Hunting for the world’s most expensive fungus
The rare European white truffle can be found in Italy’s Piedmont region, growing among the roots of poplar, beech, hazelnut, oak and willow trees. (Oliver Strewe/LPI)
Italy and France may have brought fame and fortune to the truffle -- a rare mushroom and culinary delicacy -- but this precious fungus can actually be found all over the world if you know where to look.
Truffles grow just beneath the ground on farms in Tasmania, in the deserts of the Middle East, on orchards in Oregon, in the forests of Slovenia and plenty of places in between.Here are five countries that cover the spectrum of truffles with respect to variety, flavour and price.
Both in Italy and in France, truffle hunters train dogs like the Lagotto Romagnolo to sniff out the elusive underground truffles. While the job is sometimes done by pigs, the pigs often eat the mushrooms once they find them.
The rare European white truffle is the world’s most expensive mushroom, with a price tag that can exceed 2,200 euros per pound. Found in Italy’s Piedmont, Marche and Tuscany regions, growing among the roots of poplar, beech, hazelnut, oak and willow trees, white truffles are very aromatic, with a strong flavour that has been described as earthy, musky or garlicky. Light brown or yellowish in colour and smooth in texture, they are usually shaved raw over a dish.
The second most highly coveted truffle is the black diamond truffle, found in the Umbria and Piedmont regions. These are more bountiful and therefore more affordable, though they sell for upwards of 750 euros per pound. Less aromatic than white truffles, black diamonds have a rougher, nut-like exterior and are usually found in cooked dishes. Less expensive still is the summer truffle, a milder tasting black truffle that grows throughout Europe (even in England) during the warmer months. Summer truffles are about half the cost of black diamonds.
For a fantastic introduction to the world of truffles, Italy is packed with truffle fairs and festivals in October and November. Long-term festivals and markets take place in Alba in the Piedmont region, in Acqualagna in Marche and in San Miniato in Tuscany.
France is best known for its black diamond truffles, locally called Périgord truffles after the region in where they are found. Périgord, Provence and Burgundy are the most popular regions for truffle hunting in France. The country’s output of truffles is decreasing, though, as a result of climate change, said a CBS News report, which found that harvest numbers have reduced over the past century. This scarcity has driven up the fungi’s value even more, resulting in a truffle industry vulnerable to black market influence and fraud.
The Cote de Nuits Truffles and Wine Tour of the Burgundy countryside is a delicious way to connect with nature on a hike that starts with tasty truffles and ends in a winery. Since this is Burgundy, the day would not be complete without a four-course lunch, wine pairings included.
Chinese truffles look a lot like their French cousins, but they cost far less -- as little as 130 yuan per pound or as much as 1,300 yuan per pound. This led truffle sellers in France (and other countries) to peddle Chinese truffles as their own, raking in as much as 40 times more money than they’re worth. Chinese truffles tend to be milder and less fragrant than Europe’s black truffles, which make them a more versatile -- and at their low price, more practical -- ingredient for cooks and chefs.
The Yunnan Province is the heart of truffle country in southern China. Tourists can join locals who collect all varieties of fungus on a mushroom hunting trip via Mushroom Roaming Tours, or by setting up a guided tour through your hotel. Or visit the Nanhua County mushroom market, in northwest Yunnan’s Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, where local hunters sell their acquisitions.
The vast, golden expanse of the Kalahari Desert keeps its treasures well hidden, but under the sandy plains, truffle mushrooms flourish. Kalahari truffles are the cheapest of the bunch (at least 100 times cheaper than their European relatives), and in Namibia, truffle hunters don’t require the aid of dogs or hogs -- only their well-trained eyes. They take the cue of cracks in the sand to reach into the ground, either with their hands or with a stick. What they unearth is a fragrant, earthy, floral gift -- light brown, with a relatively smooth exterior. Less flavourful than Europe’s varieties, Kalahari truffles only cost about 30 or 40 Namibian dollars per pound, but they are still highly sought after delicacies by locals and visitors.
Fresh local ingredients like truffles can be tasted at Restaurant Gathemann in Windhoek. In addition to local fungi, be sure to give Namibia’s freshly hunted game meat and fish a try.
Both black and white truffles grow in Croatia, but unlike in other countries, the black varieties are harvested year-round. The white varieties are harvested in the autumn and winter, which is when the largest white truffle in the world was found on Croatia’s Istrian peninsula. In November 1999, truffle exporter Giancarlo Zigante and his dog discovered a white truffle weighing in at nearly three pounds within Istria’s thick forests of Motovun.
You can find a truffle trip almost any time of the year in Croatia. For a unique experience, go on a night truffle hunt, offered by Istriana Travel from April through December. Alternatively, you can experience Istria with a bike tour of Truffle’s Trail, which includes a visit to local therapeutic hot springs.
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