Averaging Euro300 for 100 grams (about $1,350 per pound) " but with the largest specimens selling for substantially more " highly sought-after white truffles from Italy's northern Piedmont region are commonly called "white gold."
The Chinese love affair with these musky-tasting truffles has given rise to a niche industry of cooks, businessmen and millionaires from Shanghai to Singapore. They have become the main buyers of the expensive delicacy and the major protagonists in the annual truffle drama " the yearly auction in the Piedmont town of Alba.
"Each year in Alba we stage the white truffle global auction, and for the past 15 years it has been held simultaneously through streaming in Hong Kong, which boasts a permanent seat," says Marco Scuderi, vice-president of the International Alba White Truffle Fair.
"Also, Singapore and Tokyo have connected to the internet auction in recent years, but as usual the last edition (auction) was won by Hong Kong. The Chinese are our biggest, most sophisticated clientele."
Wealthy Chinese are not shy about outbidding their rivals for Alba's largest white truffles. Last year a Hong Kong entrepreneur, whose name remains a closely guarded secret, won the battle for the biggest, snapping up a massive 35-ounce specimen for $132,000.
Truffles are big business. Alba's season for the delicacies, running from September to early December, draws half a million tourists to the region, who spend more than $28 million a year.
The most prized truffles are guarded and promoted by the Order of the Knights of the Truffle and Wines of Alba. The order's marketing push has spread worldwide, including to China, where there is a growing appetite for the fungus' earthy and savory flavor.
"Alba's truffle is one of the strongest made-in-Italy brands, worshipped abroad as an Italian symbol of excellence, just like fashion, cars and wine," says master knight Tomaso Zanoletti of the order, who for 20 years has organized the event at the historic Castle of Cavour Grinzane.
Zanoletti recently set up the Hong Kong and Taipei truffle knight delegations to promote Alba's product by staging gala dinners with pairings of Piedmont's niche wines, such as red Barolo and Barbaresco.
White truffles grow in the ground, amid tree roots in woods scattered across Piedmont's Langhe and Roero district, a fertile patch of land listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site for its production of wine and truffles.
With gently rolling green hills and picturesque medieval hamlets, the region has become a powerful tourist magnet.
Chinese visitors fall in love with the beauty of the area, which has been twinned with Yunnan province's Honghe area of terraced rice fields. Chinese television celebrity Ma Li recently visited to make promotional videos, invited by Piedmont's authorities.
At last year's auction Alba hosted top Chinese chef Yong Zhang, founder of the Xin Rong Ji Group, which operates upscale restaurants in a number of Chinese cities.
Zhang bought a 17-ounce truffle for $13,300. At the Alba truffle cooking show, he proposed savory Italian-Chinese concoctions by adding the delicacy to nori algae soup and dried shrimps, and to a dish of fried rice, ham, garlic and onions. Talking to local media, he said these simple ingredients enhanced the unique taste and aroma of the fungus.
Truffles are foreign to Chinese cuisine, despite the recent emergence of a flourishing market for it in China.
If the scent and taste seem strong to Italian palates, to Chinese and other Asians accustomed to spices and pungent flavors, it is actually is quite mild, according to chef Marc Lantieri of Michelin-starred Ristorante Al Castello in the Grinzane Cavour commune of Piedmont.
Lantieri entertains Chinese clients visiting the region and serves them signature Piedmont handmade tajarin spaghetti, meat or risotto dishes with a sprinkle of grated truffle.
"Our white truffle is elegant, sweet, with a light woodsy scent that gently lingers on the tongue," he says. "It must be served and savored in a specific way: grated raw, there and then, last-minute, as soon as the pasta or rice is ready, never cooked ahead nor used as filling for pies and mousses as black truffles are. That would be a waste."
Chinese visitors love to taste new truffle dishes, but often ask Lantieri for a double truffle serving to get a fuller taste of the white tuber, or for an addition of chili pepper or spices. "They're used to stronger flavors that persist in the mouth," he says.
According to Lantieri, the Chinese are drawn to Alba's white truffles because their high price makes them prestigious.
"Anything that's expensive appeals to China's elite," he says. "White truffle is a symbol of wealth, just like a great bottle of Barolo. That's also what makes the magic of truffle; it is not accessible to everyone."
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