Forbidden Fruit: NYC's Truffle Merchants Sell Their Exotic Wares Door-to-Door

To sell her goods in midtown, Elodie Persehaie enters through a hidden elevator that opens into the kitchen at Clement, the Peninsula Hotel's swanky new restaurant. It's around 2 o'clock on a cold October afternoon, and lunch is winding down. It's her second or third stop today.

The room floods with their scent: a heavy odor, not unlike the pheromonal stench of a lover, or at least his dirty socks.

A few days a week, Persehaie walks the city with a cooler full of forbidden fruit. She's the sales and marketing manager for Gourmet Attitude, a truffle merchant that imports fungus from France and Italy and sells them to chefs at restaurants including Daniel, Per Se, and Masa, through the back doors of kitchens. Gourmet Attitude ships to out-of-town clients such as the French Laundry and Alinea, but in New York, Persehaie and company founder Céline Labaune deliver their product by hand.

In taxis from one client to another, Persehaie opens a window to let the smell out. "I get embarrassed when I'm going places in the subway or in a cab," she says. "The drivers will ask me, 'What do you have in your bag?' So I just open the windows. You cannot really say what you're doing."

Gourmet Attitude founder Céline Labaune.
Bradley Hawks
Gourmet Attitude founder Céline Labaune.

Her bag is worth thousands, and her rarefied cargo, as Grubstreet recently reported, has spawned every imaginable greed: muggings, forgeries, tax evasions, even puppycide. So if you're trucking around town with a boodle of truffles, better keep it quiet.

But not today. At the Peninsula, when Persehaie enters the kitchen, she's greeted with kisses by a handsome man in a suit and tie. He whisks her through a corridor into the private dining room, a twinkling affair set with silver and stemware. Chef Brandon Kida sits at the table chatting with Alan "Battman" Batt of Chef's Connection, who stopped by to deliver his new cookbook. When Persehaie joins him, they spend 15 minutes discussing where to live in New York before Kida turns to Persehaie: "Let's get down to business."

Persehaie: "Do you spend this much time with all your suppliers?" she asks.

"No," Kida says, "just you."

"Not even the caviar people?"

"No." With caviar, Kida explains, there's one tasting, and after that, someone delivers tiny jars of eggs as needed. In contrast, truffles must be touched, smelled, mulled over.

Persehaie opens her cooler. She pulls out little parcels, loosely wrapped in tissue paper, unwraps the white truffles, and lays them on the table. The room floods with their scent: a heavy odor, not unlike the pheromonal stench of a lover, or at least his dirty socks. All unwrapped, we're looking at about $5,000.

Kida puts one to his nose, inhales deeply. "They're getting stronger, right?" Persehaie nods. Early truffles, in September and October, grow close to the soil surface; the dogs and pigs hunters use to find them can smell them easily. Later on, they're deeper and need a stronger scent to be found. By now, the truffles are so fragrant that the transaction usually takes place behind closed doors so as not to disturb the adjacent dining room.

But today, the door is open. Waiters in waistcoats wander in for a look. Kida smiles and looks at Battman and me: "See? It traps people. They're like fish, swimming into our gill net."

The chef examines each fruit and places a few on Persehaie's scale. "They have to have a good shape and size," he says, for easy tableside shaving. But he's also looking for the right flavor, and each one is different.

Another day, Labaune says she carefully matches each truffle to its buyer. "Every truffle I send out, I see it, I touch it, I smell it. Because each client has different requirements."

Labuane and Persehaie, both originally from France, have worked together for five years. They make regular kitchen calls, and most of their business takes place at express speed. Labaune's suppliers dig truffles on the weekend and ship them to New York. They arrive Monday or Tuesday, and Labaune re-ships or delivers them the same day.

Alba white truffles have a shelf life of five days, maybe six, so everyone scrambles to get them from field to kitchen. At the Peninsula, Persehaie says the pressure to sell is stressful. "I have to sell them. If I don't sell them by tomorrow night, it's a waste, and it's very expensive."

Gourmet Attitude also sells black winter truffles from France, which come into season around Thanksgiving. Labaune has family connections to truffle-producing regions Périgord and Provence; she found her main producer through friends. His farm is high in the hills above Grignan, near the truffle market in Richerenches, an old fortified town and 12th-century home to the Knights Templar. "If it snows, you can't get there. It's far away from civilization," Labaune says. The family has cultivated truffles since phylloxera wiped out their grapevines in the late 1800s; rather than re-seed the vines, they planted truffle trees instead.

Truffles grow symbiotically with the roots of oak and hazelnut trees. With a little luck, a farmer can expose a sapling's roots to black truffle spores and plant it in a truffière (truffle orchard), where it will grow for years before it is ready to start producing truffles. If it works, a good truffle tree will fruit for 40 years or more.

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