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By Culturekiosque Staff

ALBA, ITALY, 23 OCTOBER 2013 — Truffles are the most expensive mushrooms in the world.  And while Umbria is famous for its black truffles, Alba fetches the highest prices for its renowned fine white truffles. Depending on the quality of the harvest, prices can fluctuate from $2,500 to $3,500 or more per pound. In 2010, for example, 13 truffles were purchased as a group for 307,200 euros ($423,315).

This year, the Piedmont Region of Italy is celebrating the 83rd edition of the International White Truffle of Alba Fair. Attracting locals and many visitors from abroad, the autumnal festival (through 17 November) features weekends full of special events, everything from the "heart of the fair," i.e. the Market, offering certified white truffles for sale, and a Palio Race (by donkey), to wine tastings, gourmet food stands and restaurants (menus à la truffe), concerts and art exhibits.  

The ancients thought the truffle was the food of the gods, with aphrodisiac properties that according to mythology were well known to the impetuous Jupiter, while Roman recipe writers advised ordinary mortals to cook the Tubers (mushroom classification came much later) under ash and eat them with honey. Later on, in the Middle Ages, a deep-rooted mistrust of this strange natural product developed, and it was believed to be poisonous. The consecration of the truffle as the king of cuisine only took place in the last two centuries, with its constant use in the courts of the nobility.

The "Tuber" can be found in valley floors or hilly areas that are not too dry. Normally these can be grassy ground or where there is little vegetation, without brushwood and with generally good humidity.

The various types of truffles are determined by their shape, size, colour, the appearance of some of their parts, aroma, and taste. If these characteristics are not sufficient, a microscopic examination of specific characteristics is necessary. It is possible to identify truffles at all stages of their development by means of bio-molecular tests.

In Italy around ten species of truffles are harvested. The most valuable of these is the Tuber magnatum Pico (Alba or Acqualagna or Fine White Truffle), which has always been the most prized in the kitchen and in terms of value.There are no poisonous truffles, but some with a nauseating or no odour can cause slight gastro-intestinal upset. Some of these are called ‘false truffles'.

Some species are found in small quantities also in Germany, Switzerland, the Czech and Slovak Republics and the UK. Less well-known types of truffles are found in Asia, Africa, America and Australia.

The most valuable species of truffle that have been identified are found in Italy, France, Spain and the north of former Yugoslavia.

The fine white truffle has so far only been found in the northern and central Italy and Istria. Typical areas are in southern Piedmont, in particular on the renowned characteristic hills around Turin, the Langhe and Monferrato. The city of Alba has the oldest market, which because of the quality of the truffles sold there, is responsible for setting the ‘official' price. 

 Finally, the 2013 recipient of the Truffle of the Year remains a mystery, but in years past the "Tartufo dell’Anno" has gone to such luminaries as Claudia Cardinale, Penelope Cruz, Queen Elizabeth II, and Winston Churchill. The event is organized by the Ente Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba.

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