Why Are Truffles So Expensive?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Over the weekend, a 4.16 pound white truffle—the so-called "World's Largest"—sold at a Sotheby's auction for $61,250 to a phone bidder in China. It was actually a bargain price for the over-sized fungus. This year's large crop, a result of abundant rain in Italy, has seen wholesale prices drop by 50 percent from two years ago.

To figure out a little bit about why truffles are so expensive, we talked to Vittorio Giordano, the Vice President and Truffle Guru at Urbani Truffles USA. First started in Italy in 1852, Urbani now sells to 68 different countries.

Urbani's white truffles, which are rarer and more expensive than the black truffle, still come from Italy. (They can also be found in Croatia, but lately the Italian crop has been sufficient.)

"Truffle is a wild product, it is a natural product. It is not something you can cultivate or control," Giordano explains. This unpredictability contributes to the extreme prices truffles can fetch. People have tried for generations, to no avail, to farm truffles. And while recent attempts in the U.S. and Australia to recreate truffle-conducive habitats by planting chestnut, oak, and hazelnut trees have shown modest success, the crop has been insubstantial and rarely are full truffles salvageable.

Instead, Urbani works with a network of 18,000 people to hunt for truffles around Italy. "A single truffle hunter with a dog can find a small amount—two ounces, three ounces, quarter of a pound—so we need a lot of people to make sure we are able to collect quantity we need," he says. All those employees only drive the price up further.

It used to be the case that pigs took the place of the dog in that picture. Female—and only female—pigs were the original truffle seekers; the truffles smell like testosterone to the lady swine, making them easy and eagerly sought out.

There is a problem with swine, however.

"Pigs eat truffles. They don’t want to give the product back," Giordano says. So, dogs were trained to put their noses to use for the cause and all they ask in return is a treat from their handler. (In fact, use of the pig to hunt truffles has been prohibited since 1985 because they damage the truffle beds in their zeal to get to the scent.)

Once the truffle is unearthed—and a portion of the precious find is put back into the ground to act as a spore and repopulate—there's the matter of getting the truffle to a plate. Truffles immediately begin losing water to evaporation as soon as they're dug up. To combat that, no expense is spared to get the truffle where it's going. 

"The truffle we deliver to the restaurants and distributors, less than 36 hours before were underground in Italy," Giordano says. And the cost to make that happen adds up. Black truffles, the more common variety, currently cost about $95 per ounce while white truffles top the charts at $168 per ounce. But the much more reasonably priced truffle butter is pretty delicious, too.

This Macaroni and Cheese Meatball Recipe Is Easy Enough to Make in a Dorm Room

iStock.com/LauriPatterson
iStock.com/LauriPatterson

It's hard to make creative meals when you're working out of a dorm "kitchen," but Daniel Holzman, the chef/co-owner of The Meatball Shop in New York City, proves that college students don't need to limit themselves to energy drinks and instant ramen noodles. Using just a coffee maker and a toaster oven, he's found a way to prepare an easy recipe for macaroni and cheese meatballs.

The video below is the fourth episode of "The College Try," a new series from Food & Wine and Spoon University that challenges chefs to create meals using dorm equipment and ingredients. Holzman starts by "brewing" his macaroni in a coffee maker. Once the pasta is cooked, he stirs in one tablespoon of butter and transfers it to a plate. To start making the cheese sauce, he adds two cups of milk and two tablespoons of butter to the coffee pot before retuning it to the warm burner.

Holzman prepares the meatballs by mixing ground beef, breadcrumbs, cheddar cheese, salt, and the cooked macaroni in a bowl. After he shapes the meat mixture into 2-inch balls, he bakes them in a toaster oven preheated to 450°F for 12 minutes.

The last step is the sauce. The chef whisks a packet of cheese powder from a box of macaroni and cheese into the milk and uses that as the base for his plate of meatballs. In about half an hour, he makes a meal that looks a lot better than what you can find in most college dining halls.

From microwaved omelets to mug cakes, here are some more cooking hacks for dorm life.

[h/t Spoon University]

Eliza Leslie: The Most Influential Cookbook Writer of the 19th Century

American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
Wikimedia // Public Domain

If it wasn't for Eliza Leslie, American recipes might look very different. Leslie wrote the most popular cookbook of the 19th century, published a recipe widely credited as being the first for chocolate cake in the United States, and authored fiction for both adults and children. Her nine cookbooks—as well as her domestic management and etiquette guides—made a significant mark in American history and society, despite the fact that she never ran a kitchen of her own.

Early Dreams

Born in Philadelphia on November 15, 1787, to Robert and Lydia Leslie, Eliza was an intelligent child and a voracious reader. Her dream of becoming a writer was nurtured by her father, a prosperous watchmaker, inventor, and intellectual who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She once wrote that "the dream of my childhood [was] one day seeing my name in print."

