What is a Truffle and Why are Some of Them So Expensive?

Out of the dozens of expensive food products and ingredients that are available on the market today, the truffle remains as one of the few that are highly sought-after, mainly because of its delectable yet indescribable taste that makes wealthy diners wanting for more. 

Much like caviar, the truffle is a very valuable ingredient that is used to level up the flavor of certain recipes or dishes. With just one thin slice of truffle, it can change the overall taste of the dish because of its powerful flavor. What is a truffle? And why is it valuable? We will find out more as we take a closer look at the history of how truffles became a popular food item and where they are currently harvested.

History of the Truffle

There are no historical records that can pinpoint when truffles first appeared on Earth’s soil, but the first mention of the fungi can be found in the inscriptions made by neo-Sumerians about the eating habits of their Amorite enemy during the 20th century BC, which was when the Third Dynasty of Ur occurred.

Although historical records for the origins of truffles are lacking, many figures in history have written works that theorized where truffles came from. Juvenal, a Roman poet, mentioned that rain and thunder are factors that allowed truffles to grow properly, while Greek philosopher Plutarch stated that the growth of truffles may have resulted from lightning, water, and warm temperature.

During the Classical period, Rome and the region of Thracia were able to identify three species of truffles, namely:

  • Tuber melanosporumTuber magnatum
  • Tuber magnificus

In Rome, a certain type of truffle called “terfez” became a sought-after ingredient that was used to add flavor to different dishes. It is believed that terfez, also known as desert truffles, first came to Rome through shipping from Libya, Lesbos, and Carthage. However, the flavor of terfez is different from regular truffles, as the former has an inherent flavor that is as a flavor carrier rather than an enhancer.

In the Middle Ages, truffles were rarely mentioned in written works or records, which could either signify that the popularity of truffles died down during that period or that the process of hunting and harvesting truffles became a secret among the hunters and the wealthy that could afford to buy them. One of the few works that mentioned truffles was written by Bartolomeo Platina, who wrote that the pigs of Notza in Provence, France, were great at hunting for truffles, but they should be muzzled in order to stop them from eating the products.

During the Renaissance period, truffles regained their popularity when they were honored by King Francis I of France. Truffles were incredibly popular throughout France, especially in the Parisian markets in the 1780s. However, truffles were only enjoyed by the wealthy and the members of the royal family, as the said food items are so expensive that they can only be found on the dinner tables of nobles and businessmen.

Types of Truffles

There are dozens of different species of truffles that were discovered throughout the years, although only a few are considered to be the best at enhancing the flavor of certain dishes. Here are some of the best and most popular types of truffles:

  • Black Truffle
  • White Truffle
  • Whitish Truffle
  • Summer Truffle (Burgundy Truffle)

To learn more about them, let us discuss the characteristics of each popular type of truffle so that we can also see why they are valuable and sought-after.

Black Truffle

inside a black truffle

Black truffle, which has the scientific name Tuber melanosporu, is a species of truffle that is found in the southern regions of Europe. This type of truffle is considered to be the most expensive edible fungi in the world mainly because of its rarity and unmatched flavor. France is responsible for selling and exporting 45% of the world’s black truffle production, while Spain has 35% and Italy has 20%. Besides the three mentioned countries, black truffles are also found in Australia, Croatia, and Slovenia. Depending on the size of each truffle, one kilogram of the rare food item can go from $1000 to more than $2000.

White Truffle

inside a white truffle

Tuber magnatum, better known as white truffle, is a species of truffle that is also found in Southern Europe. However, the white truffle commonly grows in the northern regions of Italy instead of in France, where black truffles are more common. Despite being less expensive than black truffles, white truffles are still very valuable food items because they still have the distinct flavor of black truffles, but a little more subtle since the flavor is not concentrated. The most expensive white truffle ever sold was bought by a casino owner named Stanley Ho, who paid $330,000 for a single white truffle that weighed 1.5 kilograms.

Whitish Truffle

whitish truffle

Also known as bianchetto truffle and whitish truffle, Tuber borchii is a species of truffle that is harvested in different countries in Europe, including Finland, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Great Britain. The whitish truffle is much more common than the black and white truffles, which makes it less valuable. However, many restaurants use it so that they can have a truffle-based dish on their menu without the need to purchase black or white truffles.

Summer Truffle

inside a summer truffle

Popularly called the summer truffle, Tuber aestivum is a species of truffle that is found in plenty of countries in Europe. The summer truffle is also related to another species called Tuber uncinatum, better known as the burgundy truffle. As its name suggests, the summer truffle is usually harvested during the summer season in Europe. Burgundy truffles are said to have an intense aroma and flavor, while summer truffles have a less intense aroma but are still quite flavorful. Moreover, burgundy truffles are harvested from September to December, while summer truffles are harvested from May to August.

Why are Truffles So Expensive?

Besides their rarity and great flavor, truffles are expensive because they are quite hard to find, as it would take weeks or months for hunters to gather just one kilogram of truffles. Furthermore, the hunters also use sniffing dogs so that they will have an easier time finding truffles, but the dogs don’t make their jobs faster because of the scarcity of truffles that are growing in specific areas.

Truffles are also hard to grow since they only thrive in very specific conditions. The conditions needed by the truffles to grow properly are still a mystery, so truffles cannot be forced to grow. As such, it is technically impossible to grow truffles using human methods, and the only way you can harvest truffles is to just let them grow in the areas where they usually appear.

Their shelf life is also a problem for many sellers and restaurant owners, as they need to be cooked and consumed within four to five days, or else they will spoil. Because of the short shelf life of truffles, selling them is a risky business since they need to be purchased in less than one week before they lose their value. Despite the difficulty in growing, selling, and purchasing them, truffles are still highly prized food items in many restaurants around the world.