What do you call a truffle that is the size of a football? “The million-dollar mushroom,” said my daughter, Celina, when I phoned her en route to Sotheby’s for a media preview of the largest ever found. It was rumored that a Chinese prospect had already offered precisely that much. But the hulking fungus, weighing in at 4.16 pounds, came up short the following day when it went for a mere $61,250 on the auction block — less than $15,000 a pound.
If even the humblest truffle is too rich for your blood, you might find comfort in knowing that the seller, Sabatino Tartufi, will donate the proceeds to two charities that represent causes close to the owners’ hearts: The Children’s Glaucoma Foundation and Citymeals-on-Wheels. “We’ve been doing business in New York since 1999, and we want to give back,” family representative Gabriel Balestra said. His grandparents founded the company in 1911 in a small storefront in the tiny Umbrian village of Montecastrilli; it has since mushroomed into a premier source for fresh truffles around the globe.
The ultimate delicacy
Sotheby’s, the storied auction house for art, jewels, antiques and real estate, has sold everything from Jackie O’s pearls to the Soviet space capsule Vostok 3KA-2. Asked if it had ever handled truffles, Sotheby’s Wine CEO and president Jamie Ritchie, who officiated as auctioneer, said, “The only perishable we’ve sold before is wine.” If some of that wine is going for $10,000 a bottle, at least the buyer knows he has time to drink it.
Buying a truffle is a dicier proposition. Perishability is a big concern once it is exposed to air. “Each day it ages and the perfume diminishes,” English food writer and truffle expert Gareth Jones said when he read the news about the truffle on the auction block. “[It’s] all too sad. One in London rotted in a chef’s safe when he went on holiday without leaving the key!” The average walnut-sized white truffle will stay fresh for up to 10 days if stored properly; the four pounder, unearthed on Dec. 2, has two more weeks of “shelf life,” according to Balestra.
The story of its discovery is inauspicious enough: A boy named Matteo went for a walk with his 9-month-old puppy, who sniffed out the treasure. Such specimens are usually discovered by professional hunters with years of experience and dogs trained in stalking the elusive fungus. Asked where, precisely, the boy found it, Balestra would only say that it was somewhere in northern Umbria. According to Jones, hunters in central Italy are doing better this year than their competitors in the white-truffle paradise of Piedmont. This is unusual, because Umbria is better known for the more-common black truffle. However, the white species, Tuber magnatum pico, does grow in the upper Tiber Valley in addition to Orvieto and the mountainous area around Gubbio and Gualdo Tadino, where it burrows in with the roots of the poplar, the linden, the willow and the horn beam.
As for what could have led to such a monster size, Balestra admitted, “I don’t know why it’s so big.” He explained that, like all other truffles harvested this season, it started as a spore colony in the damp undergrowth about six months ago. Perhaps the rain that did such damage to Italy’s olive groves was a godsend for its truffles.
The treasure was unveiled for no more than five minutes — the dirt left clinging to its surface to prolong its freshness — before Balestra rescued it from the spotlight. “Light and heat dry it out, and its firmness could be compromised,” he said, swaddling it with linen and returning it to a secure cooler.
1 Auctioneer Jamie Ritche introduces the celebrity truffle
How to handle truffles — carefully
The big question is, what will the winning bidder do with the delicacy? That’s a lot of tagliatelle to cover. Here are some tips for working with white truffles, adapted from my book “Umbria: Regional Recipes from the Heartland of Italy” (Chronicle Books, 2003). They should be dipped quickly in cool water to remove any clinging earth and blotted with a soft cotton cloth. They are never grated or chopped but rather shaved into paper-thin flakes with a special handheld wooden device into which a razor is secured. Nor should they ever be cooked; instead, the raw flakes are gently warmed when scattered onto the surface of hot food upon serving. Umbrian cooks like to use them on eggs lightly scrambled in butter; fresh egg pasta with an uncomplicated butter-based sauce; risotto cooked in butter and fresh veal broth, with aged Parmigiano-Reggiano folded in at the end; trout cooked in butter (its flesh is naturally delicate and a perfect canvas for the light strokes of the truffle); and butter-sautéed veal scallopini deglazed with dry white wine. They would be spoiled if used in dishes that contain garlic, vinegar, rustic tomato sauces, sheep’s cheese or other assertive ingredients.
A final note: Beware of truffle essence that is artificially produced and/or mixed with olive oil and passed off as genuine. To prevent such fraud in restaurants, Remo Rossi of the Umbrian Gastronomical Association suggests insisting that the truffle be sliced directly onto the plate at the table.