Friday, February 3, 2023

“The Mushroom Mozart”: For centuries, truffle hunting has been one of the most difficult activities in the world. Then the pandemic struck

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The prized Italian white truffle continues to break records.

This precious mushroom – nicknamed, White gold—Has long been a symbol of gastronomic decadence, grading, gram for gram, as one of the most expensive foods in the world – up there with Iranian beluga caviar and saffron.

This year is no different. A restaurant collapse, worldwide travel bans and a global recession haven’t stopped well-heeled foodies from spending huge sums on preciouslarge pico truffle.

Last month, at an annual white truffle auction – held in truffle town: Alba, Italy –a multitude of offers flocked from all over the world for a beautiful 2 pound specimen. It does not matter that the hopes cannot smell the goods, or observe them for imperfections. (Like everything else in 2020, it was a virtual affair).

Yet the truffle on display cost € 100,000 ($ 121,000).

“The Mozart of funghi”

The law of supply and demand explains these deregulated prices. The mighty White Truffle can only be found in certain places on Earth – well underground, drawing nutrients from the roots of oaks, beeches and poplars. Once unearthed, it quickly loses moisture and that fascinating earthy essence. Freshly dug up truffles are said to have the qualities of an aphrodisiac, adding to the myth and mystique that it is, as the ancients crowned it, “the food of the gods”. It was a luxury in the finest courtyards of Renaissance Europe. The 18e century, the Italian composer Gioachino Rossini called it the “Mozart of funghi”.

Alba, in northwest Italy, is the most famous of white truffle haunts, but there are also hot spots in the Apennines of central Italy that span Tuscany, Umbria and the homeland. by Rossini, Les Marches. Most of these fixes are at risk. Climate change and the rapid loss of woodland habitat for white truffles combine to bulldozer supply as global demand soars.

In this way, the escalating price of truffles is not only a benchmark for the status of epicurean. Inflation is also an indicator of the health of a threatened woodland ecosystem in an era of massive urbanization and factory farming and shrinking green spaces.

The elusive white truffle can be found in plots scattered around the hills of Amandola in central Italy. Original photo: Bernhard Warner
Original photo: Bernhard Warner

In the woods we go

“It has been a difficult year”, Renzo Baldoncini, atruffle hunter(truffle hunter) from Amandola, Italy, told me. Over the years Baldoncini has been my most reliable supplier of truffles. This year, he agreed to take me into the woods to look for these precious tubers. We joined Luna and Scilla, two dogs with a special and very harmonious nose to find (hopefully) these aromatic wonders.

Luna and Scilla come from a long line of truffle hunters. They are of the Italian breed of hunting dog, the Lagotto Romagnolo. A few years ago, Luna unearthed a white truffle the size of a tomato which Baldoncini then sold to a truffle broker for € 350.

Scilla, meanwhile, is a slipper champion. At seven months old, she is still a recruit in the truffle hunt. She is also the newest member of the Warner family, our pandemic puppy. (It was our daughters who lobbied for a dog once the lockdown hit. I had one condition: I will only consider a Lagotto. My reason: I want a puppy that could put food on our table from time to time.)

A Luna covered in mud, a truffle dog from Lagotto Romagnolo. Original photo: Bernhard Warner

Luna (pictured above) is a pro. She has all the traits you are looking for in a truffle dog. She is focused, fearless and determined. She puts her exceptional olfactory powers to work fast; it can pick up the smell of a truffle from a distance of several meters.

Once we entered the woods, Baldoncini led Luna with a volley of quick one-word commands: or (go forward!), his (to climb!), down (calm down!). She has covered remarkable terrain, on hard and steep terrain. My Scilla continued, rushing admirably after Luna. They slipped on a muddy slope. They climbed under the branches of fallen trees. They jumped on the trunks. They found holes in a wall of thick brambles and splashed the streams. Scilla came back frequently to check on me. Are you going to make it, old man?, seemed to say his expression.

Every now and then Luna smelled something promising. She had put her nose to the ground and pushed the earth away with one paw. She would sniffle. Another blow with his paw. And another.

The anticipation was electric. Maybe it was the walk to the top – my heart was racing. More than once, I have found myself dreaming of a big find, something we could shave over a dish of risotto or tagliatelle.

Scilla, meanwhile, has shown her inexperience. We had trained her only once, sprinkling cotton balls with white truffle oil before burying them in the yard. If she caught the scent, we would give her a treat. She has done well in these practice settings, enough that I notice that she has the right genes for this kind of work.

But as far as reality is concerned, Scilla was, as the Italians say, “a disaster”. From the moment we got to the secret truffle spot, Scilla was more interested in playing with Luna than going on a serious hunt. Whenever she had any, she playfully hit Luna with her front paws and expected Luna to return the favor. Luna had none. Whenever Luna stopped to study the wooded surroundings for clues, Scilla tried to distract her.

Scilla, a Lagotto Romagnolo puppy, jumps over the brush in the forest as Luna (right) picks up the scent of something interesting. Original photo: Bernhard Warner

And now that Luna had her nose to the ground, focusing on what we were hoping would be a big score, Scilla has gone mad. She circled around and around her four-legged friend in increasingly tight concentric circles. “Scilla,calm calmI implored him in Italian. Calm down. Scilla barked at me, then Luna, enthusiastically.

My heart sank. With the game in play, she was the distracted Little Leaguer, the one running the wrong way, at third base, after hitting a dribbler at the pitcher. Or that’s what I was feeling, anyway. Luna gave up. Scilla hit her again.

I apologized to Baldoncini. He smiled and motioned for me to leave. “No problem,” he said reassuringly.

We came out of the woods empty-handed. Covered in mud, the dogs trotted forward in the direction of Baldoncini’s Fiat Panda.

All kinds of big scores have been discovered in the woods around Amandola over the years. Quite a few of the truffles were sold to restaurants across the country. The best of the best trips further afield, exported abroad. They land on the menu of Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong, London or Las Vegas. There wouldn’t be such a high score for us.

The next morning I went to the village of Amandola to see how to buy a white truffle to bring back to Rome. On Baldoncini’s advice, I found a store just down the street from the main square. I was lucky, the trader told me. He took a plastic container out of the refrigerator and lined up a cluster of warty wonders. “From this morning,” he says proudly. The room filled with the smell of truffles, penetrating the protective layers of my face mask.

“Where did you find them?” I asked, knowing that he would never reveal his secret location. “Nearby,” he said after a slight hesitation.

In an all-cash transaction, I paid him $ 60 for a few nuggets. They added up to 45 grams, enough for a decent lunch.

Fresh white Amandola truffles. Original photo: Bernhard Warner
Bernhard Warner

The next day my wife made a simple risotto. I shaved the truffle nuggets off our dishes and let the aroma do its work, overrunning my senses.

A lunch like this in a fancy restaurant, according to my wife, would cost us a small fortune. Next year I promised too much, Scilla and I will be bringing one of our own home.

More to read absolutely financial cover of Fortune:


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