White Truffle Fever Makes the Season Glow

The aroma is penetrating, distinctive, seductive. At La Grotta, a restaurant outside this Tuscan hill town, a waiter has begun shaving slivers of fresh white truffle over a humble plate of fried eggs. Instantly, heads go up around the dining room, and diners signal the staff -- yes, they’d like tartufi bianchi, too, please, on plain risotto, on buttery strands of egg pasta or simply shaved in abundance over crusts of toasted bread.

It is white truffle season here, and Italians are showing their usual enthusiasm -- even in a year when a spell of hot, dry weather has brought far fewer truffles, with elevated prices and an intense truffle war that has included the poisoning of valuable truffle hounds.

Things might be worse, if truffle seekers relied entirely on nature and serendipity. But these days, about 30 percent of truffles are harvested from trees whose roots have been inoculated with the spores of black or white truffles. These young oak, willow and nut trees, called ’’truffled trees,’’ have been nurtured in sterile greenhouses by a process that includes bathing their roots in a solution containing the fungi that grow into truffles.

Urbani Tartufi, the major world supplier of white and black truffles, produces 30,000 to 40,000 truffled trees a year through Agricoltura Urbani, its subsidiary, said Dr. Sandro Silveri, the company’s director of production. They are shipped all over Italy and to France and Spain. Rosario Safina, president of Urbani U.S.A., said the effort has spread as far as Texas, where a planting of 65,000 black-truffle trees could in time produce as much as 3,000 kilos of truffles a year.

Those would be black truffles, however, and as much as they are in demand, it’s the more delicate and highly perfumed white truffles that are truly prized. Urbani has had less success getting white-truffle trees to mature. The problem is not in developing the spore structures on the roots, Dr. Silveri explained, but rather in finding the right environment to cultivate them. And that isn’t easy because white truffles have specific requirements that aren’t completely understood, even by experts.

’’We still have so much to discover, so much to understand.’’ Dr. Silveri said. ’’This is a young form of agriculture.’’

There’s more than one way to tame a white truffle, however. The most successful tactic seems simply to identify where the fungi grow naturally -- in limestone soil along stream beds and near humid river bottom land -- and to encourage their growth by clearing heavy underbrush and silted streams. In the area around San Giovanni d’Asso, a small hill town southeast of Siena, truffle hunters have banded together to protect their truffle turf. White truffles are exquisitely sensitive to pollution, so agricultural run-off, highways and development must be kept far from the truffle bed.

Does all this truffle culture mean more truffles for the masses? Will they go from a rare and precious seasonal food to something so common that Dad will pick up a couple in the local supermarket to shave over scrambled eggs for Sunday breakfast?

Not very likely, Dr. Silveri says, especially not for white truffles. ’’Truffles aren’t tomatoes,’’ he said, ’’and will never be grown like garden vegetables.’’

Urbani Tartufi is a small but powerful family-owned company in the Valnerina, one of Umbria’s most spectacular and splendidly isolated green valleys. The company was founded early in this century to provide Umbrian black truffles for the French market.

Over four generations, Urbani Tartufi has grown, and it now ships 70 percent of the Italian and 80 percent of the international market in truffles, said Olga Urbani, the company’s public relations director. Much of that market is for flash-frozen or canned truffles, as well as for truffle extracts, but from the beginning of October to the end of December, Urbani’s efforts focus on a controlled frenzy of buying and selling fresh white truffles.

Fifteen years ago, white truffles were almost unknown in the United States except in the fanciest French and Italian restaurants. Sirio Maccione said he had 11 pounds of white truffles sent by a friend, Giacomo Bologna, the late, legendary winemaker, when he opened Le Cirque in 1974. White truffles were then considered exclusive to a small region around Alba in Italy’s northwestern Piedmont, and true Piedmontese truffle mavens like Mr. Bologna turned up their noses at white truffles from elsewhere.

But these fragrant nuggets, which look like nothing so much as misshapen golf balls left out too long in the mud and rain, turn up all over central Italy in a wide belt that extends from the Po Valley down into Latium and the Abruzzi.

The truffles develop underground, along the tree root systems. And they must be carefully scavenged, often from several inches below the surface. Truffle hunters, who call themselves cavatori or excavators, are profoundly secretive, working by night or in the dark mists of winter dawns, when no one can follow them. Their dogs, called truffle hounds, are usually mongrels, distinguished mainly by intelligence and eagerness to please, which they do by coursing the ground until they come upon the exciting fragrance of truffle. Then it’s just a matter of time as man and dog together scrape away the soil.

At the annual White Truffle Exposition and Market held last month in San Giovanni d’Asso, specimens from the Crete Senese, the hills south of Siena, one of Tuscany’s prime truffle grounds, were selling for $100 to $150, depending on size, for about three and a half ounces -- just enough to garnish pasta for six.

In a year like this, in which central Italy suffered a prolonged drought and hot weather, the truffle spores, whether fixed to tree roots by nature or science, just don’t get a start. And that means fewer truffles and higher prices, as importers like Mr. Safina, president of Urbani U.S.A., and restaurateurs like Mr. Maccione know well.

Prices fluctuate week by week, if not day by day, as the season builds to a crescendo around the holidays. At the Urbani establishment in Sant’Anatolia di Narco last month, Gianluca Urbani was supervising a work force of women in white coats, who were readying a shipment to New York: 37 pounds of large, firm, beautifully cleaned truffles, worth about $25,000, said Mr. Urbani, who manages the company’s commercial operations.

At this time of year, Mr. Urbani abandons his desk job to work directly on the shipping floor, surrounded by his white truffles, which arrive daily from Piedmont, Tuscany, the upper Tiber Valley and other parts of Italy. His enthusiasm is catching; being surrounded by overwhelming aroma day after day isn’t too much for him. ’’It’s a drug,’’ he said with a broad grin. ’’Every day the desire just gets stronger.’’

Mr. Safina, who receives four or five of Mr. Urbani’s shipments a week, sells truffles for $580 to $1,250 a pound, depending on their size.

At Le Cirque 2000, risotto di tartufi bianchi as a first course is $25 at lunchtime and $35 on the evening menu. ’’We use three, four, five pounds a week,’’ Mr. Maccione said. ’’That’s a lot of truffles.’’