Truffles (and we mean the mushroom kind) are one of the rarest and most expensive foodstuffs in the world – but what makes these earthy little mounds found in the dirt into the very essence of luxury cuisine? And how do they go from tree root to table?
Rico visited Michael Pietroiacovo, one of “The Truffle Brothers,” a pair of Italian siblings (now based in Los Angeles) who have a family-run business finding and importing truffles and truffle products from their home country and into some of the finest restaurants in America. From February 13 to March 13, the Pietroiacovos are also collaborating on a truffle-focused tasting menu at The Bazaar by José Andrés in Beverly Hills.
Rico Gagliano: The scent of truffle here in your warehouse is intense — you ever get tired of it?
Marco Pietroiacovo: No, no, no. I love it, I love it. I can eat a truffle, smell truffle every day.
Rico Gagliano: Well let me ask you: how do you store these things? Because obviously the scent of this… I feel like I could walk through here with a plate of scrambled eggs and the air would flavor it. How do you keep a truffle from flavoring everything in your house? Your clothes, your cat…
Marco Pietroiacovo: You have two different types of truffle. You have truffle oil, truffle juice, truffle peel. Truffle products — you can store them on the shelf. What you are smelling, this is the fresh truffle. I have a fridge, we have 30, 40 kilos of that stuff inside.
Rico Gagliano: What is that worth, by the way?
Marco Pietroiacovo: It depends. They go $40, $50 thousand dollars for what we have in the fridge.
Rico Gagliano: And that stuff you store how? So that it doesn’t flavor everything in your refrigerator?
Marco Pietroiacovo: Put it in the Tupperware box. The smell will stay inside the Tupperware.
Rico Gagliano: But how come I’m still smelling it then?
Marco Pietroiacovo: You still smell because I opened the box a couple hours ago, to put the stuff in the truck.
Rico Gagliano: So the smell I’m smelling right now is from hours ago, basically?
Marco Pietroiacovo: Yeah. Because I open this box.
Rico Gagliano: That’s incredible. All right, you mentioned some of the products that you have here — you have some of them out here — there are oils… You mentioned juice. I never heard of truffle juice, what is that?
Marco Pietroiacovo: Truffle juice, it is same as chicken stock. You cook the fresh truffle, and the reduction coming from there, it is the truffle stock.
Rico Gagliano: So something you might put in a soup?
Marco Pietroiacovo: In soup, in risotto, pasta.
Rico Gagliano: You grew up with truffles from a pretty young age. Your grandfather, I think, taught you how to find truffles. Do you remember the first dish in which you had truffles?
Marco Pietroiacovo: Yeah. My mom make a lot of egg dishes for us. Frittata with potato, onion and truffles.
Rico Gagliano: Did you like it? Because it’s a sophisticated flavor. I think that not everybody likes it.
Marco Pietroiacovo: No, I loved it. Everybody fight, “Why you don’t make more?” They love my mom all the time. She make this big frittata for forty people, but five or six people eat everything.
Rico Gagliano: You would find those truffles fresh, I’m assuming. How are these found? I think most people think that they’re found with pigs, but that’s not the case anymore, correct?
Marco Pietroiacovo: No. You find the truffle with dog, trained dog. I have 17 dogs right now. You need to have a dog.
Rico Gagliano: Why dogs instead of pigs?
Marco Pietroiacovo: Dogs listen to you. The pig goes for truffle, hewant to eat the truffle. He goes just to eat. The dog goes to play. When he finds it, you give some cheese, a piece of bread, the dog is happy.
Rico Gagliano: You feed him something cheaper than a truffle!
Marco Pietroiacovo: Yes! Everything is cheaper than a truffle; you can give a dog a piece of prosciutto, you still make money with the truffle.
Rico Gagliano: You mentioned how much these truffles are when you find them. Why are they so much? Obviously if you’re using dogs now instead of pigs, fewer of the truffles get eaten by your animals, so it would seem like there might be more truffles circulating around, so they should be cheaper. Why are they not?
Marco Pietroiacovo: Truffles — I talk about the white truffle — you cannot farm it. And this is why the white truffle always costs so much more.
Two things: I have more requests every year. More people want truffles. More requests. Another thing, you go with the weather — some years you have less truffles.
Rico Gagliano: You mentioned white truffles. I believe white truffle season is over, we’re now in black truffle season, correct?
Marco Pietroiacovo: Yes. You’re in the black, winter truffle season. These are the Périgord. These take the name from one area in France. France and Italy have a lot of these truffles.
Rico Gagliano: And they’re easier to find than white truffles?
Marco Pietroiacovo: Yeah. Easier to find and reproduce too, people have a farm.
Rico Gagliano: Oh, you can farm them?
Marco Pietroiacovo: Yeah, you can farm these. The black, yes. The white, impossible.
Rico Gagliano: Are they really that different in flavor?
Marco Pietroiacovo: These have a totally different flavor. The white truffle, little bit more intense. It stays more in your mouth. The black, these are a little bit more rich. Less intense, but more rich. You can cook it with maybe meat dishes. White truffle may be very good with fish.
Rico Gagliano: All right. We’ve got a bunch of these products here and I really — since I basically feel like I’ve got the taste of truffle in my mouth from just walking in here — I’d really like to get the full blast of it. What is the most unusual of these things? You’ve got a bunch of different products here.
Rico Gagliano: So it’s honey with just a slice of truffle in it to flavor it.
Marco Pietroiacovo: Yes. You can use with the cheese. I’ll give you a taste.
Rico Gagliano: All right, we’ve got cheese. And, oh yeah, what are these again? I love these things. They’re like sort of little circles of semolina that are fried into crackers.
And you just dipped a cracker in the honey… and I can now smell it. It released the truffle smell.
Marco Pietroiacovo: Taste, taste!
Rico Gagliano: That is intense. Delicious. It’s actually… the truffle hit my palate first, and then the sweetness of the honey afterward.
Let me ask though, I think the majority of the people listening can’t afford a large amount of truffle certainly. What’s the cheapest way to get really good truffle flavor?
Marco Pietroiacovo: I think the truffle sauce. You have a lot of truffle inside there. It’s very good with hamburgers too, mixed with the meat when you put your hamburger. For pasta, pizza. Truffle pizza, very good.
Rico Gagliano: That would have really kicked up the sophistication of my Super Bowl party.
Marco Pietroiacovo: Yeah. It’s very good.