Truffle refers to the fruiting bodies of various species of subterranean fungi. Generally speaking, this means the members of the genus Tuber. However, truffles can come from other genera such as Geopora and Peziza as well. With that said, truffle sees the most use for referring to species such as the black truffle, the summer truffle, and the white truffle that are prized for cooking. These truffles have a reputation for being very expensive, which is based on a number of reasons
Difficult to Cultivate
It is possible to cultivate truffles. For example, there are both French and Italian regions that see truffle cultivation. Furthermore, there are places in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States where similar efforts have been made as well.
Unfortunately, truffle cultivation is a serious challenge. First, the truffle species that are prized for cooking have very specific growing conditions, meaning that there is a limited number of places in the world where they can be cultivated. Second, these truffle species are ectomycorrhizal, meaning that they need to colonize the root tissues of the right trees before they can start producing fruiting bodies. Third, it takes years and years for the truffle species to develop their mycorrhizal networks to the point that they can start producing fruiting bodies. Fourth, this huge initial investment will be wasted unless farmers can maintain the right growing conditions the entire time. Fifth, even once the truffle species have started producing fruiting bodies, farmers need to implement protective measures for the purpose of fending off wild boars as well as the infectious diseases that can kill either the trees or the truffles. Combined, it is no wonder that such a huge percentage of the truffles that people eat come from the wild rather than from cultivated sources, though even there, truffles can’t be found in large quantities.
With that said, it is interesting to note that there is reason to believe that truffle cultivation could be producing more truffles than in the present time. After all, there was a time in the late 19th century when a pair of epidemics devastated the southern French wine industry as well as the southern French silk industry, with the result that a lot of land were set aside for truffle cultivation instead. Unfortunately, the rural exodus caused by the industrialization of France combined with the manpower losses inflicted by the First World War meant that much of the truffle-growing land was returned to wilderness. Since the trees that are so critical for truffle cultivation have an average life cycle of about 30 years, this meant that truffle production plummeted throughout the interwar period as well as throughout the Second World War. As such, it seems safe to say that sufficient interest can raise the number of truffles produced through truffle cultivation, but the time, effort, and other costs make for rather intimidating barriers.
Difficult to Extract
Extracting truffles has its own complications. Truffles are subterranean fungi, meaning that humans can’t use our sense of sight to find out their locations in preparation for extraction. Instead, it is common practice to use either a dog or a pig to find the truffle before digging it out of the ground.
Both of these animals come with certain issues. In the case of the dog, it has the keen sense of smell needed to find the truffle, but it must be trained to find the truffle, which can take a fair amount of time and effort. Meanwhile, it is natural for female pigs to seek out truffles, meaning that there is no need to train them. However, interested individuals need to be much more vigilant about female pigs eating the truffles that they find because that is in their nature as well. Curiously, there is an entire genus of flies that can smell out truffles as well, with the result that they can often be seen flying over such sites. Unfortunately, flies are flies, meaning that this is more a matter of scientific interest than practical truffle finding.
In any case, even when a truffle hunter has a trusted truffle-finding animal with them, they can’t count on getting a bountiful harvest. Truffles are just too rare for that kind of thing, meaning that truffle hunters can expect to use up huge amounts of time and effort in exchange for just ounces of the precious food-stuff. Never mind their expected results in bad truffle seasons.
Can’t Be Stored For Long Periods of Time
Speaking of which, truffles are very seasonal by nature. Even worse, they are very perishable, so much so that some of them can lose something like 5 percent of their weight on a daily basis. As a result, truffle businesses have overwhelming incentive to get the truffle out of the ground, process the truffle for sale, and then send the truffle to wherever it is that it will be consumed as soon as possible. Since truffles are produced in a small number of locations while truffle eaters can be found throughout much of the world, this means a lot of shipping costs for a lot of shipping over incredible distances but on very short notice. Unsurprisingly, that kind of thing tends to cause prices to shoot up, particularly since truffle businesses have a hard time doing anything in bulk.
Finally, the single biggest issue might be the sheer demand for truffles. In the past, they were a popular food-stuff that saw use in cuisines such as French cuisine, Italian cuisine, Spanish cuisine, and various Middle Eastern cuisines. Nowadays, they are a major status symbol associated with international haute cuisine, meaning that the number of people interested in eating truffles has been going up and up. Naturally, this high demand for the fungus has brought about increased competition over the fruiting bodies that are dug out of the gound, which in turn, means higher prices. Something that is particularly evident when bidding in bad seasons can send the price of the right truffles soaring up into the thousands of dollars.