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White Truffles for All!

September 7, 2009

I’m not a white truffle kind of gal. I’d like to be, but when it comes to spending $125 an ounce for an ingredient, that’s quite a bit out of my league. I’ve had a sliver or two in my day, just enough to know that if I COULD add them to my supermarket list, it would be swell, but I’m not willing to forgo other pleasures, like my mortgage for instance, to indulge myself. But since white truffle season is siding towards us, and because we produce Hungry Beast in partnership with The Daily Beast, which encourages this sort of curiosity about obscenely expensive and wackily unobtainable luxuries, I decided to write an article about them.White truffle

Mostly I was curious if there was anything to the white truffle oils that are slightly more within my price range.

One thing I did know is that most white truffle oils are made with chemicals, and that those oils haven’t gotten any closer to an actual truffle than I have in recent years.  But the Urbani company claims to have developed a top secret method for using other proteins to transfer the natural aroma of white truffles into their oils, unlike those of their competitors.  I tried it (you have to use it only at the very end of the cooking process – heat kills the scent and the flavor) and I thought it wasn’t half bad.  I drizzled it over a risotto, right at the end.  And unless a large pig locates a truffle underneath a neighboring tree and presents it to me, or the government comes up with a truffles for clunkers program, that’s probably as close as I’m gonna get this year.  So I’m going to console myself with a drizzle instead of a shaving over my fall dishes, close my eyes, and think of Piedmont.

Wealthy hard-core foodies don’t think of Fall as back-to-school time, or even back-from-vacation-time. They think of it as white truffle season. There are lots of varieties of white truffles, but those with the means to buy only the best head straight for the Magnatum or Alba Truffle, or White Piedmont Truffle. These truffles are harvested chiefly in the Piedmont and Emilia Romagna regions of northern Italy, though some hail from other areas of Italy of France.

Those of us lucky to have come face to face with a few shavings of fresh white truffle know that they are amazingly, hauntingly, delicious. When you get a waft of heated truffles and take that first bite you have thoughts along the lines of “Nectar of the Gods,” or “Oh!  so that’s are why they’re so bloody expensive.” Unless you’re one of those people who hate truffles. Which is kind of like being allergic to gold: it sucks a little, but you will end up with more disposable income.

Because truffles are blazingly expensive. As in, when the waiter approaches your table holding aloft an innocent looking tuber and asks, should he keep shaving? proceed with caution, or you will lose your truffles when the check comes.  Truffles are uncultivable, so there are no truffle farms to produce affordable truffles for the masses.  But if you are in the market for truffles, buying the best you can from the best purveyors is the only way to go. There are great truffles, and there are not-so-great truffles, and inferior truffles will leave you feeling like you’re a character in The Emperor’s New Clothes, pretending you know what hell everyone’s raving about while the thought bubble above your head says, “Really?” And a truffle that’s past its prime can be downright awful.

Vittorio Giordano, vice president of Urbani truffles USA, offers a glimpse behind the commerce of this luxury foodstuff.  The Urbani family as been harvesting and selling truffles for 5 generations, 150 years.  First, he addressed an article that ran, stating the collapse of the white truffle market. They reported that at a recent truffle auction in Tokyo an 850-gram white truffle from northern Italy sold for $30,900 or 84% less than the $330,000 Macau casino billionaire Stanley Ho paid for a 1.5-kilogram truffle the year before. Vittorio says this 84% decline in the sale of one truffle over another isn’t reflective of the market as a whole, but is more a reflection of how flush Stanley Ho was two years ago and what the bragging rights of a 1.5-kilo truffle were worth to him.

Prices are in fact down, but not nearly by that much. The laws of supply and demand are a little wiggly in the case of truffles; Vittorio explains that actually only 65% of the demand for truffles is met year to year, so demand has always exceeded supply and still does. However, things get trickier when you factor in the 3 to 6 (7 at most) day shelf life of truffles, which are 95% water. Now you have to add in the pressures of how much inventory to stock, and how fast it can get to where it’s going. Once a truffle is past its prime, it may be able to be used in a truffle product, but it will never fetch those big dollars. Truffle season begins in less than two weeks, and the prices aren’t set yet. Last year prices ranges from $1800 to $2500 per pound for truffles, down from an average of $3500 the year before, and Vittorio hopes they will pick up a bit. The price range has to do with the quality, size, and sometime shape of the truffle, especially if the truffle is being purchased to be a showpiece for a big dinner or event.  And despite the fact that demand is larger than supply, Vittori agrees that the strains of the economy have put huge pressures on luxury products; even those who have the cash aren’t waving fists of it around at truffle auctions, and the price decline reflects that.

