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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 26 May 2018

Treasure trove of truffles at Dubai auction

The white truffle is the world's most expensive foodstuff and, it's hoped, a Dubai foodie will pay a record-breaking sum for one at auction next week, writes Kevin Hackett 

An Italian truffle hunter (also known as a trifulau), holds a handful of white truffles (tartufi bianco) after finding the fungus among the roots of trees in the hills around Alba, Piedmont, Italy, in October, 1988. (Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images)
An Italian truffle hunter (also known as a trifulau), holds a handful of white truffles (tartufi bianco) after finding the fungus among the roots of trees in the hills around Alba, Piedmont, Italy, in October, 1988. (Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images)

The world’s most expensive foodstuff frankly doesn’t look like much. Shapeless, wart-like and creamy in colour, varying in dimensions between the size of a walnut and a cricket ball, the pungent smell isn’t exactly fragrant, either, conjuring up images of sweaty gymnasiums and socks that need to go in the wash. But the taste? Well, that’s something else entirely.

White truffles are the most prized ingredients for the world’s greatest chefs, and we are now entering the season during which they are harvested. Boars are no longer used in Italy for tracking down truffles, which grow underground, because they try to eat them and they damage the soil in which they grow. So, like sniffer dogs trained to find explosives at airports, hounds now track the unmistakable scent of ripe truffles (if they’re dug up too soon, they have none of their famous flavour).

The labour-intensive process of finding, cleaning and shipping them while fresh goes some way in explaining why they can cost many thousands of dirhams per kilo. But in reality, it’s their rarity that keeps prices in the stratosphere – annual harvests once yielded more than 2,000 tonnes, but these days it varies between 25 and 150 tonnes.

Truffles, in fact, are so valuable that they often end up in the hands of unscrupulous dealers and black market criminals in Italy. Next week, in true Dubai fashion, the city is hoping to set a world record for the price of a single truffle, at an auction on Saturday in Le Méridien Dubai Hotel & Conference Centre.

It will be the first time that a sale of this kind has taken place in the region. The proceeds of the auction will be donated to Al Jalila Foundation, a not-for-profit philanthropic organisation established by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to fund medical research.

The auction will be held concurrently in three places: Hong Kong, Dubai and Alba, the Piedmont town in northern Italy that is famed around the world for producing the finest quality white truffles. The Dubai event starts at 4pm and is expected to raise half a million euros (Dh2.13 million) for Al Jalila.

So what will the winning bidder enjoy, apart from the honour of owning the world’s most expensive ingredient? According to organisers, selected personalities will be invited to take part in the auction, in which five truffles will go under the hammer. Winners will enjoy a meal for eight people, prepared and served in a Dubai restaurant by celebrity chefs, including Gary Rhodes. Each of the three sales locations – linked by satellite – will sell five, with one final, “signature” truffle sold from Grinzane Cavour Castle, the Alba location.

Last year’s auction, which teamed Philadelphia and Hong Kong with Alba, sold a twin truffle weighing 1.17 kilograms to Chinese chef Zhenxiang Dong, who paid the equivalent of Dh435,000 for it.

Why, though, would anyone part with such a significant sum of money for a foodstuff that needs to be consumed within a couple of days of it being pulled out of the ground, lest it go off?

“Charity donations are tax-­deductible,” says Massimo Vidoni, a man obsessed by the fungal delicacy, having styled himself as “Dubai’s Truffle Man”. Italian, talkative and with an impressive 52,400 followers on Instagram, Vidoni, or @trufflemandubai, is the go-to expert on truffles and other gourmet ingredients found in Italian cuisine, having created a thriving import business that is now a vital part of the UAE’s Italian community.

“It’s a great way for companies to give to good causes,” he says. “It’s fun and it allows people with a taste for the finer things in life to enjoy the ultimate luxury in cooking, while helping others.” Put like this, it makes perfect sense; events such as this do shine a useful spotlight on the work done by the country’s generous philanthropists.

Truffles are rare and precious commodities that are in danger of being sullied by a number of seemingly unstoppable factors: the environmental damage being done to areas where they have traditionally grown (you can, in fact, find them growing in the Middle East if the conditions are right), as they cannot be “farmed” in the traditional sense. The other threat is the Chinese truffle, which is widely regarded as being vastly inferior in flavour. “They taste like cardboard,” says Vidoni, shaking his head.

These truffles are ­harvested without the use of dogs; ­instead armies of people rake up the earth and exhume them, with no idea whether or not they are ripe. When ­truffles are at their peak in flavour and aroma, dogs pick up on the scent, as the truffles emit certain spores when ­finally ripened. The result of this practice is, unsurprisingly, an influx of poor-quality imitations that damage the truffle’s reputation.

Prices do reflect this – Chinese truffles fetch only a fraction of the prices of their French, Italian and, now, Australian, counterparts. Problems surface when unscrupulous dealers conceal them into batches of the real McCoy, essentially diluting the exquisite flavours that the world’s keenest restaurant patrons are so desperate to experience.

That won’t be an issue for the winners of this upcoming auction, however, with the region’s finest Italian chefs overseeing every step of the process. Vidoni hands around an example of one of his imported white truffles to assembled diners in the Casa Mia Italian restaurant at Le Méridien. People take turns breathing in its aroma, although many appear to be far from keen.

That all changes, however, when a main course of homemade linguini is served, with paper-thin shavings of the lumpy fungus liberally sprinkled on top. An explosion of nutty, aromatic flavours has everyone addicted and, suddenly, the appeal of this culinary diamond becomes crystal clear. There’s nothing else quite like it – no wonder worldwide demand outstrips supply by a factor of 50. Now, where’s that rake and hound?

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