A few shavings of prized white truffle on your risotto, pasta or eggs can elevate a dish to the realm of fine dining … and possibly set you back a few hundred dirhams. After all, at the Alba White Truffle World Auction held last week, a 900-gram truffle sold for a staggering €100,000 ($118,100), while The Gaillard restaurant at the Address Downtown in Dubai picked up a 750g specimen for Dh125,000.
We are in the middle of white truffle season and several restaurants in the UAE have launched menus to highlight the flavourful ingredient that is widely hailed as one of the most expensive in the world. On their own, spongy white truffles, which come from the northern Italian town of Alba, might not look like much – oddly shaped ginger, perhaps, with a pale golden hue.
But as Massimo Vidoni, known as Dubai's "truffle man", puts it: "You are aware of a truffle's arrival long before it's in your mouth. It will tickle your nostrils, the smell being as fulfilling as the taste." The Italian entrepreneur and founder of speciality foods company Italtouch has been trading truffles for about three decades, and brought the truffle acquired by The Gaillard to the UAE.
It is its distinct flavour profile that has led to the ingredient’s immense popularity among chefs and gourmands. But to understand the demand and the eye-watering price tag for what is, essentially, a bit of underground fungus, one has to dig deeper.
Of the two main types, black truffles, known for their sweet, nutty and rich aroma, are available all year because people are able to cultivate them. The white truffle, on the other hand, is more precious, as it cannot be farmed; its availability is based purely on chance.
"They only grow in the wild, in the interiors that are not inhabited by humans, in parts of Italy and Southern Europe," says Vidoni. "So people go hunting for them. It is like the gold rush – they go truffle hunting in the early morning or at night, guided by moonlight, if they don't want others to know where they are searching. The location of truffle is highly prized and passed on through generations. People are very protective of this," he says.
“They only grow in the wild, in the interiors that are not habituated by humans, in parts of Italy and Southern Europe,” says Vidoni. “So people go hunting for them. It is like the gold rush – they go truffle hunting in the early morning or a night, guided by moonlight, if they don’t want others knowing where they are searching
"The location of truffle is highly priced and passed on through generations. People are very protective of this,” he adds.
The evasive white truffle also only pops up for about 60 days in a year, from the end of October, with the price changing according to supply. “This year, depending on size and quality of the truffle, you can get one kilogram for Dh11,000 to Dh15,000,” says Roberto’s group executive chef Francesco Guarracino, one of the UAE’s most avid truffle seekers. “But in 2014, it was a very dry year, hardly any truffles were found. The price went up to Dh20,000 to Dh30,000 per kilo.
“Even now, we don’t know how much we will be paying for truffles next week.” This, he says, is the beauty of truffles. “It is not something human beings can replicate. Only Mother Nature has the recipe for truffles.”
Once they are picked, truffles are ripe for consumption within the first week. They lose 3 per cent to 5 per cent of their weight every day, while their flavour also diminishes with time. Ten days after they are discovered, they are inedible, says Vidoni. "It is an extremely risky business dealing with truffles. But they are worth the money. They aren't just an ingredient – they are an experience."
Truffles in the UAE
When Vidoni moved to the UAE in 2011, he noticed that only a handful of companies traded in truffles because they were considered a high-risk product. Restaurants that needed the ingredient had to pre-order it and use what was supplied. However, things have changed over the years, something Vidoni and Guarracino credit to the growing popularity of the fungus among diners. "Ten years ago, restaurants had to charge more to make up the cost. While it is still seen as a luxury product today, the popularity has driven the price down," says Guarracino. "Now, throughout November, I have truffle vendors showing me their fare. I get to pick and choose what truffles I want."
The cost of white truffles also depends on their size. They have an average weight of 200g. Those that go above 500g are considered rare, while those that weigh above a kilogram are only found once every five or more years. A white truffle that weighs more than 1.5kg is yet to be discovered.
In 2018, Roberto's Dubai bought a 1.15kg white truffle for Dh187,000, also sourced by Vidoni. "I remember checking on that truffle every three hours," says Guarracino with a laugh. "It had to be carefully stored in the chiller, covered by a paper towel that I changed every day. It was comparable to when I had my first child!"
The hefty price tag was worth it, though.
Guarracino reveals that Roberto's is charging between Dh50 and Dh110 per gram this season, with the price per gram changing according to the weekly rate. The restaurant usually sells between 1kg and 2kg of truffle in a week, and has also gone up to 7kg one year.
Truffle menus in the UAE
If you thought 2020 would have been the downfall of the exotic ingredient owing to the pandemic, that is not the case at all, says Vidoni. A number of restaurants have introduced their limited-time white truffle menus and tables are filling up fast.
Roberto’s, which live-streamed the Alba auction on November 8, has a set of daily specials such as ciocco colato, a dish of dark chocolate foam with hazelnut ice cream and white truffle; and manzo tartare, featuring Wagyu beef, truffle mayo, shimeji mushroom and white truffle, with prices ranging from Dh155 to Dh350. “The white truffle is eaten raw. Do not shave it on a dish that is too hot or too complex, as the truffle already has a complex flavour,” advises Guarracino. “It is best added to neutral-tasting dishes like scrambled or fried eggs, potato, pasta or risotto.”
Scalini at the Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach offers shavings of truffle for its burrata and clarified butter tagliolini, for a starting price of Dh210. Cipriani on Yas Island serves fresh burrata, steak tartare and risotto with white truffle, with dishes priced between Dh385 and Dh725.
Hutong Dubai in DIFC charges between Dh105 and Dh695 for its truffle-infused dishes, which include roasted Peking duck, tea-smoked truffle rolls and a dim sum platter. French restaurant La Serre in Downtown Dubai is serving risotto de truffe blanche, priced at Dh350. Guests can also request truffle to be added to any of the restaurant’s dishes for an additional Dh85 a gram.
Jones The Grocer, which sells more than 50 artisan truffle-infused products, has added dishes such as a Wagyu burger with truffle brie, and a truffle and mushroom risotto to its menu.
Chief executive Yunib Siddiqui says the store’s bestsellers are the infused oils and sliced preserved truffle. Some of the dishes that are growing in popularity include coated truffle jus nuts and fruits, truffle powder with Parmesan, Delamare shrimp truffle powder, truffle and pesto powder and soy sauce truffle perlage.
The demand for the ingredient is on the rise despite the pandemic, especially during the current white truffle season, Siddiqui confirms. “We have had a big growth in sales. The pandemic has taught us that good-quality, authentic food will always be in demand even in tough times.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Vidoni and Guarracino. Vidoni had a hard time in March as restaurants shut down, leaving him with surplus stock. He worked around it by selling truffle-infused products online. In September and October, however, he noted an increase of about 40 per cent in sales compared to last year.
He credits this to the fact that discerning diners with a taste for truffles are willing to spend. “Even now, if you visit some of the best restaurants in the UAE, you will find them packed.”
Guarracino says Roberto's has experienced a 20 per cent increase in demand for truffles this year. "We are fortunate to be in a part of the world where people feel safe dining out. This year, we have actually had an increase in footfall during the summer, as people did not travel abroad .
“But a 20 per cent increase is on a par with rising demand, year on year,” he adds. “It can’t be credited to the pandemic alone, but due to the popularity of the ingredient itself. Everyone knows of it now, everyone wants a little more truffle.”