What Are Truffles and Why Are They So Expensive?

A truffle is a fruiting body of a fungus that has a pungent odor due to volatile sulfur compounds or metabolites of non-sulfur amino acids. Truffles grow underground and form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of many trees. They are difficult to find or cultivate, and the global supply of truffles has become endangered in recent years.

When you visit a fine dining restaurant, the first thing you do is go through the menu. There’s a good chance that you will come across a few dishes with the word ‘truffle’ in the title. Many people may have heard of it, but few people have tasted an actual truffle. This could be due to its cost or the unavailability of the product.

The culinary world has many treasures, and one of them is truffles. Their price is also impressively high as well. The prices vary for different types of truffles, the highest being for white truffle. The white truffle is known as ‘The Truffle of White Madonna’. Its flavor and aroma are the strongest among all types, and in 2017, the price had reached up to €4,500 per kilogram!


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What are truffles made of?

The appearance of truffles can be disappointing, but what else should we expect from the fruiting body of a fungus! This exotic fruiting body belongs to the genus Tuber. On the inside, the truffle is densely packed with reproductive tissue and studded with spores. They have a pungent odor due to volatile sulfur compounds or metabolites of non-sulfur amino acids. The smell is similar to the pheromone androstenol, which is produced by the male skin to attract females.

Truffles grow underground and form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of many trees. Symbiotic relationships indicate that there is an exchange of nutrients; basically, the tuber uses nutrients from the trees. In terms of soil requirements, truffles should contain calcium carbonate and other clay-like compounds. As it grows underground, it is necessary to aerate the soil and keep pH at alkaline or neutral levels.

To search for truffles in the wild is a difficult task. As a result, ‘truffle hunters’ use female pigs or dogs to search for them. The aroma of truffles attract the female pigs, but using them can be tricky, as the pigs have a tendency to eat the truffles! Dogs, on the other hand, can be trained to search for truffles and are much easier to control.

Different types of truffles.

What are truffles used for?

The primary use of truffles is in cooking. The types used in cooking are Black truffle (melanosporum), Burgundy truffle (aestivum) and White truffle (magnatum). These are the major types of truffles that boast a high value. You can find them in major countries of Europe, including France, Italy, Spain and Croatia.

These truffles have a highly pungent odor, and as a result, they are used very carefully. Chefs use the raw form of truffles, and the application of heat reduces their aroma and flavor. Chefs add it in the form of shavings or slices on top of dishes, such as pasta and salads. The sensitivity of the black truffle is lower in comparison to other truffles. Some chefs also insert thin slices or shavings of truffle into meat before cooking it. They even use the skin of truffles to make sauces. Furthermore, the flavor of truffles is infused with different items to create specialty products. Some of these are truffle salt, truffle honey and even truffle vodka. Truffle oil is another product boasting the truffle flavor, but in reality, the flavor is due to synthetic compounds, not the truffle itself!

Gnocchi served with slices of truffle (Picture Credit – Luigi Anzivino/Wikimedia)

Why are truffles so expensive?

Truffles are seasonal and extremely rare. As mentioned before, truffles grow in very specific conditions, which makes cultivation a difficult job. Even though people have been able to cultivate them, the results have not been ideal. The process of making a piece of land good enough to grow truffles on is long and challenging. First of all, the spores need to be properly spread across the land. Second, the plantation should have oak, hazelnut, poplar, and beech trees for better growth. Finally, the process of searching for truffles can only begin after 7-15 years of cultivation. The time it takes depends on the method of cultivation.

In recent years, the global supply of truffles has become endangered. This is related to changing rainfall patterns and increases in temperature. The difficulty of finding or cultivating truffles, combined with weather changes, has led to increasingly higher prices. Despite all the issues they face, truffles have managed to remain ‘diamonds of the culinary world’ and will hopefully continue to be!

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About the Author

Vikrant Shetty graduated from DY Patil University in Mumbai, India with a B.Tech Biotechnology. He is a die hard football fan and loves engaging with new people from different cultures. A cheerful soul who knows what to talk and when, you can always find him to give you great advice maybe with a hint of a sarcastic comment. He wants to be a professor and currently pursuing a Masters in Biology (specializing in Molecular Biology and Genetics) at the University of Copenhagen.

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