The Allure of the White Truffle

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Every year, from October to December, the illustrious white truffle appears on menus around the world. This sought-after item has many spending top dollars just to have a few grams of this luxury product shaved over eggs or pasta. Why is this item so desired? I, like many others, am seduced by the aromas of the white truffle. It was time to follow the scent.

White Truffle

I was at Culina Restaurant at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills meeting with Four Seasons Executive Chef Cyrille Pannier and Culina Sous Chef Denis Dello Stritto. As we sat and discussed the beauty of the white truffle, they mentioned that they were expecting a delivery within the hour. I asked if I could stay so that I could smell these fresh truffles arriving straight from Italy via LAX. An hour later, a young Italian couple, Fabio and Sonia of Goldenland Truffle, showed up with a few duffle bags and coolers. We went into the back office and they began pulling out bulky blue-checkered cloths. Beneath the checkered cloths were paper towels, under which were the white truffles. Soon the room was filled with the aromas of white truffles, which was traveling down the hallway. Members of the Four Seasons kitchen one by one followed their noses to the room to see what was on display.

Witnessing the buying of a white truffle was like watching a drug deal go down. Next to all of the truffles, Fabio placed a scale on the table and the deal was underway. Chef Cyrille and Chef Denis started picking up the truffles, rolling them around in their hands, smelling them. And then they picked one up, the biggest one on the table. It was beautiful, firm and big enough to fill the palm of my hand. Negotiations began in Italian and a deal was made. That white truffle was now owned by Culina Restaurant who would be featuring it in a dinner the next night.

About the White Truffle

The truffle family includes a few varieties of black truffles and white truffles. They are all ithe same family but look, feel, smell, and taste differently. While black summer truffles are beautiful, they have no smell. White truffles, on the other hand, are unique. The highly prized white truffle is the Magnatum Pico, also called the “Italian white truffle” or the “white truffle from Alba” or the “Piedmont truffle.”  This white truffle is irregular in shape with a beige surface and a light-colored flesh. It has the most intense aroma of musk and earthy notes and should be firm to the touch. The Magnatum Pico white truffles are a gift from nature and cannot be planted and cultivated. While they are known for coming from Alba in Piedmont, they can also be found in Acqualagna in the Marche region and in Tuscany.

When storing a truffle, keep in mind that it will last approximately one week if it gets a lot of moisture. If the truffle is stored in rice or near eggs, those ingredients will absorb the aromas and flavors, while drying up the truffle. When designing a dish, the truffle should be served with mild flavors and is perfect with white sauces, white meats (chicken, rabbit, veal), butter and cheese.

There is a mystique to the white truffle, perhaps because it is only available during certain times of the year. By law, white truffles are available from November 15th to January 15th each year which makes white truffles like a rare diamond. And like a rare gem, truffles have a price to match their desirability. The current price, which fluctuates daily, is approximately $2,000 per pound, a far cry from the days when truffles were less known

The Growth of Truffles in Los Angeles

To understand the growth of truffles in Los Angeles, I turned to Italian restaurant icon Piero Selvaggio of Valentino Ristorante. Selvaggio opened Valentino in 1972. An immigrant from Modica, Sicily, Selvaggio was not familiar with truffles until he was introduced to them by gourmet food and fine wine specialist Darrell Corti in 1975. Selvaggio did not pay much attention to the specialness of the truffle at that time and turned his interest to wine beginning in 1977. As Selvaggio was building the wine list he is known for today, he was struggling in the  kitchen. He contacted his friend, the late Pino Khail, founder of the magazine Civilta del Bere, who invited him to Milan to learn. It was mid-October and Selvaggio recalled the amazing aromas. He described how Khail ordered carpaccio with truffle and then fettuccine with truffle and “the pungency of the truffle just hit me. I had tried truffles once before with Darrell Corti, but I did not understand. I just could not believe how good the food tasted. It was the perfection of Italian food.”

Selvaggio returned to Los Angeles wanting to introduce his newfound love. He ordered one pound of truffles for $850. What he received were two little balls and sawdust, experiencing what he called his “first truffle caper.” It was his first learning lesson about how there are fake truffle importers and this frustration resulted in Selvaggio giving up on truffles, for the time being.

In the early 1980s, Selvaggio hosted two Piemontese wine producers, including Giacomo Bologna, in Los Angeles. Bologna then invited Selvaggio back to Italy for the truffle festival. Selvaggio described waking up at 4 a.m. and wandering through the piazza in Alba, filled with “men with big bellies because they were hiding the truffles under their jackets.” These men were illegally selling truffles before they went to the import market. Selvaggio explained, “they would hide the little pepita (diamond) under a towel to try to trick you. You want to make sure to see and feel the truffle and then the bargaining starts.” Once they bought their truffles, they headed straight to the kitchen. “It was 5 a.m. and we ate fried eggs with a half pound of truffle shaved on top and sipped Barbera. It was incredible,” Selvaggio remembers.

After this experience, Selvaggio began going through one pound of white truffles each week at Valentino, as did other Los Angeles chefs, such as the late Mauro Vincente at Rex and Wolfgang Puck at Spago with his famous truffle pizza. Selvaggio also recalled a time in 1994 when he ordered one kilo of truffles and offered to pick them up from the airport. “The smell was so potent. I was driving and felt inebriated. The smell was so powerful that I almost passed out and had to pull the car over.”

Buying Truffles Today

There are less than a half a dozen importers in Los Angeles who bring in white truffles each year and every restaurant has their preferred vendor. It is important to trust the importer as there are many fake truffles on the market. One of the newer importers in Los Angeles is Goldenland Truffle. Fabio Giordano and his partner, Sonia, started importing into Los Angeles three years ago and work directly with hunters and truffles from within Italy. The hunters use dogs to find the truffles since the dogs can smell when they are ripe and ready. Manmade tools, on the other hand, destroy the truffles and pigs have a tendency to eat them. With deliveries arriving two times per week from Italy, Goldenland Truffle is supplying top restaurants around Los Angeles, including Culina, Bouchon, CUT, Scarpetta, Factory Kitchen, Palmeri, Toscana, Via Allora, Via Veneto, and Petrossian.

After a long, hot, and dry summer in Italy, 2015 has resulted in less quantity and higher costs. That is why it is so important to have a good relationship with the importer. “The goal is to be the first stop when they come from the airport,” said Chef Denis. Giordano explains, “our job is to be at the mercy of the restaurant. We get calls late at night from chefs with their orders.”

From the secret selling in the streets of Alba, to having your importer on speed dial and calling at all hours of the day, to the weighing and price negotiating, to the sensations felt while eating them, white truffles are a drug of luxury.