BY HELEN HOLLYMAN
It always began with an urgent text message.
“I need 250 grams of white. Can you be here in 30?”
I’d put down the cell phone and whip out the disposable white latex gloves. I had to work quickly, carefully filling the refrigerated backpack to the brim with $20,000 worth of product that I’d schlep on my back. If I got to my client too late, I’d risk the chance of losing them to another dealer.
When I was hustling out of New York City, the fastest way to get to any location was the subway. This was also the most humiliating part of the gig. I tried to ride in the least populated subway cars; the ones that visually appeared to have enough breathing room between me and other passengers where the risk of a wandering mariachi band was mild. During a hectic rush hour one November, I cleared out an entire train when a visibly angry man screamed, “It smells like shit in here! I didn’t do it!”
He wasn’t wrong.
The job made me like everyone’s worst relative—the one who silently farts inside your car with the child lock on all the windows.
Selling white truffles, one of the most expensive wild foods/aphrodisiacs in the world, is not sexy by any embellishment of a job description. It’s stressful, makes you reek, and requires the physical burden of carrying a costly ticking time bomb on your person. White truffles are roughly 98 percent water, so from the moment they get into a dealer’s hands, the value depreciates. You’ve got to get rid of this stuff as soon as possible. If you can’t move the entire shipment within a few days, you’re screwed. The season is shorter than the lifespan of a New York City subway rat: between mid-September/early October and cuts off towards mid-December, so you’ve got three months to make most of your profit for the entire business year. It was hard to keep up with customer demand.
It has been said that Lord Byron kept truffles on his desk so that he could smell them throughout the day for inspiration. Even though I’m convinced he was solely rubbing his loins with them, he was, in fact, the Don Juan of the Romantic period, so I guess he might have been onto something, no matter where or what he was doing with this stuff. Truffles emit a steroid similar to a pheromone produced by boars during premating behavior known as androstenol, which is also secreted by humans in much lower doses. This is the likely culprit behind why the truffle is considered the ultimate aphrodisiac. They’re also expensive as shit, but for good reason.
Also known as tuber magnatum, white truffles are the unicorn of all tubers. Unlike the Perigord and Burgundy varieties, which can (sometimes) be replicated on truffières, truffle farms, the white ones are inimitable. They’re untamable. Truffles are the fruiting bodies of a subterranean ascomycete fungus—one of the many species of the genus known as tuber. If that last sentence made you nod off, sit tight for this other rain man reference: they’re ectomycorrhizal, which means that they’re usually found in close association with the roots of trees. They rely upon wild animals to consume and poop them out to produce new mycelium. Nature is freaky. Stinky white truffles range in size and shape, anywhere from a small pebble to a rounded Kim Kardashian bra-sized piece. In rare cases, I’ve handled some that could crush a Chihuahua. They only grow in certain regions of Italy and Eastern Europe and are sold for roughly $1,500-3,500 per pound at the peak of the season. Pigs—sows, in particular—hunt for them (and in recent years, dogs have replaced the oinkers because they have a tendency to eat them). Once they’ve landed into the hands of the middleman—truffle suppliers like my former self—top chefs compete to obtain the top product at the best rate from a pack of feuding dealers.
Throwing all of that information at prospective clients would make them want to pass out, so it’s important to keep things simple and focus on the scent, the most important feature.
In my first year of selling, a veteran dealer described the scent of quality white truffles: “a cross between really dank marijuana, raw garlic, a hint of Parmesan cheese, and Italian sausage.” The good ones can also smell like a sweaty football team’s locker room, post game.
You’ve selected a good one if it smells like Tim Riggin’s jock strap.
During my weekly deliveries to certain Michelin-starred kitchens, chefs scoffed at my scale—a razor thin one that could be used to weigh powders of all kinds—and its accuracy. At the beginning of each sale, I’d place a dime on the thing to prove them wrong and gain their trust. I’d let them fondle each piece for a few minutes, watching them pull the stink bombs directly under their nostrils. During a deal gone right, deep snorts and moans could be heard throughout the kitchen. Beyond scent, chefs look for firmness in a quality piece. If it’s soft, it’s a waste of money. I had to politely remind certain chefs to “be gentle.” One aggressive squeeze, and the entire piece could shatter.
Unfortunately, there’s no take backs with truffle hunters, the mysterious figures who locate the truffles. If a chef accidentally ruined the truffles from getting too handy, the financial loss was on me. Every week, we’d Skype with hunters in Italy and Eastern Europe to hear about the weekly conditions—if there was too much or too little rain, not enough truffles or an explosion of them—that would determine the overall market price for the week.
At the end of each sale, the chef would give their stash to a sous chef, who would whisk it off to the nearest refrigerator while they got ready to pay. Within ten seconds, they’d drop anywhere from $500-1K. If I was wearing lip gloss, the sale was closer to $1,500. Within seconds of getting their signature on the receipt, I was out the door and onwards to the next Michelin-starred kitchen to beat out the other dealers.
The struggle to obtain this edible turd-like object of luxury has been going on for centuries, and won’t stop until these things go extinct. Even Jay-Z continues to fawn over this odiferous funk. In 2012, he dropped 15,000 euros on them during a weekend at the Alba Truffle festival.
By the time that $50 white truffle supplement was excessively shaved over your plate of warm white truffle linguini with Parmesan foam, I was long gone, busy stinking up another subway car to help another chef and another restaurant customer experience a sexy evening of Liberace-style gluttony.
The next time you smell a strange fart in an unexpected environment, it might be the most expensively scented moment of your life.