What are Truffles?
Truffles are underground fungus and are known to be one of the most expensive foods in the world (Source: Money Inc). And just to be clear, we’re not talking about those “truffle-flavored” oils and salts that you find on fancy store shelves (those are synthetically flavored by the way). We’re talking about actual truffles. The super fragrant, rough-skinned, misshapen potato-looking thing that people are paying up to $4,000 per pound of to shave onto their food.
Let’s look into some of the reasons why truffles are considered the diamonds of gastronomy, and what elements contribute to why they are so expensive.
1. They’re Very Difficult to Grow
If you want some truffles you just grow some, right? Not quite.
They’re very very challenging to cultivate, almost near impossible, actually. There has to be a “perfect storm” of proper soil conditions, the right trees, and need constant irrigation. For a very long time you couldn’t even grow them, they had to occur naturally by Mother Nature herself. It was only very recently that a handful of farmers were able to emulate the correct conditions to grow them, and even then, there are no guarantees.
2. They Take a Long Time to Grow
Even if you somehow figured out the correct conditions needed to grow them, it could take 5-10 years to have a successful harvest. And on top of that, there’s no guarantee they will even taste good. Case in point: China was able to crack the code several years ago, but the they ended up having no flavor or scent and are said to taste like cardboard. As you can imagine, China truffles don’t sell for very much if even at all.
3. They Need to be Hunted
I remember the first time I heard the term ‘truffle hunter’. I was watching an episode of Top Chef where the final 4 contestants were in Italy and were just told that they were going to get to spend the day with truffle hunters. I was so confused and intrigued at the same time. Why do they need to be ‘hunted’? Can anyone be a hunter? Do the hunters wear camouflage and carry a shotgun? (I’m kidding on that last one)
Little did I know that the real truffle hunters weren’t humans at all. They are four-legged companions with a keen sense of smell. In the earlier days they used pigs, but realized that they couldn’t keep the pigs from eating the findings so decided to turn to an animal that could actually be trained instead…
Nowadays they mostly use dogs. It can pretty much be any breed, just as long as they have a really good sense of smell and can follow simple commands. They even have classes that can help you get your dog trained specifically for truffle hunting. As if we need another reason to love dogs so much!
4. They’re Hard to Protect
A lot of fruits and vegetables have skins, peels, or outer layers to protect them – not truffles. They lack any kind of protection and are subject to many environmental conditions such as climate or even someone unknowingly stepping on it. This was another reason why pigs were fired from being hunters, was because they were too difficult to tame and would often times trample over their beds, destroying the truffles themselves, but also the chance for others to grow in that location.
5. They Can Grow in Areas that are Difficult to Access
If you think truffle hunting is a nice leisurely walk through the park, think again! They like to grow in dark and cool places. This means you’re hiking around a dark and wet wooden area. Because of these conditions, the hunt for them can be quite frustrating and sometimes treacherous.
6. They’re Hard to Find
A lot of people assume that you can just grab a truffle hunting dog and go into the woods to find them, and that’s definitely far from the truth. Even in an area that is known to produce truffles, they are still difficult to find. You could spend hours walking around and still come up empty handed or with only a few ounces. Hunting for them takes a lot of time and patience and is only becoming more difficult as more hunters come into the fold.
7. They Require a Little Bit of Luck
This is an interesting one to have on the list but since so many hunters have commented this, I thought it should be added. There is definitely an element of luck with regard to finding truffles. There have been instance where someone has come up empty-handed after spending a whole day in hunting in an area, only to have someone find a bunch of them in that same exact area.
There have even be instances where hunters have found nice sized ones in an area they had checked every single day for weeks prior. It’s almost like needing to be in the right place at the right time.
8. They’re Only in Season for a Short Amount of Time
The truffle industry is highly seasonal. They typically only grow from September to January, but that will vary greatly depending on the type. White truffles for example (the most expensive type kind) only grow mid-October to December. It is because of these seasonal rarities that some countries make it illegal to hunt outside of truffle season dates.
9. They Shrink
That’s right, you heard it – they actually shrink. This is due to the water content being loss by evaporation. To give you an estimate, they shrink approximately by 5% each day since the moment they’re found. 5% might not seem like a lot, but let’s not forget that like most products, truffles have a distribution process.
It is likely that hunters bring their findings to their distributor, there is weighing and checking on the quality of them, distributors then send them to their vendors (like restaurants), which then get put onto your plate. That means there’s at least 2 days (up to 10% of mass) lost just from the moment a truffle is found, to the moment it’s on your plate.
This of course makes them in even more high of demand.
10. Their Fragrance Only Lasts About 7 Days
Even if you happen to get your hands on a truffle, it comes with a fast-approaching expiration date. The fragrance starts to dissipate the moment they’re found, and has a shelf life of about 7 days. This is why a lot of people will use the truffle to make an oil or salt, since it has to be used before the 7 days are up. Also, keep in mind that you have to take into consideration the amount of time it took to get to you (approximately 2 days).
11. They Need to Be Shipped – Fast
You probably guessed this one was next up on the list. Since they shrink and lose fragrance every single day since the moment they’re found, time is of the essence. A lot of distributors aim to have all of their truffles packed and delivered within 36 hours.
This of course means more money for the expedited transit, and packaging (like ice packs) to keep them as fresh as possible.
12. They’re Affected by Loss of Woodland
As mentioned, truffles need trees to grow on. Many regions of Europe (specifically Italy, France, and Spain) are clearing out woodlands to make room for other things like cities and buildings. This loss of woodland has already started to impact the truffle industry and will continue to do so until we can find efficient ways to harvest them.
13. They are Affected by Climate Change
Truffles like habitats that are dark, cold, and damp. They are directly impacted by climate change, and we’ve seen the effects of this historically. Since they will actually perish if they go more than 3 weeks without water, we’ve seen high drought years result in a very low seasonal output. With raising concerns over global warming as well, the future of the industry does not look very good.
14. Their Flavor is Unmatched
Anyone who’s ever had a truffle can tell you that it’s an amazing and indescribable experience (especially white ones). The flavor and the fragrance is unlike anything in this world, which is why people are willing to pay a pretty penny for it. If you’ve never had truffle before I highly recommend trying it out so you can make the decision for yourself. There are several restaurants who will offer to shave them onto your meal which is a great way to try it without spending a ton of money to buy a whole one.
15. Supply and Demand
We’ve listed several factors which contribute to why truffles are so rare. As you probably know, most markets are driven by supply and demand and the truffle market is no different. It’s crazy to think that at the time of writing this, that only about 65% of the demand is met. This means that people are paying a premium to be part of that 65%, and that’s ultimately the reason why prices are driven so high.
If you like this post, we think you’ll like our Black Truffle Ravioli Recipe post.