24 Hours with Milan's Truffle Dealers
Truffle dealing is a race against time. Unless they sell these precious ounces as soon as possible, they lose money.
All photos by Alice Gemignani
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Italy.
Truffle dealers must be discreet. They shouldn't wear expensive designer brands or Rolex watches or drive big cars. They need to keep a low profile and operate away from the prying eyes of thieves and muggers.
They wake up with puffy faces, dark circles and bags under their eyes, giving them that peculiar grayish complexion you'd be more inclined to associate with aliens. But, drowsy as they may be, Fede and Filippo look different on this Thursday morning at 10 AM: Both of them sport bright and cheerful smiles, kindled by excitement. They're awake and already in the zone, even though one of them confesses that he only slept for 12 minutes the night before, and of those 12 minutes at least six were spent with his eyes wide open.
The day is young and it's clear to see why anticipation fills the air: Fede and Filippo are truffle dealers. Together with their associates, they're the suppliers of choice for the vast majority of Milan's poshest and most acclaimed restaurants, along with many of the city's five-star hotels. They sell between 10 and 15 kilos of white truffle per week at the current rate of 4,500-5,000 euros per kilo (for those keeping track, that's about $150-175 per ounce). They also push the less-valued black truffle, and a lot more of that, at a rate of about 20 to 30 kilos a week at 600 euros per kilo. It's easy to do the math and realize how much they can make between September and January, the year's most profitable months in the Italian business capital.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The day has just begun.
Upon entering the store in the morning, the scent of truffles is strong, nearly overwhelming—reminiscent of garlic, soil, and moss; a certain dankness with pleasant umami nuances.
Fede and Filippo work in a store-cum-strategic hub in Milan's via Anfossi, right next to Ernst Knam's pantheon of an erotic bakery. It's here that every day truffles are delivered by farmers and cavatori (hunters) from the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, Acqualagna in the Marche region, or San Miniato in Tuscany. Truffles from the Langhe area in Piedmont, in northern Italy, still haven't reached Lombard shores, as the precious hypogeous tuber from Alba is late this year.
Upon entering the store in the morning, the scent of truffles is strong, nearly overwhelming—reminiscent of garlic, soil, and moss; a certain dankness with pleasant umami nuances. You either love or hate truffle; there's no such thing as a middle ground. Its scent penetrates your nostrils like the blade of a sword, and in the morning our receptors are even more sensitive to external provocations. From the fridges emerge enormous crates brimming with truffle nuggets. You immediately notice how the dirt around them hasn't been removed, to preserve their natural moisture and make them last longer. They smell like bacteria on a frenzy—bacterial action contributes to the formation of bis(methylthio)methane and dimethyl sulfide, the two substances responsible for truffle's typical scent—as both dealers' faces light up like junkies about to experience their greatest high.
It's a race against time. The danger of truffles losing weight is always around the corner, and unless we sell these precious ounces as soon as possible, we run the risk of losing money.
"We start off the morning with a nice rock tune, and then we're set to go. It's a race against time. The danger of truffles losing weight is always around the corner, and unless we sell these precious few ounces as soon as possible, we run the risk of losing money. And that's not to mention the competitors, our fellow pushers, who could snatch a customer away from us in a matter of seconds. Every truffle suits different palates, and every customer has his own peculiar taste: Some like big nuggets, others want the finest-smelling ones, while some are adamant about their size (no more than 30 grams, so they can sell them individually)," they say.
This is the year of the piattelle, truffles whose growth is stifled by the dry and firm soil, which gives them their peculiar, donut peach-like form. Given this year's shortage, the price of truffles has skyrocketed, particularly in the case of nuggets from the Langhe region [in northern Italy].
"Inevitably, we mostly work with the fanciest restaurants. They're the only ones able to afford this product by bearing those costs upfront, banking on the privilege of having an affluent clientele that will have no qualms about spending an inordinate amount of money," comment Fede and Filippo, with an expression that's a mix of Rocco Siffredi, the "Italian stallion" porn star, and David Attenborough: Porn-level excitement mixed with exceptional, documentary-level knowledge on the subject.
"The best way to preserve truffles is by wrapping them in cashmere!"
Our first stop is at the Mandarin Hotel and its two-Michelin-star restaurant Seta. There is haute cuisine here, and love for truffles goes all the way to the haggling part. While negotiating price and quality, chef Antonio Guida takes a big nugget and swiftly moves it to the smaller pile, in order to save on the final bill. It's every man for himself, standard negotiations between a pusher and one of his "junkies." Fede and Filippo are more than happy to play the game, between discounts, flirty pitches and emotional storytelling that would make many an Apple marketer proud. Ultimately both the chef and the two pushers are happy, which is what matters. Next time, maybe even tomorrow, they'll be back, haggling as usual.
