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Climate change worries Italy’s famed truffle hunters

by Ace Damon
Truffles

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Colleen Barry, Associated Press

Published Sunday, November 17, 2019 9:31 AM EST

ALBA, Italy – Rising global temperatures worry truffle hunters in the Italian city of Alba, where the most valuable specimens can get double the price of gold.

In particularly hot October, eight of the ten white truffles unearthed by Carlo Olivero with his faithful three-year-old dog, Steel, were dark, wilted, and dry.

"They are clearly signs of temperature," said Olivero, holding one he kept in his pocket. The rest he consigned to the ground, allowing the spores to spread and hopefully to replenish future production.

Alba, located in northwestern Piedmont, has earned the nickname of "white truffle capital of the world" for its particularly fragrant variety of truffles, its truffle fair each fall, and its annual charity auction, which raises the prices of the magnatum pico tuber. in the stratosphere.

A 1,005-gram truffle was bought for 120,000 euros ($ 133,000) – more than double the price of gold – from a Hong Kong buyer at this year's auction.

The long-term impact of rising temperatures on highly prized white truffles is still being studied, but they, like other fungi, grow best in cold and rainy conditions. Climate change has delayed peak production from October to November.

"We've been worried about truffle production for a few years," said Antonio Degiacomi, president of Italy's national center for truffle studies. "We have had a terrible year, a great one and a decent one for the last three seasons."

To avoid the impact of long-term climate change on highly prized white truffle production, experts have launched initiatives to better preserve the territory where they grow. The goal is to safeguard the symbiosis between the truffle and the host plant by encouraging the symbiosis between the truffle hunter and the landowner – whose interests often conflict.

Olivero recalled a maker of the region's famous red wine Barolo who wanted to cut two oaks – trees that are perfect hosts for truffles – that were protecting his vines.

"I told him, 'The day you catch all the oaks, only you will drink your wine,'" said Olivero. "Because the truffle and Barolo are two formidable components. It's a system that works on the table but needs to go together first in nature."

Unlike the most common black truffles, delicate white truffles cannot be cultivated yet, which makes preserving their environment critical.

Incentives include a program that pays owners 24 euros ($ 26) a year to keep the host trees they could remove. Truffle associations also make arrangements with absent landowners to keep their wooded properties clean in a way that promotes truffle growth.

The price of the white truffle at this year's charity auction – 12,000 euros per 100 grams ($ 13,200 for 3.5 ounces) – compared to a high price at this year's fair of about 380 euros per 100 grams ($ 400 per 3.5 ounces). The fair price can rise to 750 euros ($ 850) per 100 grams in years of scant production.

After an exceptionally hot and long summer, the humid, hazy weather of November turned out to be perfect for truffle hunting in Alba.

"Currently the quality is especially high," said truffle judge Stefano Cometti. "Low temperatures increase the organic characteristics of the nose and force it to retain the aroma."

That included a 730-gram white truffle unearthed by Davide Curzietti on Saturday, the largest annual truffle fair to date. The judges certified the origin of the giant tuber, which Curzietti immediately sold to a restaurant in Osaka for 3,800 euros ($ 4,200).

Even after more than four decades of truffle hunting, Olivero is still thrilled when Steel stops vigorously sniffing the damp ground.

The steel nose is flawless. Through a rug of damp autumn leaves and muddy soil, the dog catches the sweet, distinctive scent of a white truffle and signals its discovery by quickly digging the surface.

"I call it the magic moment because it means there is something down there that we were looking for. We don't know the dimensions yet, how big it will be, but the heartbeat speeds up because at that moment we know there is something," said Olivero.

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