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.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Wine

iStock/MarkSwallow
iStock/MarkSwallow

Between the vine and the liquor store, plenty of secrets are submerged in your favorite bottle of wine. Here, Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma, spills some of the best. Here are a few things you might not know about wine.

1. Digital eyes are everywhere in today's vineyards.

Certain premium estates in Bordeaux and Napa are beginning to look a little more like army bases—or an Amazon.com warehouse. They’re using drones, optical scanners, and heat-sensing satellites to keep a digital eye on things. Some airborne drones collect data that helps winemakers decide on the optimal time to harvest and evaluate where they can use less fertilizer. Others rove through the vineyard rows, where they may soon be able to take over pruning. Of course, these are major investments. 

2. Modern vineyards also bury a lot of cow skulls. 

They’re not everywhere, but biodynamic farming techniques are on the rise among vintners who don’t want to rely on chemicals, and this is one trick they’ve been known to use to combat plant diseases and improve soil PH. It’s called Preparation No. 505, and it involves taking a cow’s skull (or a sheep’s or a goat’s), stuffing it with finely ground oak chips, and burying it in a wet spot for a season or two before adding it to the vineyard compost.

3. Ferocious foliage is a vintner's secret weapon.

The mustard flowers blooming between vineyard rows aren’t just for romance. Glucosinolates in plants like radishes and mustard give them their spicy bite, and through the wonders of organic chemistry, those glucosinolates also double as powerful pesticides. Winemakers use them to combat nematodes—tiny worms that can destroy grape crops.

4. Roses in a vineyard are the wine country equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. 

Vintners plant roses among their vines because the flowers get sick before anything else in the field. If there’s mildew in the air, it will infect the roses first and give a winemaker a heads-up that it’s time to spray.

5. Birds of prey help protect the grapes.

Glasses of red wine and charcuterie
iStock/Natalia Van Doninck

Small birds like blackbirds and starlings can clear out 20 percent of a crop in no time. But you know what eats little birds? Big birds. Falconry programs are on the rise in vineyards from California to New Zealand. Researchers have found that raptors eat a bird or two a day (along with a proportion of field mice and other critters) and cost only about as much to maintain as your average house cat.

6. Small bugs become big problems in wine tasting rooms.

Winemakers are constantly seeking ways to manage the swarms of Drosophila melanogaster that routinely gather around the dump buckets in their swanky showrooms. You know these pests as fruit flies, and some vintners in California are exploring ways to use carnivorous plants to tackle the problem without pesticides. Butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all have sweet-sounding names, but the bug-eating predators are fruit fly assassins, and you’ll see them decorating tasting rooms across wine country.

7. Wine needs to be filtered. 

Winemaking produces hard-to-remove sediments. Filters can catch most of the debris, but winemakers must add “fining agents” to remove any suspended solids that sneak by. (Unwanted compounds in the wine bind with the fining agents so they can be filtered and removed.) Until it was banned in the 1990s, many European vintners used powdered ox blood to clean their wines. Today, they use diatomaceous earth (the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae), Isinglass (a collagen made from fish swim bladders), and sometimes bentonite (volcanic clay). Irish moss and egg whites are also fine wine cleaners.

8. Wine is ever so slightly radioactive (that's a good thing).

About 5 percent of the premium wine sold for cellaring doesn’t contain what the label promises. So how do top-shelf buyers avoid plunking down serious cash on a bottle of something bunk? Most elite wine brokerages, auction houses, and collectors use atomic dating to detect fraud. By measuring trace radioactive carbon in the wine, most bottles can be dated to within a year or two of the vintage.

9. MRIs can determine the fine from the funk.

Even with atomic dating, there are certain perils involved in buying a $20,000 bottle of wine. Leaving a case in the hot trunk of your car is enough to ruin it, so imagine what can happen over a couple of decades if a wine isn’t kept in the proper conditions. Back in 2002, a chemistry professor at University of California at Davis patented a technique that uses MRI technology to diagnose the condition of vintage wines. This technique may soon be used at airport security, meaning you’ll be able to carry on your booze.

10. Wines can be aged instantly.

If you end up with a bottle of plonk, Chinese scientists have developed a handy solution. Zapping a young wine with electricity makes it taste like something you’ve cellar aged. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it happens yet, but it seems that running your wine for precisely three minutes through an electric field changes the esters, proteins, and aldehydes and can “age” a wine instantly.

Taco Bell is Opening a Taco-Themed Hotel in Palm Springs This Summer

Taco Bell Corp.
Taco Bell Corp.

For some, having a Taco Bell and its cheese-filled menu within driving distance is enough. For others, only a Taco Bell destination vacation will do. This August, the popular fast food chain is going to convert an existing Palm Springs, California, hotel into a burrito-filled Taco Bell getaway for a limited time.

The Bell Hotel will have all the usual amenities—rooms, food, gifts, and a salon—operating with a taco-themed cosmetic facelift. The nail salon, for example, will feature Taco Bell-inspired nail art. (Though we're not entirely sure what that consists of—possibly nails that resemble hot sauce packets.) The gift shop will feature Taco Bell apparel. Guests can also enjoy the standard variety of Taco Bell menu items. According to Thrillist, some new additions to their line-up are expected to be unveiled.

The as-yet-undisclosed hotel in Palm Springs will be operating as a Taco Bell partner for five nights total. As with pop-up stores and other publicity campaigns, the expectation is that guests will share their bizarre Taco Bell resort experience on social media and create some buzz around the brand. Taco Bell is no stranger to audacious marketing, as in the case of their Taco Bell Cantina in Las Vegas, which books weddings. Recently, the company also began making home deliveries via GrubHub.

The Bell Hotel website is now accepting sign-ups so fans can be notified when reservations open. The facility is expected to open August 9.

[h/t CNBC]

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