Shortages, gluts and truffle untruths

The northern hemisphere truffle season is getting under way, and while there are signs that it could be a good year for Italian whites, French trufficulteurs are worried that summer drought and excessive heat will lead to a poor harvest of Périgord blacks.

A report in The Daily Telegraph (registration required) forecasts that prices for melanosporum will break through 1,000 Euro/kg for the first time. The piece quotes Gilbert Espenon, vice-president of the French truffle growers Federation (FFT): “It did not rain from late April until now and the Mistral wind was very strong, which dried out the soil even more.” Meanwhile, over the Pyrenees in Spain, it’s been a long hot summer, with Portugal experiencing a record drought. If there hasn’t been significant late summer rain in Spain’s truffle growing regions (a rough sort of triangle between Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia), then production there will also be hit.

Over the Alps in Italy, it seems there’s been good rain, and Italian restaurants in New York are expecting a bumper season. Lower prices will allow them to reduce the cost of their white truffle masterpieces. Dan Dorfman in The New York Sun interviewed Nicola Civetta of the “classy” Primavera: “Mr. Civetta, whose truffle policy is “to buy the best of the best,” says he’s initially paying $1,300 a pound this year, versus $1,700 to $2,000 a pound last year. Accordingly, his full-portion pasta and risotto truffle dishes, which averaged $95 to $98 in 2004, are being scaled down this year to $79.”

The average price mentioned in the article is about US$1,000 per pound, or US$2,200 per kilo, equivalent to NZ$3,200/kg. That’s a good price for top quality Italian white. Those “full portion” pasta and risotto dishes don’t look cheap though. They might be cheaper than last year, but that doesn’t mean affordable – not to New Zealander who thinks that NZD $35 for a main course is distinctly upmarket.

Mr Dorfman also proves my rule about all journalists eventually spouting bollocks about truffles. Quite apart from buying into the marketing myth that it’s Alba that produces the finest truffles (Alba’s market quite happily sells truffles from all over Italy), he then produces this absolute classic: “Likewise, truffles from Alba will look like a golf ball, whereas those from Tuscany and Umbria will look more like a squashed potato.” I think he may be beating around the bush with the wrong end of a large stick.

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