Ruling Bulgari, the luxury hotel of the eponymous fashion brand, is young chef Aldo Ritrovato. The transaction with him takes place in a relaxed, almost friendly atmosphere. The chef separates the nuggets, wrapping them in kitchen towels to delay rot and keep away external moisture, the culinary drug's foremost enemy. Almost in unison, the staff loudly yells, "The best way to preserve truffles is by wrapping them in cashmere!" Because as far as luxury of this caliber goes, when it rains, it pours.
And while we bask in this festive atmosphere with Fede and Filippo, we even get the chance to taste an exceptional pasta pomodoro. You can tell that the chef is a master of Campanian cuisine.
"It's always like this!" Fede gushes, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. "And it goes on all day long. Chefs call us, send us texts and write us on WhatsApp all the time. They go, 'I ran out. Bring me some more within two hours, I need a big monster for that regular of mine,' or they'll say, 'Where's the ice to keep it fresh? Do truffles smell good today? Wrap them up and bring me some nice round nuggets by happy hour time tonight.'"
"We make ten deliveries a day, riding a scooter around town like a bunch of teenagers, except our backpack is worth thousands of euros," comments Filippo. But he seems to enjoy the ride.
His phone rings; it's a call from Ibiza. About truffles, obviously.
Terrazza Triennale's chef Matteo Ferrario is a friend, someone who orders truffle all year long—from white to uncinate, from black summer truffle to burgundy truffle, he can order up to 40 kilos per year—and loves everything about Fede and Filippo, from their fall/winter collection to the spring/summer one, not to mention all the other ancillary products they come equipped with, such as mushroom and truffle spread, truffle salt, mustard, and truffle-flavored extra-virgin olive oil. We take a selfie on the Triennale's terrace, between De Chirico's I Bagni Misteriosi ("Mysterious Baths" fountain) and the skyscrapers of City Life in the background. And then back on the road we go, toward new clients.
The Navigli’s own super-chef Claudio Sadler is another of Fede and Filippo's patrons. He orders around 10 ounces of white truffle a week, and he's adamant about them being naturally dirty, to bring them before his customers "like Mother Nature made them." This way, his clientele is happy to see nuggets so genuine and full of dirt, and Sadler can make sure they don't dry up in their wooden box.
This explains why the two Michelin star-rated chef generally orders small truffle nuggets that he can bring to the customers to be consumed in one sitting. Nothing is wasted, and he doesn't need to jump through hoops to recycle them afterwards. It's a compelling argument: Truffle is expensive and shouldn't be wasted, not to mention the fact that customers wouldn't want someone else's truffle leftovers anyway.
At Unico Milano, along the viale Certosa path that leads to the Autostrada dei Laghi highway, Fede and Filippo are about to meet chef Fabrizio Ferrari and pastry chef Beppe Allegretta.
They have a 230 euro menu that's all made of truffle, from the starters to the desserts, so they need a healthy supply. Our drive there is marked by ups and down, stress and glee, as orders give way to cancellations. But then Filippo manages to sell a big nugget at the last moment, a leftover from his previous transaction. Happiness once again fills the air.
After the 30-story elevator ride, the duo reaches the Unico restaurant, sitting atop Portello's WJC Tower. At the reception, a lady welcomes them, as Fede winks at her and moves straight to the kitchen. Once again, they pull the deal off.
Fede is 38, Filippo 30. They're cousins, and have been in this trade for years. Fede is a chef's best friend, the creative PR machine; the kind of guy who would party until 6 AM, get in the shower at 7:30, and soon after be ready to go to work. Filippo is the rational brain behind the operation, the one who's got everything laid out in his mind and who manages all their customers. But today they're both acting as factotum, to prove how exacting a profession it can be, with its delicate web of business relationships and the treasure trove of goodies they have to handle, sell and bill on a daily basis.
"You work like crazy for four months, trying to make as much money as possible, so that you can sleep in for the remaining eight months. Some people save themselves a little nest egg for the whole year, while others make a lot of money, and then spend it all within four months," adds Fede while driving around, another cigarette on his lips. He's visibly excited, the outcome of a positive day painted on his face. "Well, Filippo is the one who can save money for the remaining eight months!" He laughs.
In those 12 hours, the two dealers manage to run into both the editor-in-chief of the Italian gossip magazine Dipiù and the immortal writer Sandro Mayer, with his amazingly full head of hair. They also run into a friend of theirs and fellow Albanian dealer—twice and in totally opposite directions, at that. Quite the coincidence.
The day ends at the Ten Grams, the truffle street food diner that Fede and Filippo opened in the city's Moscova district along with their associates Giorgio and Nicho. The latter two have just joined us, in the meantime, after coming back from an Umbrian trip that netted them 20 kilos of black truffles.
Together they sit down and take stock of how the day went, making plans for the day after, and sharing ideas on how to find new clients and create new dishes based around truffle.
The night is still young enough to pull off one last deal. Work never seems to end for these two truffle dealers.