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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rise in Truffle Prices Not to Be Sniffed At

ALBA, Italy -- Italy's precious white truffle crop has been devastated by widespread flooding in the northwest of the country, meaning the world's gourmets will pay much more for the pungent fungi.


Woodland around this northern city has for centuries produced the country's most aromatic truffles. They are one of the world's most sort-after gastronomic delights which look like shrivelled potatoes and grow on the end of tree roots.


But violent storms which battered the region of Piedmont over the weekend, have swamped some of the best truffle-hunting ground in the country and washed away much of the crop.


"We think about three-quarters of the truffles have been destroyed," said Agostino Aprille, president of the local truffle association.


The storms came midway through the truffle-hunting season, which starts in September and lasts through to December when the winter chill stunts the fungi's growth.


During the season men, and the occasional woman, scour the countryside with specially trained truffle-hunting hounds in search of the valuable food.


Hunters say truffles higher up on the mountains might have escaped the worst of the storms, with flood waters flowing off the hills and into the valleys.


"But no one is in the mood to look for truffles at the moment, most people are just trying to clear up the mess," Aprille said. "If anyone does manage to bring a truffle to market then the price could be astronomical," he added.


Before the storms, truffles on Alba's open market reached 320,000 lire ($205) per 100 grams. Now prices could touch 600,000 lire per 100 grams, Alba's truffle hunters say, as demand far outstrips supply.


Greeks and Romans treasured the truffle as an aphrodisiac, the poet Byron kept one on his desk for inspiration, while today restaurateurs from as far away as New York and Tokyo grate the fungi into some of their most expensive dishes.


But locals warn that unscrupulous outsiders may take advantage of Alba's disaster and try to pass off a less odorous truffle, Tuber borchii, found elsewhere in Italy, as the precious white truffle, Tuber magnatu.


"People will cash in on our name and spoil our reputation," Aprille warned.


The difference in quality between the two fungi is huge, but the inexperienced buyer can easily be fooled. The two look very similar.


However, Teresio Vaschetto, a keen hunter and former president of the Piedmont truffle association, said all was not gloom for truffle fans.


"Behind every dark cloud there's a silver lining," he said. "All this rain will have washed away a lot of impurities in the earth which means next year's crop could be superb."