaved over a warm potato salad.

At restaurants, none of this comes cheap, of course, which can provide a shock for unsuspecting diners wishing to sample the rare treat. Three years ago, one customer at Locanda Locatelli, a central London restaurant owned by celebrity chef Giorgio Locatelli, refused to pay £60 for two plates of pasta with white truffles and was locked in the toilet until he changed his mind. Around £40 is now the benchmark for a single main course of truffled pasta or risotto in London - while one of Ramsay's pizzas will set you back a cool £100. And you can't get them delivered.

Given the extraordinary prices and lore surrounding white truffles, what happened to last year's most expensive truffle is truly heartbreaking. Bought by the Italian restaurant Zafferano in Knightsbridge on behalf of a syndicate reported to include Gwyneth Paltrow and Roman Abramovich, it was left in its safe over a long weekend, which followed a period on display. When the head chef returned, the delicacy had begun to putrefy and was effectively, ruined. It was taken back to Italy and reburied, with some ceremony, in its birth place. Christie's were last night refusing to identify the buyer of yesterday's 1.2k monster, but foodies everywhere will be both desperately envious - and desperately anxious its owner does not let it suffer the same fate.

Five other seasonal rarities

* SEVILLE ORANGES

Appearing in the shops for barely a couple of weeks, usually in early January, these bitter and otherwise inedible Spanish oranges are absolutely the only ones with which proper marmalade can be made, a New Year tradition generations of British households have enjoyed.

* WILD GARLIC

Increasingly seen in farmers' markets - but blink or you will miss it - this green, spinach-like leaf with white flowers grows abundantly in woodlands in late March and April but withers and dies as the bluebells prosper. A glorious, free food, it is easily found and identified by its pungent smell. Use in risottos, salads or in a pasta sauce.

* ASPARAGUS

Forget the imported or dwarf varieties from Thailand or Zimbabwe, or even the forced white stuff from Europe, every gourmet knows that the only asparagus to eat is that grown in Britain, preferably in the Vale of Evesham or Kent and which appears in the shops in May and June. And then it's gone for another year.

* DAMSONS

A superior cousin of the plum, much loved by enthusiasts for British soft fruits, which appears only briefly during August and September. Once vastly more popular than now, its decline has been stemmed by the renewed interest in British foodstuffs and helped by the organic and farm shop movement. Damson jam was once a staple of the British breakfast and tea-time table.

* BEAUJOLAIS NOUVEAU

Released amid much hype at one minute past midnight on the third Thursday of each November and just a few weeks after the grapes were picked, Beaujolais Nouveau is a marketing man's creation. It is designed to persuade the rest of the world, mainly Britain, to drink the fresh young, acerbic wine that was seen as merely a novelty in the area of its creation and has usually disappeared from view by Christmas. Proper Beaujolais, say wine buffs, is the real thing, and worth waiting a little longer for.

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