National Geographic News
It smells like a rotten egg, grows only in the wild, and costs a small fortune. It can inspire poetry, romance, and crime. Dogs have been kidnappedand ransoms paidbecause of it.
We're talking about the white truffle, the fungus that grows mostly in Italy and only where it wants totypically several inches below ground near the roots of oak and hazelnut trees.
Pound for pound, the tuber is the second most expensive food in the world. As for its taste, aficionados liken it to a mix of methane gas, garlic, and soil with hints of honey, yeast, and mushrooms. Yet gourmands covet Tuber magnatum pico.
"Today there is hysteria, this collective hysteria, for the truffle," said Marino Andrea, 33, the owner-chef of Antine, a one-Michelin-star restaurant in the Piedmont hamlet of Barbaresco in northwest Italy. "The price is frightening."
During the peak of the white truffle season, which typically runs from late October to early December, the tubers can fetch U.S. $1,200 to $2,300 a pound ($2,600 to $5,000 a kilogram).
That's ten times the price of more common truffle varieties. The only food that costs more is caviar.
Tuber magnatum can't be cultivated and grows only in the wild, which explains the need for trifolau, the hardy folk who roam Italy's woodlands in search of the small, buried fortunes with their truffle-sniffing dogs.
Romantic figures, trifolau are known for their barots (wooden walking sticks), all-night ramblings, and implacable secrecy.
"They are very, very particular persons," said Isabelle Gianicolo, 29, a botanist with the National Truffle Study Centre in Alba, the Piedmont city home to Italy's most famous white truffle market.
Scientists grasp only about 20 percent of all there is to know about the truffle, Gianicolo says. Perhaps even less is known about the trifolau.
Many trifolau brazenly fib to dodge her research questions, the botanist says.