While many of the best dining establishments in New York seem to serve at least one truffled dish, even people who love the intense taste can have very little idea where truffles come from, what a real truffle is (versus its chemical alternative), when they are in season or even how to prepare them for a meal.
“American consumers don’t know about truffles; they think it is chocolates,” sniffs Sabrina Notarnicola, the vice president of Global Marketing at Urbani Truffles, the largest truffle company in the world.
Even those who buy truffles don’t necessarily know what to do with them. She recalled one customer who strolled into Urbani and bought $20,000 worth of white truffles for his dinner party, only to call back a few hours later in a panic because he was clueless about how to serve them. She sent him a chef.
To prevent similar mishaps, Urbani recently opened up a truffle lab at its headquarters on West End Avenue, where it will offer classes and special dinners that are open to the public, as well as conduct product development.
One customer bought $20,000 worth
of white truffles and then panicked.
At a class called “The Art of Truffles,” which costs $95, I join a well-heeled after-work crowd drinking glass after glass of wine while sampling Urbani’s truffle products and learning all sorts of nuggets of truffle wisdom from Vittorio Giordano, vice president of Urbani Truffles in the U.S., and Christine Berni-Silverstein, culinary director of the Urbani Lab.
Pigs, we learn, are no longer used to hunt truffles because they are actually sexually attracted to the truffle pheromones and tend to eat them (dogs are used instead). Truffles should always be stored in the refrigerator wrapped individually in paper towels. White truffles are the most expensive type (in 2015 they commanded $1,200 per pound) and are only harvested from September through December.
The best part of the class, though, is the fresh truffles themselves, which Giordano passes around the class so everyone can take a nice whiff before he shaves them liberally over our risotto.
All of the truffles are stored in a locked refrigerator in the back of the headquarters, available for purchase by chefs and consumers. Because truffles, which are actually a kind of fungus, lose water density by the minute, they must be eaten as quickly as possible. Through a complex network, Urbani delivers them to chefs around the world within 36 hours of finding them in Italian soil.
“It’s a hidden place in New York City where people who know come and buy truffles,” Notarnicola says proudly.
Of course, not everyone appreciates truffles — particularly their overpowering smell. In 2010, Urbani faced a lawsuit over the stench from residents of the building that sits on top of its headquarters. Residents said the strong smell made it difficult to resell their apartments.
In response, Urbani installed a $50,000 ventilation system, which has nearly eliminated the odor. When the lab first opened, Urbani threw a party for their neighbors upstairs and was pleased to discover the residents had a different perspective on their presence.
“They said, ‘With a truffle lab under our building, our building is going to gain so much value,’” Notarnicola says with satisfaction. “It does smell, but you get used to it.”