Truffle hunters set to sniff out bumper crop

Gourmets in Italy and beyond are licking their lips in anticipation of a bumper crop this year of the most prized culinary delicacy of all, the white truffle.

The combination of mild weather and a bleak financial climate means the coming months will see lots of high-quality fungus at a – relatively – low price, say experts.

"We're just at the start of the season, and truffle is a strange product, but so far the climatic conditions have been textbook," said Giacomo Oddero, president of the National Centre for Truffle Studies in Alba, the centre of the truffle trade. "The first indications are excellent and suggest that we'll remember this year for a long time to come."

In particular, the relatively cool August, followed by Indian summer weather in September, have helped the white truffle or Magnatum pico to grow readily underground in the forests of the Piemonte region, the heart of white truffle territory, where the season runs from 15 September to 31 January.

The large crop and the economic downturn already appear to be depressing prices of the "white gold" of the forest. Mr Oddero told La Stampa newspaper that the price was currently languishing at "just" €200 (£170) per 100g, compared with the usual price of €400 per 100g. All of which is good news for truffle fanciers.

In previous years, most noticeably inclement, pre-recession 2007, the black year for the white truffle, prices rocketed to €750 per 100g, as overseas millionaires snaffled what little truffle there was, ostentatiously racking up four-figure bills in glitzy restaurants.

The record price paid for a white truffle was set in December 2007, when Macau casino owner Stanley Ho paid $330,000 (£210,000) for a specimen weighing 1.5kg. He followed it up the next year buying one for $200,000 (£128,000) that was slightly over one kilogramme and dug up in Molise, a region in Italy's south.

As organisers prepare for next month's 80th international white truffle trade fair in Alba, few people expect the return of such stratospheric prices. But business is still expected to be brisk, said Mr Oddero.

The truffles, which look like small, shrunken potatoes when they're dug out of the clayish, calcium-rich soil around oak, willow or poplar trees, are creamy-coloured inside. Attempts to grow them commercially have failed.

Despite its aromatic, highly pungent taste, the white truffle is also very delicate; this and its high cost ensures that it is used sparingly and served raw – usually shaved over steaming buttered pasta or salads. And in Britain, Gordon Ramsay has served white truffle and mushroom pizzas at one of his restaurants.

The fungi, which it used to be thought grew where lightning struck, are harvested by experienced gatherers known in Piemonte as trifolau.

For obvious reasons they keep quiet about the locations of their favourite truffle groves. Serious disputes over the ownership of lucrative patches of truffle territory are not uncommon, and stories of rivals poisoning each other's truffle-hunting dogs abound.

There are dozens of truffle species, at least eight of which grow in Italy. For people who can't afford the white variety, the more common but less flavourful black type is a common choice. This has also proved possible to farm and is better suited to cooking.

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