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Without question, the winter white truffle from the picturesque northern Italian hills near Alba is the most highly esteemed of all known varieties of truffles. The boldness of this statement is not just based on idle speculation. The truth is in the pudding, so to speak, and the lofty reputation of the Alba winter white truffle is not only well-deserved, but borne out by the prices these aromatic nuggets are able to fetch.
For example, a single 1.6-pound white truffle sold for $150,000 in November 2009 during Alba's annual White Truffle Festival. Only one month later, Alba truffles were being sold for as much as €10,200 per kilogram. The highest price known to have been paid for a single white truffle is the $330,000 paid several years ago for a 1.5-kilogram (3.3 pound) specimen unearthed in Tuscany by a truffle dog, a price which literally made this gem a gastronomic treasure. Interestingly, this particular truffle was sold at an auction held simultaneously in Florence, Macau and Hong Kong.
These prices surpass those paid for all other truffle varieties, even the highly sought-after, delectable Périgord winter black truffle. There are several reasons for this phenomenon, but everything begins with the white truffle's alluring fragrance and flavor. Blessed with an intense earthy, musky aroma that can perfume an entire room and a flavor somewhat reminiscent of shallots with hints of garlic and pepper on the palate, no other truffle imparts a sensory experience quite this extraordinary. Alba winter white truffles are primarily used uncooked to best preserve their wonderful characteristics, allowing their magnificent fragrance to waft over and envelop any dish they are served with.
The extreme scarcity of Alba winter white truffles also plays a significant role in their cost. Simply put, they are much scarcer than any other type of truffle, and because they are impossible to cultivate, those that do exist must be found in the wild. And, the fact that fresh winter white truffles can only be hunted and harvested during a very short season, typically beginning in late October and extending only through December, adds to their rarity.
The process by which white truffles are located and unearthed also contributes significantly to their value - and their mystique. These tuber-like gems grow beneath the surface of the soil among the roots of only certain species of trees, and they are searched for with every bit as much zeal as the most precious of any diamond, emerald or ruby. The traditional truffle-hunting process involves the innate ability of female pigs to sniff out the elusive subterranean truffles, although more recently, truffle dogs have also come into use. Truffle hogs and truffle dogs both have a keen sense of smell, but sows are naturally drawn to truffles due to a compound within them that resembles a pheromone produced by boars. In contrast, truffle dogs must be specifically trained to detect truffles, but they are easier to control and less likely to actually eat the truffles they find. In Istria in 1999, a truffle dog named "Diana" found one of the largest truffles in the world, weighing in at 1.31 kilograms, or about 2.5 pounds. Just a few years later, a different truffle dog, named "Rocco," unearthed a white truffle weighing about 3.3 pounds in the hills of Tuscany, not far from Pisa.
Alba's sumptuous truffles are variously known as the Tuber magnatum pico, tarfutti bianco, white Alba truffle and the Piedmont truffle, but perhaps the most descriptive and appropriate name of all is the "white diamond of Italy." After all, both diamonds and winter white truffles come from beneath the soil, are among the most highly valued substances known to man, and are emblematic of an indulgent yet discerning lifestyle