Sadly, her father’s business failed around the turn of the 19th century and he died in 1803. The family took in boarders to make ends meet, and as the oldest of five, Leslie helped her mother in the kitchen. To gain culinary experience, she attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School in Philadelphia, the first school of its kind in the United States. Urged by her brother Thomas—and after fielding numerous requests for recipes from friends and family—she compiled her first book, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, in 1828. Notably, the book included the term cup cake, referring to Leslie's employment of a teacup as a measuring tool ("two large tea-cups full of molasses")—possibly the first-ever mention of a cup cake in print.

Seventy-Five Receipts was a hit, and was reprinted numerous times. Encouraged by this success—and by her publisher, Munroe & Francis—Leslie moved on to her true desire: writing fiction. She penned short stories and storybooks for young readers as well as adult fiction and won several awards for her efforts. One of her prize-winning short stories, the humorous "Mrs. Washington Potts," appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular 19th century magazine for which she also served as assistant editor. Leslie also contributed to Graham’s Magazine, the Saturday Gazette, and The Saturday Evening Post. At least one critic called her tales "perfect daguerreotypes of real life."

As much as Leslie loved writing fiction, however, it didn't always pay the bills. She wrote a second cookbook, Domestic French Cookery, in 1832, and achieved the pinnacle of her success in 1837 with Directions for Cookery. That work became the most beloved cookbook of the 1800s; it sold at least 150,000 copies and was republished 60 times by 1870. She offered pointers on procuring the best ingredients ("catfish that have been caught near the middle of the river are much nicer than those that are taken near the shore where they have access to impure food") and infused the book with wit. In a section discouraging the use of cold meat in soups, she wrote, "It is not true that French cooks have the art of producing excellent soups from cold scraps. There is much bad soup to be found in France, at inferior houses; but good French cooks are not, as is generally supposed, really in the practice of concocting any dishes out of the refuse of the table."

In The Taste of America, noted modern food historians John and Karen Hess called Directions for Cookery “one of the two best American cookbooks ever written," citing the book's precise directions, engaging tips, straightforward commentary, and diverse recipes—such as catfish soup and election cake—as the keys to its excellence.

Leslie is also credited with publishing America’s first printed recipe for chocolate cake, in her 1846 Lady’s Receipt Book. While chocolate had been used in baking in Europe as far back as the 1600s, Leslie’s recipe was probably obtained from a professional chef or pastry cook in Philadelphia. The recipe, which featured grated chocolate and a whole grated nutmeg, is quite different from most of today's chocolate cakes, with its strong overtones of spice and earthy, rather than sweet, flavors. (You can find the full recipe below.)

Later in life, while continuing to write cookbooks, Leslie edited The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, which included early publications by Edgar Allan Poe. She also edited her own magazine of literature and fashion, Miss Leslie’s Magazine. She wrote only one novel, 1848's Amelia; Or a Young Lady’s Vicissitudes, but once said that if she was to start her literary career over, she would have only written novels.

A Uniquely American Voice

Historians have argued that Leslie was successful because she crafted recipes to appeal to the young country’s desire for upward mobility as well as a uniquely American identity. At the time she began writing, women primarily used British cookbooks; Leslie appealed to them with a distinctly American work. (She noted in the preface to Seventy-Five Receipts, "There is frequently much difficulty in following directions in English and French Cookery Books, not only from their want of explicitness, but from the difference in the fuel, fire-places, and cooking utensils. ... The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American.")

Leslie included regional American dishes in her books, promoted the use of quality ingredients, and was the first to (sometimes) organize recipes by including ingredients at the beginning of each recipe instead of using a narrative form, setting the tone for modern recipe writing. Her books were considered a treasure trove of knowledge for young pioneer women who, frequently separated from their families for the first time, often relied on Leslie's works for guidance.

Unmarried herself, Leslie never managed her own kitchen, and often had others testing recipes for her. She maintained strong ties with her erudite, sophisticated family, and lived for a time with her brother Thomas while he was attending West Point. Another brother, Charles Leslie, was a well-regarded painter in England; her sister Anna was also an artist, and sister Patty was married to a publisher who produced some of Leslie’s work. As she got older, Leslie lived for years in the United States Hotel in Philadelphia, where she was something of a celebrity for her wit and strong opinions.

Leslie died on January 1, 1858. Many of her recipes are still used today, but it's likely she’d be most pleased to know that many of her short stories are available online. Modern readers can appreciate the totality of her work: the fiction writing that was her passion, though for which she was lesser known, and her culinary writing, which guided generations.

Eliza Leslie's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

From The Lady's Receipt Book:

CHOCOLATE CAKE.—Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready 14 ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon—mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,—a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

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