In northern Italy, the world’s most expensive fungus is in trouble

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As one walks through the center of the northwestern Italian city of Alba, there is a sudden sharp tinge of something earthy and garlic-like. It comes from a stall by the street, where lumpy light yellow lumps stand lined up on a table. They are white truffles, a mushroom praised by gourmands, highly sought after by restaurants around the world and staggeringly expensive. October and November are truffle season, and a trip to the annual international Alba White Truffle Fair shows that there is much more to the deformed tuber than one can see.

White truffles grow spontaneously in the forest around Alba and in the autumn the hunting season begins. Truffle hunters with expertly trained sniffer dogs seek out the sharp tuber that grows underground in symbiosis with trees such as birch, lime and oak.

At the fair, which runs until December 5 this year, hunters and sellers display their wares like precious diamonds, and prices increase the illusion. In a good year, truffles bring in about $ 2,000 per pound. This year, relatively little of the fungus has been found, meaning prices are fluctuating around $ 6,000 per kilo.

With sums like this at stake, the quality of the truffle fair takes very seriously. Before vendors can proclaim their tubers, each one must be carefully inspected by a formidable panel of sensory analysis judges. These experts examine the truffles for imperfections, ensure that they are well cleaned of soil and weigh every lump. The most common violations are to offer truffles that are not fresh – they usually last about a week – or need a wipe. But Chief Justice Stefano Cometti explains that there are occasionally naughty tricks to watch out for. Seller used to glue smaller truffles together to make a large one [generally larger truffles fetch higher prices per kilo] and even put fishing weights inside, ”he recalls. The judges have a keen eye for such skullduggery, and Cometti adds that all culprits are banned from selling at the fair.

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Cometti’s job, however, is more than catching scammers. His professional nose can not only tell you where a truffle comes from – the tubers are found in different places in Italy and Europe – but also which tree it has developed under. “This one is from a linden tree, can you smell the intense garlic scent?” he says, offering a particularly hefty copy. Those that grow from poplar trees instead remember fresh mushrooms, garlic and honey.