In a week, people across Northern Italy start to pick. September 15th is the first legal date to harvest white truffles in Italy, and January 15th is the last. If you’re eating truffles right now, they were probably harvested illegally. The truffle is a spore that grows underground, and with the right combination of wind, sun, rain, and everything else, it becomes an ethereal truffle. But the earth’s changing climate is also inconvenient for the truffle. Add to that the fact that some aggressive truffle pickers aren’t waiting for the beginning of the official season, but picking them early—they are sitting there, ready for harvesting.  But the reason this September-through-January time frame was established was to give the rest of the truffles on either side of that window—early fall, late winter—a change to grow, decay, and release up to 20 spores each back into the earth, to generate the next year’s truffle season. Without those, truffle production will continue to decline, and there’s not much we humans will be able to do about it.

But what’s this? White truffles have already graced quite a few menus in metropolitan areas.  Andrea Cavaliere, Executive Chef at Cecconi’s in Los Angeles, received his first batch of authentic Italian truffles August 21st, and couldn’t believe his eyes. The quality was excellent, and even though he grew up in Alba, home of the white truffle, he had never seen them so early in the year. Chef Cavaliere imagines the warmer temperatures and the excessive rain had something to do with it. He bought them through a London distributor who he works with in LA. The cost was about $1300 per pound. He wasn’t too concerned about the Sept.15th date, noting that the Italian government could be very controlling, for its own reasons. His various truffle specialties have a price tag of $90 each, lower than some of the other truffle-laden treats about town.

Justin Bogle, the Executive Chef at Gilt in New York City, is waiting for his truffles to arrive. When talking about how the deliveries come (often by a guy with a backpack and a scale who talks of price per kilo), it’s easy to make comparisons to drug trafficking. “It can feel kind of shady, I guess,” laughs Bogle. He hasn’t received pricing yet, but said that this really isn’t a big money making item for restaurants. “You’re kind of doing it to show off, we’re not making a killing on it at all,” he said. One of his popular dishes that features truffles is the Gossip Grill sandwich, a $30 grilled cheese named in honor of the television show that’s filmed in the hotel that houses Gilt.

Fresh truffles ideally are on the tables of restaurants and swanky dinner tables 36 hours after they are pulled from the earth. The optimal situation is for them to be picked at night, sorted for quality the next morning, sent to the airport, re-sorted upon arrival (a 10-hour trip can change the quality of a truffle considerably), and then usually sent through a distributor to the restaurant, all at breakneck speed with meticulous packaging.

So, what about white truffle oil?  Worth it, or just a poor man’s way of attempting to rub shoulders with the precious fungus? It seems remarkably affordable, considering the price of the actual tuber. The reason is a bit of a bummer; for the most part, truffle oil is not flavored with actual truffles. Oh, dear. Instead, synthetic chemicals (sometimes called “aromatic compounds,” which does sound slightly sexier) with names like 2,4-dithiapentane imitate the flavor and aroma of truffles. But Vittorio claims that Urbani has the only white truffle oil made naturally. Instead of using chemicals to infuse the oil with truffle aroma, which fades almost instantly, Vittorio says they use a secret process by which the aroma comes directly from the truffle. Apparently it is impossible to make a truffle oil like a garlic oil with an infusion process, so 10 years ago they figured out how to make an extraction from the truffle protein, and then use casein and lactose protein as a carrier to move that concentrated extraction into the oil. Because no propane gas is used, the aroma doesn’t escape with the oil is exposed to air. But don’t cook with it; use it as a finishing touch to get the most out of its flavor and aroma. Chef Cavaliere is not a fan, and very skeptical of this, wondering how the prices could possibly be so low when such an expensive product is at the core of this, but plans to give it a taste. Bogle says that white truffle oil definitely has it place, like in the sandwich or the restaurants ruffle fries (don’t those two words together make you weepy?).

If you do get your hands on a truffle, you are going to have to use it up, and fast. Sliver it over scrambled eggs; risotto, like this one from Marcella Hazan, who knows her way around a truffle; homemade pasta; or pristine beef carpaccio. Or if you treat yourself to a bottle of truffle oil, start by sprinkling some oven-roasted potatoes with it, or drizzle it over that risotto, or watch your guests nostrils flare as you bring a big, fat truffled tortilla to the table.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2009 11:26 am

    I loved this article. I can report that there are a small number of “naturally” produced truffle oils available. Certainly Urbani is not the only 1. I have organised a number of blind tasting sessions where we have compared the naturally produced truffle oils with the synthetically produced ones, and I have to sadly report that the results were very disappointing. My advice is to stick to fresh truffles. Expensive ? Maybe, but this year they will be far cheaper than previous years and if you club together with a group of friends you can source sufficient for an unforgettable meal at a reasonable price. And don’t just stick to white truffles either. The Italian Black Winter Truffles (Melanosporum) can be just as outstanding in their own right, and are cheaper again.

  2. September 9, 2009 8:36 pm

    Hi, Nigel,

    Thanks for the comment, and for the feedback. I am determined to find a sliver or two this year, since of course there is no real comparison. Hope you get a few truffle dinners in there yourself!


  3. carolan permalink
    September 26, 2009 9:52 am

    Murray’s Cheese and Specialty Food Shop (in NYC) sells a brilliant truffled sausage. Firm and meaty and porky when you first bite, and then comes this little breeze of truffle-ness. Sounds strange, but it really works.

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