A refreshing change: Forget Italy, your next high-end truffle is coming from Greece

Unlike Italy’s truffles, which have been dug up and eaten for centuries, Greece’s truffles have remained largely undisturbed.

more lifestyle Updated: Mar 01, 2018 16:45 IST
Truffle,Italy,Greece
A 2.15 pound white truffle from Nothern Italy is displayed in New York, U.S. (BLOOMBERG NEWS)

So you’re dining at a fancy restaurant and choose to splurge on some truffles to top off your repast. The server steps up and presents the vaguely ugly tuber. As the pungent slices rain down on your main course, the waiter announces that these truffles didn’t come from Italy, the traditional provenance of this decadent garnish. They hail from Greece.

Don’t be shocked—be glad. Italians have successfully positioned their product as the most luxurious under the forest floor. But white Alba truffles—tuber magnatum pico—also grow magnificently well in Greece. Even Aristotle mentions them in his writings, but they never made it into the local cuisine. Unlike Italy’s truffles, which have been dug up and eaten for centuries, Greece’s truffles have remained largely undisturbed. At least they did until the Athens-based culinary exporter Eklekto saw their potential for the U.S. market.

But there’s an additional reason to embrace Greek truffles. Usually, countless middlemen touch an Italian truffle before it makes it to market, increasing the consumer’s chances of getting a counterfeit version. Eklekto partners Peter Weltman and George Athanas say they work only with a small group of Greek foragers and know exactly where the product is from. Apart from the forager working with his trusty dog, Weltman and Athanas are the only people that touch the truffles before export, the company says. Initially, it was mutual interest in Greek wine that brought Weltman and Athanas together, but a mutual friend and respected mycologist (a studier of fungi) pointed them to truffles. Bitten by the Greek truffle bug, Weltman—a trained chef and sommelier—brought a cache of tubers back with him to San Francisco-area restaurants in 2016, jamming a pile of Greek Burgundy’s (also called black truffles) into a stinky backpack.

“You bring in caper leaves and it’s one thing,” he says of these sales calls. “But truffles are a whole other ballgame.” Everywhere Weltman went, the kitchen staff gathered around to peer into his Tupperware. They loved the scent: more buttery and saltier than the smokier French version and different from the Perigords—melanosporum—that he had later, which were more fruity, earthy and pungent. Still, they were sent off without a sale.

In 2017, Eklekto’s foragers began unearthing the prized white truffle that, in addition to Italy and Greece, also comes from Slovenia and Macedonia. More than a few Italian truffles have a good chance of actually hailing from these countries, given the premium prices they command and the ease of exporting them. At Urbani, which controls 70 percent of the world’s truffle market, Vittorio Giordano, vice president of the U.S. and Canada division, says he’s paying close attention to his Alba sources.

“As a truffle company, we have to keep an eye on the product,” he says. “If there are other areas producing the same truffle, we definitely have to pay attention.”

Nevertheless, with Alba prices climbing due to drought, the timing for Greek truffles was perfect. Last year, Italian truffles jumped to $3,500 a pound wholesale. Greek truffles were slightly cheaper, going for $3,150 a pound. Equally delicious, but not as rare, Perigords fetched $840 a pound. In peak season, Tusk will spend around $100,000 on truffles.

The same species as the Alba, Eklekto’s Greek white truffle smells and tastes just as delicious. One convert is chef Michael Tusk at San Francisco’s Quince restaurant. Tusk is a prodigious user of the luxury ingredient. “People are paying a lot of money,” Tusk says of his dinners. Because of this, sometimes he would take over in the dining room for any cautious captains. “I was never really fond of conservative shaving. It was either go big or go home.” During his annual, eight-night, white truffle festival, he uses about two kilograms a day. In peak season, Tusk will spend around $100,000 on truffles.

When Weltman first pitched his burgundy truffles to Tusk in 2016, the chef didn’t believe another country’s product could rival Italy’s. But after a year of soaring overhead, he reconsidered. “It was a brutal year of expense and I thought I’ll at least take a look,” says Tusk. He began adding them to his risotto with tartufo bianco, a dish that includes both cultured white truffle butter and a generous shaving of truffles at the table, and agnolottini di fonduta, molten cheese-stuffed pasta with white truffles. “The flavor was really good,” he says.

Last October, when Quince was awarded three Michelin stars, he requisitioned truffles to celebrate. He called up Far West Fungi—a wholesale and retail shop that carries the largest variety of truffle species in the Bay Area and which just received a large shipment of white tubers from Eklekto. General Manager Naomi Wolf delivered the goods personally. “I think it was three pounds, a ludicrous amount,” Wolf says.

“The smell and the taste were absolutely every bit as good as anything I got from Alba.”

George Chen, chef and owner of China Live and Eight Tables in San Francisco, first started using truffles in 2007 at Roosevelt Prime, a steakhouse in China. He continued to use Chinese truffles until 2010, when the market began to be flooded with inferior product. He started searching for alternatives.

“I heard that Greece had truffles, but I had never seen one,” says Chen. Weltman showed up one day with large, bright, white truffles. They had few indentations, allowing for beautiful oval pieces when shaved. But that wasn’t the real test. “The smell and the taste were absolutely every bit as good as anything I got from Alba,” Chen says. He began using them on his velvet chicken with roasted truffle veal jus and, in a riff on broccoli beef, seared wagyu finished with shaved white truffles.

Taking a chance on a supplier with a new ingredient, especially an expensive one, is a risk many don’t want to take. However, for this southern European country whose economy has problems, it’s a potential jackpot. Lefteris Lahouvaris, a Greek mycologist who works with Eklekto, estimates that Greece could export as many as three tons of truffles annually, translating into millions of dollars at wholesale prices in the U.S.

Many have yet to be convinced. Chefs that include Yotam Ottolenghi and Alice Waters, both of whom showed interest, eventually passed on Greek truffles. At Far West, where some white Albas went for $5000 a pound last year, co-owner Ian Garrone says he will continue to carry the Greek truffles as long as they’re consistent. “It’s going to be determined by a few good seasons,” he says. “I’m thinking it’s going to be an early white truffle season. If it can get in the market before Italian [truffles] get established, it has a really wonderful chance of being a mainstay.”

That said, Greece isn’t the only unlikely source for truffles these days. America’s Pacific Northwest is garnering a reputation for its underground crop, too. At the annual truffle festival in Eugene, Oregon, where white truffle season begins in October and ends in March, chefs cook with massive amounts of the tuber. At one especially notable dinner, they created eight courses that paired European truffles alongside the local offerings. Guests unanimously preferred the native truffles, recounts Charles Ruff, the festival’s culinary director.

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First Published: Mar 01, 2018 16:44 IST