It's all about sex

Observations on truffles

''It looks like something from outer space, it smells like heaven. What am I bid?" asked the Christie's specialist William O'Reilly. Carried solemnly aloft on a Venetian glass plate was something that did indeed look like a demented potato from Mars, but was in fact an Alba white truffle. One of the most expensive foods on the planet, it had been brought to London from the Piedmont region of Italy to be auctioned for charity.

The challenging flavour, unique smell and prohibitive price make truffles as much a status symbol as an ingredient, and the charity auction (held simultaneously via satellite link in London, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Alba) was a golden opportunity for some showing off. In a bidding war between the rival chefs Marco Pierre White and Claudio Pulze, the auctioneer goaded the two men: "Come on, who's the biggest? Who's the daddy? Who has got the biggest truffles? Has he got bigger truffles than you, sir? Surely not!" Back and forth they went, faster and faster, until the hammer slammed down - and the 407g truffle belonged to White for £4,000. In a flash, he grabbed it off its pretty plate and presented it to an opponent as a gift.

The final truffle of the day was a monster weighing in at 1.2kg. It eventually went to an anonymous buyer in Hong Kong for £64,000. The buyer may have wished to remain unknown, but his representative was a stunningly beautiful woman who received her truffle certificate as if it were an Oscar. Smiling graciously over the priceless space potatoes, she exuded glamour, sex and power. It all seemed very appropriate.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Apartheid