ROME — Italians call it "white gold," and now gourmets are going to have to dig even deeper into their pockets to buy white truffle -- the strong, garlicky-scented delicacy usually shaved into pasta, salad and omelets.
Experts said last month that this year's harvest of the fungus fruit had been one of the poorest in recent years, pushing up costs for a product already known for its extravagant price tag.
"Production is going down vertically," said Andrea Rossano, the head of Tartufingros, a company near Cuneo in northwestern Italy that exports worldwide. "The situation is dramatic, and prices are skyrocketing for a natural product that, in the end, has no direct [production] costs."
Like mushrooms, truffles are the fruit of a fungus. They grow underground and rely on trees to host them and on animals that eat them to distribute their spores.
Black truffles are less expensive than white ones and have a highly pungent aroma. In Europe, they are hunted by pigs and dogs trained to sniff the ground to find them.
Rossano said white truffle collection efforts across Italy had yielded up to 75% fewer truffles than in 2006. This year, 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of white truffle could cost 300 euros ($439) to 600 euros ($879), about 60% to 70% more than last year, he said.
Although upscale restaurants around the world do not appear to be easing up on purchases of white truffles, the surge in prices is more likely to affect smaller, traditional restaurants, experts said.
"A lot of people just give it up and change to black truffle," said Domenico Fraternale, manager of La Tartufara, a restaurant in Urbino in central Italy that takes its name from tartufo, the Italian word for truffle.
Rossano said little rain in the summer and pollution in wooded areas had contributed to the reduced production. The harvest usually runs from mid-September through the end of the year, but experts don't expect the situation to change.