‘The Mozart of fungi’: For ages, truffle hunting has been one of the most challenging pursuits on earth. Then the pandemic hit

December 12, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

The prized Italian white truffle continues to shatter records.

This precious fungus—nicknamed, white gold—has long been a symbol of gastronomic decadence, ranking, 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 collapse in restaurant dining, worldwide travel bans, and a global recession haven’t stopped well-heeled gastronomes from splashing out huge sums on the prized tuber magnatum pico.

Last month, at an annual white truffle auction—held in truffle town: Alba, Italy—a bevy of bids flooded in from around the world for a handsome 2-pound specimen. Never mind that the hopefuls couldn’t smell the goods, or eyeball it for imperfections. (Like everything else in 2020, it was a virtual affair). 

Still, the truffle on display went for €100,000 ($121,000).

“The Mozart of funghi”

The law of supply and demand explains such out-of-whack prices. The mighty white truffle can only be found in select places on Earth—well underground, drawing nutrients from the roots of oak, beech and poplar trees. Once dug up, it rapidly loses moisture and that mesmerizing earthy essence. It’s been said freshly unearthed truffles have the qualities of an aphrodisiac, adding to the myth and mystique that this is, as the ancients crowned it, the “food of the gods.” It was a luxury in the finest courts of Renaissance Europe. The 18th century Italian composer Gioachino Rossini called it the “Mozart of funghi.”

Alba in Northwest Italy is the most famous of the white truffle’s haunts, but there are also hot spots in the Apennines of Central Italy that span Tuscany, Umbria and Rossini’s homeland, Le Marche. Most of these patches are under threat. Climate change and the rapid loss of the white truffle’s woodlands habitat are combining to bulldoze supply just as global demand soars.

In this way, escalating truffle prices aren’t just a benchmark for epicurean status. The inflation is also an indicator for the health of a threatened woodland ecosystem in an age of mass urbanization and factory farming and dwindling green spaces. 

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

Into the woods we go

“It’s been a difficult year,” Renzo Baldoncini, a tartufaio (truffle hunter) hailing from Amandola, Italy, told me. Over the years, Baldoncini has been my most reliable truffle supplier. This year he agreed to take me into the woods to forage for these precious tubers. Joining us were Luna and Scilla, two dogs with a special, highly attuned nose to unearth (hopefully) these aromatic wonders.

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

Scilla, meanwhile, is a champion slipper-eater. At seven months old, she’s still a truffle hunt rookie. She’s also the newest member of the Warner family, our pandemic puppy. (It was our girls who lobbied hard for a dog once lockdown hit. I had one condition: I’ll only consider a Lagotto. My rationale: I want a pup that could put food on our table every now and then.)

A mud-coated Luna, a Lagotto Romagnolo truffle dog. Original photo: Bernhard Warner

Luna (pictured above) is a pro. She has all the traits you want in a truffle dog. She is focused, fearless and determined. She puts her exceptional olfactory powers to quick work; she can pick up the scent of a truffle from a distance of several yards.

Once we entered the woods, Baldoncini directed Luna with a volley of rapid-fire one-word commands: vai (go ahead!), su (climb up!), giù (come down!). She covered remarkable ground, over tough, steep terrain. My Scilla kept up, admirably darting after Luna. They glided over muddy slop. They scrambled under fallen tree limbs. They hopped over trunks. They found holes in a wall of thick brambles, and splashed through streams. Scilla circled back frequently to check on me. You gonna make it, old man?, her expression seemed to say.

Every now and then, Luna would catch the whiff of something promising. She’d put her nose to the ground and move the earth away with a paw. She’d sniff again. Another jab with her paw. And another.

The anticipation was electric. Maybe it was the up-hill march—my heart was pounding. More than once I caught myself day-dreaming about a big find, something we could shave onto a dish of risotto or tagliatelle.  

Scilla, meanwhile, showed her inexperience. We’d trained her just once, dousing cotton balls in white truffle oil before burying them in the yard. If she picked up the scent, we’d give her a treat. She did okay in these practice settings, enough for me to remark she’s got the right genes for this kind of work. 

But when it came to the real thing, Scilla was, as the Italians say, “un disastro.” From the moment we got to the secret truffle spot, Scilla was more interested in playing with Luna than going on a serious hunt. Every chance she got, she would playfully swat at Luna with her front paws, and expect Luna to reciprocate. Luna was having none of it. Whenever Luna stopped to study the wooded surroundings for clues, Scilla would try to distract her.

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

And now that Luna had her nose to the ground, zeroing in on what we hoped was a big score, Scilla went wild. She zipped around and around her four-legged friend in tighter and tighter concentric circles. “Scilla, calma, calma,” I implored her in Italian. Calm down. Scilla barked at me, and then at Luna, excitedly. 

My heart sank. With the game on the line, she was that distracted Little Leaguer, the one who runs the wrong way, to third base, after hitting a dribbler to the pitcher. Or that’s how I felt, anyhow. Luna gave up. Scilla swatted at her again.

I apologized to Baldoncini. He grinned, and waved me off. “Not a problem,” he said reassuringly.

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

All kinds of big scores have been unearthed in the woods around Amandola over the years. A fair number of truffles have been sold on to restaurants all over the country. The best of the best travel further, exported abroad. They land on the menu of Michelin-star restaurants in Hong Kong, London or Las Vegas. There would be no such big score for us.

The next morning, I went into the village of Amandola to see about buying a white truffle to take back to Rome. At Baldoncini’s advice, I found a shop just down the road from the main piazza. I was in luck, the shopkeeper told me. He pulled a plastic container out of the refrigerator and lined up a cluster of warty wonders. “From this morning,” he said proudly. The room filled with the scent of truffle, penetrating the protective layers of my face mask.

“Where’d you find them?” I asked, knowing he’d never reveal his secret spot. “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 truffles from Amandola. Original photo: Bernhard Warner
Bernhard Warner

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

A lunch like this at a fancy restaurant, my wife calculated, would set us back a small fortune. Next year, I over-promised, Scilla and I will bring home one of our own.