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Ariane Daguin of D’Artagnan details the types, seasons, and unique qualities of this popular underground fungus

The Alba International Truffle Fair kicked off today, launching the start of white truffle season, as truffle dogs begin their hunt for the prized underground mushrooms. And while the 2012 season was pricey thanks to a lack of rain, this year, the truffles are better than ever.

“In 2013 I paid $1,600 a pound for truffles,” Lidia Bastianich said at a luncheon in New York City, celebrating the truffle fair. “Last year, I paid around $2,500 a pound.”

Home cooks don’t need a pound of truffle to add some decadence to their meals, as a little goes a long way. The mushroom actually has an active chemical very similar to musk, which explains why “it really does stimulate our amorous feelings,” Bastianich said.

Some tips from Bastianich:

On Buying Good Truffles: “When it has a pink vein in it, in the marbling, that’s when the truffle is at its best,” she said. Look for firm mushrooms, and research where they’re from, as the age of the trees they grow out of does affect the intensity.

Cooking Ideas:  “You don’t cook a product like this,” Bastianich said, noting that this applies to all sorts of Italian goods, like balsamic. “The less you do to it, the better. Thinly slice it on something that’s warm, and that allows the flavor to waft up.” Half of enjoying truffles, after all, is olfactory. Her favorite: Creamy scrambled eggs, cooked on low and mixed into a creamy consistency, topped with shaved truffles.

How to Clean: Don’t add water, but use a vegetable brush to get all the dirt off, or a paring knife for the tough parts. “Don’t wash your truffle,” Bastianich said, and a little dirt never hurt anyone.

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