There's white gold in them hills (try not to eat it first) White truffles are rarer than ever this year, with global demand driving prices up to £3,500 a kilo Daniel McLaughlin in Livade, Croatia Sunday November 4, 2007 The Observer The sun is yet to touch the copper and crimson hills, but pre-dawn Istria is already alive with the snuffle and bark of eager dogs. Across this pendant of fertile land that Croatia dangles into the Adriatic, thousands of men and women lead keen-nosed hounds into the forest at the beginning of the hunting season for white truffles, a great delicacy and a mainstay of Istria's economy. Prized for its rarity as much as for its intense aroma - it appears for four months only in Istria and in one area of Italy - a dry summer has made the white truffle scarcer than ever this year, driving prices up to £3,500 a kilo. European and US restaurateurs - facing growing competition from chefs in Russia and the Far East - are having to dig deeper than ever to keep tuber magnatum on the menu and Istria's truffle hunters are reluctantly cutting back on personal consumption of 'white gold'. 'Like all fungi, white truffles need water and there wasn't much rain this year so there aren't many around,' said Ivica Kalcic, as his dogs Rexi and Jackie rustle in the undergrowth. 'There's nothing better than pasta with butter and white truffle, but this year I'd sell a good-sized truffle to buy a big ham for the family.' Kalcic has been truffling for 30 of his 50 years and he sells most of what Rexi and Jackie find to Giancarlo Zigante. Zigante employs 70 people in his restaurant and hotel in the village of Livade and at a nearby factory making truffle oils and pates and dispatching fresh truffles to exclusive food emporiums around the world. He still has the gruff conviviality of the farmer he was before business took off, helped by his discovery of the largest white truffle ever recorded. 'It was a normal truffling day, 2 November 1999, when I found what I thought was a cluster of white truffles,' said Zigante, over a plate of papardelle with thick shavings of white truffle. 'But as I dug it up I realised it was one huge truffle - 1.3 kg. The dog couldn't believe it either.' Zigante, 57, helped by his sons Adriano and Marino, criss-crosses northern Istria every day to visit his network of trufflers. 'Prices are double what they were this time last year, which means lots of restaurants are taking white truffles off their menus and only the richest can afford to keep buying them,' said Zigante. White truffles also grow in the Piedmont region of north-west Italy and Istrian truffles are occasionally smuggled across the border and sold on as Italian Alba truffles, better known than Croatia's and commanding a slightly higher price. Two types of black truffle are also found in Istria's forests, but the white is valued most highly for its reputation as an aphrodisiac. Its scent is said to resemble that exuded by an aroused male pig, and Istrians sometimes use sows to find white truffles, despite their tendency to eat the precious fungi. 'I don't know if it's an aphrodisiac, but it's great for your immune system,' said Damir Modrusan, head chef at the Zigante restaurant, as he uncovered a plate of fresh truffles worth £500, sending a wave of their heavy perfume billowing across the table. 'It's an amazing thing. You could find a truffle as big as your fist under a tree and then you wouldn't find another there for 10 years. And white truffles can look and smell a bit different depending on which tree they grow under. People around here have always eaten it and don't consider it a delicacy. The dish has to be simple, to let the truffle be the star.' The white truffle is a demanding mistress, sighs Marino Zigante. 'But it is beautiful, because it depends on the trees, the weather, the soil. It is a gift from nature.'