White Truffles: Why They’re Worth $3,000 a Pound

Two thousand dollars a pound seems like a lot to pay for a mushroom. It really does. Yes, October marks the start of white-truffle season, the time of year when the rare mushrooms are showered on dishes, signifying luxury to even the most jaded palates. One of Daniel Boulud’s favorite stories involves Puff Daddy, as he was known at the time, urging the chef to “shave that bitch” onto his food; Boulud told me that he obliged (as, I’m sure, the bill mounted accordingly).

Truffles are rare. The white ones are only available a couple of months of the year, almost exclusively from one part of Italy, where they must be foraged by special pigs, and there are fewer of them, and of lesser quality, every year. They are, in short, the perfect luxury commodity, precious and getting more so all the time. Whether they are worth the money has a lot to do with how you like to spend and why you go to dinner. Which makes them very interesting to me.

There’s no question that white truffles have a unique aroma, a combination of newly plowed soil, fall rain, burrowing earthworms and the pungent memory of lost youth and old love affairs. I literally was not able to find a chef who doesn’t love them. The most eloquent was Alex Guarnaschelli of Butter, a highly fashionable restaurant in New York City that caters to a moneyed clientele. The way truffles smell is “disconcerting,” she says. “It conjures up images of a locker room. But the aroma deceptively conceals their complex yet delicate taste. They are sublime.” Guarnaschelli shaves them over risotto or mashed potatoes, and likes them a little warm; other chefs find a little creamy or buttery pasta the perfect vehicle. They are all as careful in their handling of it as a museum curator moving the Mona Lisa. This is a mushroom, mind you.