Monday, November 15, 2010

A €105 000 truffle sends market atwitter


A giant (900g) white truffle was sold off on Sunday to a Hong Kong-based wine critic for €105,000 (R1 000,000) at a lavish auction near the town of Alba in northern Italy.

The prized giant truffle aka the hunchback of fungi

Gourmets in Italy and beyond are licking their lips in anticipation of a bumper crop this year of the most prized culinary delicacy of all, the white truffle. The Piemonte region in northern Italy is reputed to grow the world's best white truffles – which connoisseurs describe as having aromas of garlic, hay, wet earth, honey, mushroom and spices - and aromas similar to pheromones that trigger a mating reflex in female pigs.


Earlier in the season the climatic conditions had been described as “textbook," according  to Giacomo Oddero, president of the National Centre for Truffle Studies in Alba, the centre of the truffle trade. “The first indications are excellent and suggest that we'll remember this year for a long time to come."


The combination of mild weather and a bleak financial climate means the coming months will see lots of high-quality fungus at relatively low prices say experts. The price per gram for the truffle was €117 - lower than the €133 per gram paid at the same auction last year.

The buyer was Jeannie Cho Lee -- a South Korean wine critic living in Hong Kong -- who made her bid via a satellite link-up. Lee said on her Twitter account that she bought the truffle together with friends and will hold "a white truffle feast" after it arrives on Tuesday. "It is all for charity so it isn't logical prices," she said. Last year's truffle also went to a buyer from Hong Kong.

The record price paid for a white truffle was set in December 2007, when Macau casino owner Stanley Ho paid $330,000 (£210,000) for a specimen weighing 1.5kg. He followed it up the next year buying one for $200,000 (£128,000) that was slightly over one kilogramme and dug up in Molise, a region in Italy's south.

The truffles, which look like small, shrunken potatoes when they're dug out of the clayish, calcium-rich soil around oak, willow or poplar trees, are creamy-coloured inside. Attempts to grow them commercially have failed.

Despite its aromatic, highly pungent taste, the white truffle is also very delicate; this and its high cost ensures that it is used sparingly and served raw – usually shaved over steaming buttered pasta or salad - or pizza at Gordon Ramsey.

The fungi, which some think grow where lightning strucks, are harvested by experienced gatherers known in Piemonte as trifolau. For obvious reasons they keep quiet about the locations of their favourite truffle groves. 

Serious disputes over the ownership of lucrative patches of truffle territory are not uncommon, and stories of rivals poisoning each other's truffle-hunting dogs abound. Pigs generally no longer used as they proved difficult to control once sniffing truffle aromas.

There are dozens of truffle species, at least eight of which grow in Italy. For people who can't afford the white variety, the more common but less flavourful black type is a common choice. This has also proved possible to farm and is better suited to cooking.

Maxime Meynard picks a boletus edulis (cep) mushroom

Meanwhile a team of researchers have visited French peasant Maxime Meynard's land as part of a project to help forestry workers create the perfect conditions for boletus, chanterelles, morels and other edible fungi. The researchers want to develop wild mushroom orchards — cultivating a food that has been eaten for thousands of years but never successfully farmed.

Many foodies consider boletus fried with garlic, parsley and shallots or cooked with goose fat in an omelette to be among the finest experiences known to Man and are prepared to pay for the pleasure. But the numbers sound pre-French revolution. Over 33,800 peasant farmers claim a welfare benefit for people whose income leaves them below the poverty line.

Many rely on wild mushrooms to supplement their income and participate with millions of others in the autumnal search through woodlands. Fights — sometimes involving knives and guns — often take place when pickers dispute the best patches. Finding the more magic mushrooms is also common and authorities often have to look for pickers who become lost in the forests.

It would all be much easier if everyone could be like Mr Meynard, who only has to drive down a lane to find as many wild mushrooms as he can pick. He bought his farm in the Dordogne in 1964 and had given up hope of earning a decent living from it when he spotted les cèpes. “I was able to fill the boot and the back seats of my car with them,” he told Sud Ouest, the regional daily newspaper.

Last year he and his wife Marie-Louise picked 520kg (1,150lb), which he sold in Dordogne’s markets for up to €30 (R285) per kg. His success brought fame — after the region’s television station featured him in a report — but also jealousy. Thieves stole his mushrooms, forcing him to put fences around the 1.7 hectare patch, and neighbours started a rumour that he was importing Romanian fungi and passing them off as French.

Jean Rondet, a forestry engineer who is one of the founders of Micosylva, a European project to study wild mushrooms, told The Times that Mr Meynard’s land had made a significant contribution to scientific understanding. By observing this and other mushroom patches researchers were close to establishing the ideal conditions for mushroom orchards.

They said that the fungi were best cultivated around chestnut trees that were between 25 and 100 years old and spaced about 10m (33ft) apart to allow rain through. The scientists said that they were also close to explaining other details of how to make forests suitable for wild mushroom growth. 

Best wine match with Ceps and truffles - yup you guessed it - Pinot Noir, or try Brut cap classique sparkling wine.

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