The unseemly tuber has become a by-word for gastronomic luxury. Georgia Grimond considers the conundrum of demand far outstripping supply ...


The menus of smart restaurants tend to feature truffles this time of year. For what may seem like a humble fungus, just a hint of the thing will send the price of your pasta or scrambled eggs rocketing. Truffles may be pungent, gnarly things, but they have become a by-word for gastronomic luxury. They inspire chefs to wax lyrical and foodies to hanker. Some have even died in pursuit of a good truffle.
In December last year, a truffle farmer in France was arrested for shooting a trespasser. The farmer believed the intruder was armed, but he was merely carrying a knife for cutting truffles from the ground. He died shortly after and the accused is looking at a lengthy prison sentence. Such incidents are not so surprising in a lucrative trade marred by thieving, swindling and espionage.
Many variants of truffle grow all over the world, but those that grow in Europe are the most sought after. The Périgord region in France produces the prince of black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) and the Piedmont in Italy boasts the king of all truffles, the white truffle (Tuber magnatum). Though most consumers are unlikely to notice the difference, the odour and flavour of other types are considered inferior, making them slightly less expensive. The truffle season is short, lasting only a few months over the winter for both the Italian white and French Périgord truffle, and methods of finding them have changed little over hundreds of years.
The annual International Italian White Truffle auction exemplifies what is at stake. The November auction broke the world record for the most expensive truffle, set in 2007.  A lot weighing 1.3kg sold for $330,000 to Stanley Ho, a Macau billionaire, after frantic bidding between London, Rome and Macau. Sure, auction prices are usually inflated—proceeds go to charity, and lots are sold with magnums or jeroboams of fine wine. But who is buying these mushrooms?
Restaurateurs, enthusiasts and deep-pocketed individuals populate these auctions, says Jason Phillips of Franco's of Jermyn Street, the London restaurant that hosted the event (which was held simultaneously in Rome and Macau). The larger sizes appeal most to restaurant owners and chefs, who can't get such things from their usual suppliers. Some buy in consortiums, others as a way to show off or because it's a fun way to be charitable. But one thing is certain: when it comes to truffles, demand outstrips supply. Indeed, truffle harvests in Europe have fallen steadily over the last century, says Ian Hall, a truffle expert and co-author of "Taming the Truffle". And the industry seems powerless to reverse the trend. 
Finding truffles is a labour-intensive and uncertain business. As they grow underground, on the roots of trees, dogs are used to sniff them out. Knowing where to look is usually a well-kept secret, often passed down through families. After the second world war, however, a generation of truffle-hunters was lost along with their knowledge. Since then migration to cities has left many truffle patches wild or paved over. Changing climate patterns are also blamed for lower yields. In the early 1900s, about 1,000 tonnes of Périgord truffles were produced annually; in 2007 it was more like 40 to 150 tonnes. In dry years, it is a struggle to harvest even ten tonnes.
Failure to stop this decline is not for want of trying. But the secret to artificially cultivating truffles remains a mystery. The French have planted approximately 400,000 truffle-infected seedlings annually for over 20 years, but have little to show for it (though it usually takes ten years for a tree to start producing). Plenty is known about the soil, climate and trees truffles prefer, but even when these conditions are optimum, success is never guaranteed and production is almost impossible to monitor.
Breakthroughs in science have aided truffle-lovers. Chemical compounds in truffles have been isolated so the flavour can be recreated (most truffle oil is flavoured artificially). DNA mapping has helped to demystify aspects of the truffle, such as locating the source of its taste and differentiating between similar types (eg, a Chinese and Périgord black truffle). Most importantly, the truffle genome has revealed the presence of two sexes in its spores—perhaps the key to artificial cultivation.
Efforts to grow truffles in places like America, Australia and New Zealand have slowly born fruit. Scientists must now discern why some new plantations are more successful than others. If yields in the Southern hemisphere continue to grow, truffles may come to be served all year round. China is another source of truffles. Although the Chinese have preferred to feed their truffles to the pigs rather than eat them themselves, they are increasingly aware of the truffles' value as an export. Some unscrupulous dealers have been known to pass off Chinese truffles for the Périgord black.
The allure of the truffle has been intensified by its seasonality and increasing scarcity. If natural harvests continue to decline and artificial cultivation remains a challenge, the stakes will only rise between truffle-hunters, dealers and restaurants. But of course this only reinforces the beauty of the truffle: there will never be enough, so one must feel grateful for the little one has had.


Georgia Grimond is on the editorial staff of The Economist and Intelligent Life, based in London. Picture credit: Allerina & Glen MacLarty, madmarv00, picdrops (all via Flickr)