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Italy suffers bad harvest of white truffles

As Italians suffer growing pasta prices they now face the new problem – beloved truffle - the strong, garlicky-scented delicacy usually shaved into pasta, salad and omelets – is getting more and more expensive.

Experts said Wednesday that this year's harvest of the fungus fruit has been one of the poorest in recent years, pushing costs up 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, northwestern Italy, which exports worldwide. "The situation is dramatic and prices are skyrocketing for a natural product that, in the end, has no direct (production) costs," he said.

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 have so far yielded up to 75 percent fewer truffles than in 2006. This year, 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of white truffle could cost between EUR300 (US$432) and EUR600 (US$864), about 60 to 70 percent more than last year, he said.

While upscale restaurants around the world do not appear to be easing up on white truffle purchases, 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, central Italy, that takes its name from "tartufo," the Italian word for truffle.

Rossano said little rain during the summer and pollution in wooded areas contributed to the reduced production. The harvest usually runs from mid-September through the end of the year, but experts do not expect the situation to change.

"I'm worried. This year is not satisfactory and we don't see good forecasts. I don't recall a year as bad as this one," said Salvatore Cucchiara, the president of a local association of truffle diggers, which has about 400 members.

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