How much would you pay for a fungus? Last year, a set of white Alba truffles weighing just under two pounds sold for over 75,000 euros, or over $85,000. (The starting price of a 2018 Mercedes Benz S-Class sedan is $89,900.)
Truffles were in short supply that year, but even during a more season some can cost $4,000 a pound. Yeah, [truffles] are expensive, but we are talking about the diamonds of gastronomy,” Francesca Sparvoli, co-owner of truffle distribution company Done4NY tells CNBC Make It.
Truffles — which grow underground near the roots of certain trees, particularly oak, throughout central Europe — are highly sought after for their distinct earthy, musky flavor and scent. They are often served shaved over dishes like pasta or risotto (about 8 to 10 grams per individual serving).
There are four main varieties of truffles used in cuisine. Though prices vary depending on the strength of the growing season and the rarity of the type, Sparvoli says prices are, on average: $250 per pound for summer black truffles; $350 per pound for Burgundy, which grow from September through February; $800 per pound for winter black, which grow from November through March; and $2,000 to $4,000 for Alba (a town in Italy) or white truffles, which grow from early October through December.
“The white truffle is the most valuable because its very much affected by the weather and the climate in a given season,” says Marco Bassi, co-owner of Done4NY. That’s because white truffles lack an outer shell, leaving them exposed to the elements.
Truffles are rare, in part, because they are nearly impossible to cultivate (recreating the necessary growing conditions is both difficult and costly and it can take years to yield truffles and decades to turn a profit).
They are also hard to find.
Vittorio Giordano, vice president of New York-based Urbani Truffle USA, Inc., which supplies and distributes truffles around the world, says the company has an army of over 18,000 truffle hunters and brokers globally to keep up with demand.
The hunters use specially trained dogs to help them in their effort. “A very good dog to a hunter is the most precious thing in the world,” Sparvoli says. “The truffle hunters protect their dog more than their wives.”
And for all that effort, there’s a preciously small return. “Truffle Hunters are not going to find pounds and pounds,” says Giordano. “Each one can find just a few ounces.”
In addition to their rarity, truffles lose about 5 percent of their weight everyday, Girodano says, so they have to be harvested, processed and shipped as quickly as possible.
“In less than 36 hours, we go from under ground to on a restaurant table,” he says.
Giordano’s sixth-generation company supplies truffles to 68 countries and thousands of restaurants. In the U.S. they cater to 1,200 restaurants.
During white truffle season in fall and early winter, Urbani supplies about 400 pounds of white truffles to United States each week, with 10 percent sold at retail and 90 percent to restaurants. (He declined to share how many total pounds Urbani ships around the world.) In 2015, an exceptionally good year for white truffles, Giordano says the company sold about 3,000 kilos or 6,614 pounds of white truffles in the U.S. alone.
Done4NY has 200 truffle hunters in Italy and France to help supply its 500 restaurant clients around New York City. This summer, the company imported about 100 pounds of the black summer truffles per week on average. Bassi and Sparvoli say they pick up a new batch of truffles from John F Kennedy International Airport every other day, all year round.
“Purchasing in Italy and France is very tough because we need steady connections. The world of selling is tough because of the competition,” Bassi says.
And it’s not the money-maker you might imagine at these prices, according to Sparvoli: “You would be surprised by how low the margins are for us because they are expensive for everybody” (though she declines to disclose what those margins are).
The good news, Sparvoli says, is that the rainy spring (in Europe) bodes well for this year’s black and white winter truffle season.
“Now we are experiencing high quality and low price, about 35 percent less than last year,” she says. “We don’t have limits on how much we can import this year. The problem is if we can find the clients to buy them.”