x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Buried treasures on the block

Feature The Italian white truffle auction, held yearly by the event organiser Giselle Oberti and overseen by Sotheby's auction house, took place at the Emirates Palace this year.

One of lots of Italian White Truffles being auction at the Emirates Palace hotel.
One of lots of Italian White Truffles being auction at the Emirates Palace hotel.

The rarest of the rare were on display at the Emirates Palace, set out for the anxious bidders to see via satellite from places around the globe, including Rome, London and Macau. But these weren't newly-uncovered Rembrandts or gargantuan gemstones - these were Italian white truffles. The grande dame of the fungus kingdom, the truffle is what the French writer Brillat-Savarin called "the diamond of the kitchen". True to form, these beauties were stunning, even though they were still smeared with the dirt they were found in.

The Italian white truffle auction, held yearly by the event organiser Giselle Oberti and overseen by Sotheby's auction house, was simulcast in four different locations this year: Rome, London, Macau and for the first time, Abu Dhabi. Our fair city was linked in through satellite with the three others, all of which hosted bidding together in real time. Anyone could bid on any truffle lot from any location, said Samir Sharma, the auctioneer. "I will be on stage and mingling with guests and I will be taking anything [bids] from Rome, anything in London or anything in Macau," said Sharma. "This year, the finale will be a truffle that has been found in the Molise region, which is 1.08 kg. It's the size of a large baby's head."

The truffles were flown in first-class to the four separate locations where over 200 bidders spent hundreds of thousands of dirhams for the earthy treat, a rarity that is only found in Italy during the fall season and must be eaten within a week or two of being unearthed. All of the proceeds from the truffle sale go to charities in the host cities and Abu Dhabi's four lots of truffles raised nearly $22,000 (Dh80,00) for the Emirates Foundation, the national volunteer association that helps develop community-based programmes in education, environmental awareness and social welfare.

In 2007, the event made the world record price for a truffle sold at auction, when the Macau businessman Stanley Ho bought one of the largest white truffles ever to be found for a whopping $330,000 (Dh1,200,000). (All of the proceeds went to Macau-based charities.) Though there were 16 lots on offer at this year's auction, Abu Dhabi buyers purchased only four of them, with Ho taking the lion's share of the offerings. Clearly feeling the pinch of the financial crisis, buyers in London acquired only three, while Rome sadly acquired none at all.

All of the attendees at the Emirates Palace were treated to a lavish dinner featuring the truffle as a centrepiece of a number of dishes. Courses included wagyu beef carpaccio with greens and shaved truffles and a chocolate mouse layered with white truffle pannacotta for dessert. Though at times it was difficult to get a hold on who was raising the bid ("We have $2,500 London?No! Macao is at $2,500 - wait, we had it here first!"), the excitement of the auction was infectious, along with the joy of the purchasers. The piece de resistance, the 1.08 kg white truffle, was bought by Ho in Macau, for over $200,000 (Dh734,000). Truffles are known for their almost foot-like scent - something that might be a turn-off at first, but quickly becomes an obsession. Who knows, if the taste catches on in the UAE, the country could soon be a major actor in determining the market of the prized white fungus.

swolff@thenational.ae