I've never been a drug dealer, but a truffle trader has to be the closest of relatives. You drive down the lonely country roads of a foreign land, money bulging from every pocket, suspicious of any cars behind you, ready to take evasive action if required. You arrive at a nondescript storefront and pass into a featureless back room with a small precise scale. The merchandise is removed from a ragged kitchen towel. You scan the faces of the two or three men in the room, sniff and examine the goods and make the deal. Fistfuls of cash change hands.
Upon your return to the States, the government's drug-sniffing dog jumps all over you, and the metaphor is complete.
In my prerestaurant days, I didn't know much about Italian white truffles ( Tuber magnatum pico) , and didn't get all that worked up about them. They were a curious and exotic oddity. But now, I'm in pretty deep; there's even an award-winning truffle dog named after me.
When I started getting interested, I thought truffles would be a fun thing to be "obsessive" about. My restaurant had been having difficulty obtaining first-rate, dependable, commercially imported truffles, so I jumped in. For the past six years, I've brought in truffles for our own annual dinners and to share with a select group of restaurants and local stores--as much as $60,000 worth (retail price--or shall I say street value?) per trip.
Since then, I've learned a lot about truffles and have had an extraordinary time doing it. I've come to love their fragrance and flavor, and to become acutely aware of the two distinct worlds that they live in: the realm of the forest, and that of the pressed white tablecloth. The journey between those two worlds has its challenges.
Surrounded by mud, buried below the moist, decaying leaves of a forest, the Italian white truffle-"the world's most expensive food"--couldn't be farther from the realm of luxury. But after the truffle hunter or middleman is paid, a 100% tariff check written and 5% to 15% of the truffle's initial weight washed down the drain as mud and waste, one can pay as much as $3,000 per pound for truffles in the Bay Area. From zero to $3,000 in four days!
The truffle hunt itself is mysterious and full of wonders. In the predawn, your truffle hunter, not quite awake, drives you and two small, sweet mutts slowly down a winding country road in a car permeated with truffle fragrance. As he nears his special spot, he turns off his headlights and suddenly you're driving in absolute darkness. He pulls off the road, creeping stealthily, driving deep into the forest. Finally he stops. The dogs bound out, ready for a fine early morning treasure hunt.
After a short time walking through undergrowth, the dogs, catching a scent, become single-minded and frantic, and, nose to the ground, start digging under the moist decaying leaves, soil flying. Eight inches underground, the treasure is revealed: a bizarre, knobby fungal sphere.
Later on at dinner in the truffler's ancient stone house, handfuls of the morning's smallest white truffles are crushed in newly pressed olive oil and spread without restraint over slabs of wood-grilled beef.Truffle hunters seem to love their dogs, truffles and the forest, pretty much in that order. In recent years, they've made $300 to $800 per pound for their truffles, but it could take a week or more to collect that many. During truffle season, they take time off from their "real" jobs for their walks in the forest. Rural Italian men seem to regard those full-time jobs as rude interruptions to otherwise fulfilling lives. (During wild boar, deer, guinea hen, grape-harvest and assorted other seasons, they take time off as well.)
The realm just beyond the forest is that of the highway and the truffle middlemen, dealers roaming the countryside, cell phones fully charged, buying and selling truffles from their white vans. For the most part, they set the market price, and they are my competitors.
Not that you can't run across a dishonest truffle hunter, but mostly it's with middlemen where things can get tricky. Truffles, when offered for sale, can have large holes in them, stuffed with mud, or two small truffles can be stuck together with a toothpick and packed with mud to appear to be one large truffle. Old, dried-out truffles can be moistened and included with fresher truffles, temporarily taking on their fragrance. There have been scandals about Albanian truffles being sold as truffles from Alba (fraud and wordplay!), and I have been offered Yugoslavian truffles at bargain prices. Reportedly, there are even Chinese truffles, doused with synthetic truffle fragrance (commercially available), sold as fresh Italian white truffles.
A truffle trader must plan his journey carefully, for not only is the white truffle exceedingly valuable, at its peak for a very short time and in need of perfect humidity and refrigeration, but its fragrance is so irrepressible that one needs to anticipate the effect it will have on fellow travelers.
I've never flown U.S. airlines with my truffles because I can easily imagine being booted off, along with my pungent, malodorous cargo, were I to try. But in Italy, the "perfume" makes everyone smile. On an Italian airplane, the captain and many of the crew come to visit the truffles, bringing ice to help maintain their perfect state. They oooh and ahhh and have even followed us back to the restaurant for their share of tajarin with tartufi bianchi .
The demands of the final day or two of driving through rainy northern Italy, anxious about the money and the condition and safety of the truffles, motivates us always to wind up the trip at a particular five-star hotel to ease the discomfort a bit and provide a clean, well-lighted place in which to prepare the truffles for the trip home. We might even get to luxuriate for a few hours between genuine linen sheets. The Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan has become a major part of the annual truffle expedition. Entering the marble and gold lobby, we're disheveled after long days on the road and reek of truffles, but nevertheless we inspire big grins of welcome from the familiar staff, most of whom are in black tie. Because we'll be up all night cleaning mud off the truffles , the two sinks in the hotel's expansive marble-on-six-sides bathroom are essential. The housekeeper provides a tower of clean white towels, and room service keeps the ice coming.
Security at a hotel like this one is always good, but on last year's trip, the royal family of Jordan merited armed guards on every floor, one of whom was stationed 10 feet from our door. Four in the morning found us working away in a cloud of truffle fragrance when the phone rang. The man at the front desk had rung to tell us that the Royal Family's guards had detected a gas leak, or perhaps some form of gas sabotage, coming from our room. I told him it was the tartufi and asked if the guards were Italian. He asked if he could please send up the hotel engineer anyway. When the engineer arrived, I pointed at our truffles, and he, a Milanese, smiled and left us to our labors. When day came, the staff of the hotel all knew the one about the cops who were so dumb they didn't know the difference between the smell of gas and the fragrance of tartufi bianchi --a joke that could only work in Italy.
Klein is co-owner of Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland, whose annual white truffle dinners will be held Nov. 13-16. For reservations or more information, call (510) 547-5356.