Labaune says she enjoys the pared-down nature of the business. "It happens in secluded places, the opposite of industry, of big factories," she says. It's also beholden to nature's whims: one of the few things the Masters of the Universe cannot control, no matter how much money they throw at it.

This year, truffles are abundant and comparatively cheap, but in bad years, when they're struggling to bloom, demand remains constant, so the price skyrockets. What's more, the ones that do grow are stunted and weak, so buyers end up paying ridiculous sums for low-quality truffles. This happened in 2012, and the price topped out around $5,000 per pound.

When we meet, at the height of an extraordinary season, Labaune is worried about weather in Europe. "The past few days, it's rained a lot," she says. "People are afraid the truffles will be damaged."

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

So it's also important to be sure your producer, an ocean away, is trustworthy. "You need to know you're dealing with someone who will tell you the situation," Labaune says. "Like, it's been raining, it's been sunny, the price is high, the price is low, there are worms. . . . If you have someone who is always like, 'Oh, it's great,' forget about it."

Labaune's chain of trust links to her chefs, too. I first met Persehaie at the Waverly Inn, where I worked for a time, and where she made regular visits with truffles for the $125 truffle mac and cheese. Other purveyors would come around, and sometimes then-chef Eric Korsh would buy from them, but usually he'd wave them off; though their sales reps always assured him of the truffles' quality, after one smell of their wares, Korsh would immediately call Labaune.

Especially with the white truffle, cheap fungus is never the best fungus. "You know, the aroma isn't there, maybe they're not fresh, or they didn't come from the north of Italy; they came from southern Italy, or even Eastern Europe," Labaune says. "There's a lot of BS, because you can make so much money."

But in a recent conversation, chef Michael White (of Ai Fiori, Marea, and others), said when a truffle arrives in the kitchen, the money trail ends. "This is not about a chef making money," he says. "You do not sell white truffles to make money, OK? You're providing a service to the customer. It's about making people go, 'Aaaaah.'"

White loves truffles and says they're his favorite fall ingredient. When we spoke, he was reveling in the harvest: "When truffles are reasonably priced, it's just a joyous season. So many times, they become unattainable, even for chefs. They're so pricey, it takes all the fun away. . . . Anytime you get something that's $3,500 a pound, it gets kind of dicey, no pun intended. When they're around $2,000, just let them roll, right?"

Truffles are also prized for their flexibility. At Clement, Kida says he'll shave them on anything. "It's not one of those flavors that works against you," he says. "It's always working for you."

So when truffles are in, and especially when they're great, like they are this year, it's a jubilant thing.

This joy hits at the very core of why we care about cooking great food. It can evoke pleasure so deep it distills experience into a moment where everything lives within that bite.

And each truffle is a different world unto itself: the terroir of the place it grew, a reflection of the season, and even geologic history. Within it are the hands it's passed through, people who have nurtured it, hunted it, coveted it with a golem's verve, and paid vast sums of money to bring it to the plate. And all for a simple instant of sublime taste that depends wholly on the chemistry of their devourer.

So when I ask Labaune if she could tell the world just one thing about truffles, she says this: "Try it! Close your eyes, and try to describe the taste and the aroma. Because it's very different for each person. That's what I would say."

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