article

09.01.09

The Great Truffle-Market Crash of '09

How are truffles, one of the most lusted-after foods in the world, feeling the heat of the recession? Katie Workman talks to truffle suppliers and chefs about the treasured fungi.

Wealthy hard-core foodies don’t think of fall as back-to-school time, or even back-from-vacation time. To them, it’s white-truffle season. And while there are plenty of varieties of white truffles, those with the means to buy the best head straight for the Magnatum or Alba truffle, or White Piedmont truffle. These truffles are harvested chiefly in the Piemonte and Emilia Romagna regions of Northern Italy, though some hail from other areas of Italy or France.

Those lucky enough to have encountered a few shavings of fresh white truffle know they are amazingly, hauntingly delicious. Just a waft of heated truffles can inspire thoughts along the lines of “nectar of the Gods,” or “Oh, so that’s why they’re so bloody expensive!”

The recession has put huge pressures on luxury products; even those who have the cash aren’t waving fists of it around at truffle auctions, and the price decline reflects that.

Because, of course, truffles are blazingly expensive. As in, when the waiter approaches the table holding aloft an innocent-looking tuber and asks, “Should I keep shaving?” proceed with caution, or risk losing all those truffles when the check arrives. Truffles are uncultivable, so there are no truffle farms to produce affordable truffles for the masses. But buying the best truffles—and from the best purveyors—is really the only way to go. There are great truffles, and there are not-so-great truffles, and a truffle that’s past its prime can be downright awful.

So has the price of truffles dropped at all as a result of the global economic crisis? Last November, Bloomberg News reported that the white-truffle market was collapsing: An 850-gram white truffle from northern Italy sold for $30,900 at a truffle auction in Tokyo, 84 percent less than the $330,000 Macau casino billionaire Stanley Ho paid for a 1.5-kilogram truffle in 2007.

Vittorio Giordano, vice president of Urbani Truffles USA, says that prices are down, but not nearly by that much. The 84 percent decline in the sale of one truffle over another, he says, isn’t reflective of the market as a whole, but of how flush Stanley Ho was two years ago and what the bragging rights of a 1.5-kilo truffle were worth to him.

The laws of supply and demand are a little wiggly for truffles, which the Urbani family has been harvesting and selling for five generations. Giordano explains that just 65 percent of the demand for truffles is met year to year; demand has always exceeded supply, and still does. But things get trickier when one factors in the three- to six- (seven-, at most) day shelf life of truffles, which are 95 percent water. Once a truffle is past its prime, it may be able to be used in a truffle product, but it will never fetch those big dollars.

Truffle season begins in less than two weeks, and the prices aren’t set yet. Last year, prices ranged from $1,800 to $2,500 a pound for truffles, down from an average of $3,500 the year before, and Giordano said he hopes they will pick up a bit. The price range has to do with the quality, size, and sometimes shape of the truffle, especially if the truffle is being purchased as a showpiece for a big dinner or event. And although demand is larger than supply, Giordano says the recession has put huge pressures on luxury products; even those who have the cash aren’t waving fists of it around at truffle auctions, and the price decline reflects that.

In a week, people across Northern Italy start to pick. Sept. 15 is the first legal date to harvest white truffles in Italy, and Jan. 15 is the last. If someone is eating truffles right now, they were probably harvested illegally. Some aggressive truffle pickers aren’t waiting for the beginning of the official season; they’re picking them now. But the September-through-January time frame was established to give the rest of the truffles on either side of that window—early fall, late winter—a change to grow, decay, and release up to 20 spores each back into the earth, to generate the next year’s truffle season. Without those, truffle production will continue to decline.

But white truffles have already graced quite a few menus in metropolitan areas. Andrea Cavaliere, executive chef of Cecconi’s in Los Angeles, received his first batch of authentic Italian truffles Aug. 21 and couldn’t believe his eyes. The quality was excellent, and even though he grew up in Alba, home of the white truffle, he had never seen them so early in the year. Cavaliere says he thinks the warmer temperatures and excessive rain had something to do with it. He bought his truffles for about $1,300 a pound through a London distributor and says he wasn’t too concerned about buying before Sept.15. Cavaliere’s various truffle specialties cost $90 each, less than some of the other truffle-laden treats in Los Angeles.

Justin Bogle, executive chef at Gilt in New York City, is waiting for his truffles to arrive. Deliveries often are made by a guy with a backpack and a scale—who talks in terms of price per kilo—so it’s easy to make comparisons to drug trafficking.

“It can feel kind of shady, I guess,” laughs Bogle. He hasn’t received pricing information yet for the season, but says truffles really aren’t a big moneymaking item for restaurants. “You’re kind of doing it to show off, we’re not making a killing on it at all,” he said. One of his popular dishes that features truffles is the Gossip Grill sandwich, a $30 grilled cheese named in honor of the television show Gossip Girl, which is filmed in the hotel that houses Gilt.

Fresh truffles ideally are on the tables of restaurants and swanky dinner tables 36 hours after they are pulled from the earth. The optimal situation is for them to be picked at night, sorted for quality the next morning, sent to the airport, resorted upon arrival (a 10-hour trip can change the quality of a truffle considerably), and then sent through a distributor to the restaurant, all at breakneck speed with meticulous packaging.

For those looking for a bargain, white-truffle oil seems remarkably affordable—but for the most part, truffle oil is not flavored with real truffles. Instead, synthetic chemicals (sometimes called “aromatic compounds,” which does sound slightly sexier) with names like 2.4-dithiapentane, imitate the flavor and aroma of truffles. Still, Bogle says white-truffle oil definitely has its place, as in a sandwich or his restaurant’s truffle fries.

Those who get their hands on a truffle are going to have to use it up, and fast. Sliver it over scrambled eggs; a risotto, like this one from Marcella Hazan, who knows her way around a truffle; homemade pasta; or pristine beef carpaccio. Got a bottle of truffle oil? Start by sprinkling it on some oven-roasted potatoes, or drizzle it over that risotto, or create a big, fat truffled tortilla.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Katie Workman is the editor in chief and chief marketing officer of Cookstr.com, a Web site devoted to great, tested recipes from chefs and cookbook authors. Katie is on the board of City Harvest, and actively involved in Share Our Strength. She lives in New York City with her husband her two boys, ages 6 and 9.