Why White Truffles Are So Expensive And How They Make All The Difference When Added To A Dish
Double the value of a dish using one ingredient: white truffles. The Italian delicacy starts at $2,000 per pound and will be served with four courses during the White Truffle Dinner held this month to honor the annual Palm Beach Wine Auction.
Gianni Minervini reaches into the refrigerator and pulls out a small cardboard box. He opens the lid and scoops out a handful of raffia. There, nestled in the soft strings, are six small grayish-white bulbs no bigger than Ping-Pong balls. If one was lying on the ground, in passing it might not be regarded as anything more than a little stone.
But these are white truffles—the rarest of their kind and a culinary delicacy found only in the finest restaurants. The price for a single pound starts at $2,000. Minervini, chef-owner of Trevini Ristorante in Palm Beach, will finely shave three pounds of them onto pasta, risotto and beef filets during white truffle season, from mid-October to mid-January, when the hills of his native Italy give up the treasured fungi.
Ted Mandes, founder and chairman of the Palm Beach Wine Auction, watches his longtime friend Minervini delicately handle the truffles with a keen eye. Not only are white truffles one of his favorite treats, but they have also become a signature at the Palm Beach Wine Auction, which will celebrate its 10th year on Jan. 12 at The Mar-a-Lago Club.
“We held the first White Truffle Dinner in honor of the Wine Auction in December 2012, here at Trevini,” Mandes says, “… [it includes] four courses of white truffle dishes paired with wines from Italy’s Antinori family, prestige vintners who also support our cause of children’s arts education at the Kravis Center.”
Mandes and Minervini have been close for 30 years, since Minervini began serving diners fine Italian cuisine in his first restaurant, the tiny Il Trullo in Lantana. This year’s invitation-only White Truffle Dinner will be held Dec. 5 for one important reason: it will be the height of white truffle season, when the biggest and best truffles are unearthed.
White Truffles: The Magic Of Alba
In northwestern Italy, not far from the French border, lies a small town called Alba with origins in pre-Roman times. It boasts a 13th-century palazzo (palace) and is the international headquarters of confectioner Ferrero, famous for its Nutella spread and Rocher hazelnut candies, which are often given during the holidays. Its hot summers and mild winters also produce some of the finest wines in Italy.
But this climate also nurtures what many would argue is Alba’s greatest claim to fame, the “tartufo bianco”—the white truffle. Although they can be found in other areas of Italy (Le Marche, Molise, Abruzzo and others), Alba is considered to have the best-tasting white truffles of all.
For their great expense and renown, truffles are not glamorous-looking. They are lumpy fungi found growing wild in the woods beneath thin layers of soil. You can’t see them with the naked eye. Instead, trained dogs are used to root them out near the bases of trees. For centuries, Italians used pigs to find them, but the pigs often ate them and caused damage to the delicate truffles, leading to production declines. Italy banned harvesters from using pigs in 1985.
Still, their intense, and somewhat mushroom-like flavor (pungent yet delicate, distinct yet mild) has made white truffles a delicacy for thousands of years. The first accounts of people eating truffles date to 1600 to 1700 B.C. The ancient Sumerians ate truffles, as did Athenians and Romans. While the ravaged Middle Ages saw a decline, the Renaissance ushered in a revival that has remained to date.
Like diamonds, the price of white truffles rises exponentially with size and quality, and varies depending on availability. While a pound of small truffles might sell for $2,000, a single truffle weighing as much would cost significantly more, since larger ones are considered to have a more developed flavor and are therefore more prized. They also cost more than their cousin: the more abundant black truffle, which connoisseurs claim holds less flavor.
The most sought-after white truffles not only come primarily from Italy, but from one family in Italy, the Urbanis. Since 1850, their company has shepherded the tartufo bianco d’Alba from the soil to buyers all over the world. Their U.S. headquarters is in New York City, and it is from there that Minervini orders most of his truffles and has them overnighted to Palm Beach. Truffles keep for just a few days, so as soon as they arrive, Minervini plans special dishes on the menu incorporating them. He will also use imported Italian white truffle butter, truffle paste and truffle salt, but his favorite method is shaving the bulbs tableside with a special slicer, directly atop dishes as a finishing touch.
“The white truffle is a completely different taste, texture and aroma than the black truffle,” Minervini says. “It’s a mild, yet more intense flavor, and it brings a complexity to even the simplest pasta or risotto.”
Adding white truffles to a dish more than doubles its price, but Mandes and Minervini say they are worth every penny.
• Every fall, Alba, Italy, hosts its White Truffle Fair, the Fiera del Tartufo. The fair is held every Saturday and Sunday from October to November and has taken place for more than 80 years.
• The record price paid for a single white truffle was $330,000 in December 2007 for a bulb weighing in at 3.3 pounds.
• Truffles grow near to the surface of the soil and can be cultivated, though the process is difficult and can take more than 10 years to establish.
• You can purchase truffles locally in season through several sources, including Carmine’s Gourmet Market in Palm Beach Gardens and through “Truffle Guy” David Iannetta, a West Palm Beach resident who distributes truffles, porcini mushrooms and olive oil imported from his native Molise, Italy.
RECIPE: Filetto Di Manzo Alla Rossini Con Tartufo Bianco
Filet Mignon Rossini with White Truffle
Wine Pairing: Marchesi Antinori Tenuta Cont’Ugo Guado al Tasso 2012
2 filet mignon, 6 oz. each
3 ounces white truffle
2 slices foie gras
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon truffle butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup veal demi-glace
1 cup Madeira wine
1 pound stemless spinach
Sauce: In a small saucepan, reduce the Madeira wine to one-fourth cup. Add the veal demi-glace and bring it to boil, and then whisk the truffle butter vigorously into it. Add 1 ounce of shaved truffle and set aside.
Filet: Salt and pepper the filets. In a skillet, melt the truffle butter in the vegetable oil and sear the filets for five minutes per side, then let them rest.
Foie Gras: Sear the foie gras in a nonstick pan for one minute on each side. Set aside.
Spinach: Sauté the spinach with a little butter for three minutes.
Plating: Lay the spinach on the plate, set the filet over it and place the foie gras on top. With a tablespoon, pour the sauce over the foie gras. Shave the rest of the truffle on top of each serving.
Cooking time is 30 minutes.
If You Go
Palm Beach Wine Auction
What: A celebration of the Auction’s 10-year anniversary with exquisite wines and extraordinary experiences. The evening features a live auction and a five-course dinner paired with select wines from around the world.
Where: The Mar-a-Lago Club, 1100 S. Ocean Blvd., Palm Beach
When: Thursday, Jan. 12 at 6 p.m.
Tickets: $1,000 by invitation
561.651.4320 or palmbeachwineauction.org