On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe chat with truffle expert Dave Persaud of Sabatino Tartufi about the mysterious and beloved fungi. Your hosts then discuss why luxury food goods like truffles, foie gras, and others haven’t made their way into the cocktail scene. Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters. I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” Guys, I know I’ve talked about this a lot recently but it’s white truffle season, motherf*ckers. You know how much I love truffles in general. I think if I was able to come back as anything, I’d come back as a truffle pig.
Z: Good life.
A: Now we’re going to learn, though.
J: They don’t get to eat them, Adam.
A: Well, so actually I brought a really special guest because we’re going to learn that the reason there’s no truffle pigs anymore is because they do eat them, and that’s the problem. You can’t train a pig like you can train a dog. Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you guys to a really special guest who’s become a friend in a very few short weeks, Dave Persaud, who works at Sabatino Truffles, Sabatino Tartufi. Dave, how you doing?
Dave Persaud: Great. Glad to be here.
A: Thank you so much for coming. Not only is he going to be an excellent guest, but he is also going to offer every single listener of the “VinePair Podcast” 15 percent off anything you buy at Sabatino Tartufi through the holidays. All you have to do is enter VINEPAIR15. You should know how to spell VinePair if you listen to the podcast, all caps plus the two numbers one, five. When you check out and you get 15 percent off everything in the store, including white and black truffles, which is dope. I’ll give the code one more time.
J: Very nice. Thank you so much, Dave.
D: That’s great.
A: Yes, you’re welcome. Dave, how did you get into truffles? How did your career begin?
D: It’s been a long, delicious journey, so I started off with truffle.
D: Then I went into lamb. We were importing meat from Australian, New Zealand lamb meat. There I started making connections in the wine industry. I’ve always loved wine. Then I went to work for a wine importing company for a few years. Now I’m in the wonderful world of truffles. Life just gets more and more delicious with each job I take.
A: What is it about truffles that is just so alluring to people? When you are out in the world and you’re talking to chefs and you’re talking to consumers, because I think Sabatino mostly supplies chefs, right?
D: Absolutely, yes. Most of our business is on the food service side. We’re working with chefs, restaurant owners hotels, hospitality industry overall, but we do have a fair amount of retail business, so grocery stores, specialty, delis, that sort of thing as well.
A: What is it about truffles that when you hear from people of like, why people are so obsessed with them?
D: Well, right away it’s like wine. You first see it, and when you first see a truffle, it’s got this craggy exterior and it’s alluring. It’s got a mystique to it, but really it’s the fragrance that hits you. It’s just this really intoxicating aroma. It engulfs your senses right away. You’ll see when chefs are picking out truffles from us, the first thing they do is they pick it up, they look for a really nice round truffle, but the next thing they do is they really just bring it up to their noses and inhale the aroma because it’s just so intoxicating. It’s deep, it’s rich, it’s robust, and there’s no other food ingredient like it in the world.
Z: For those who haven’t yet had the deep privilege of experiencing truffles in many forms, what is the sort of principle difference, whether it’s flavor, aroma, or otherwise between white and black truffles at large?
D: That’s a great question. White truffles are the rarest truffles in the world, and that’s mostly because we haven’t figured out how to cultivate and grow them. Whereas black truffles at large?
A: That’s a great question.
D: White truffles are the rarest truffles in the world. That’s mostly because we haven’t figured out how to cultivate and grow them. Where there were various black truffle varieties, we figured out ways to cultivate them. What we do at Sabatino is we’ve got a huge amount of land in Umbria, Italy, where we cultivate truffles by inoculating sap tree saplings with the fungal spores that help that eventually become truffles. On an annual basis, we’re blending tens of thousands of trees across our plant, our truffle plantation in Umbria. The demand for truffles is so large that we also source from other areas in Italy as well as France and Spain. Black truffles have a much deeper, richer aroma and fragrance as well as flavor, whereas white truffles have a more bright garlicy, walnut, hazelnutty aroma.
A: Then because of those differences, how would you want to use each differently?
D: Sure. I think truffles really stand out whenever they’re paired with starches and fats. More traditionally, truffles are served with pastas. They’re served with risotto, polenta, things that really are somewhat blank canvases for the truffle to really stand out because really you want the truffle to take center stage on a dish. One of the simplest ways and most enjoyable ways to have truffles is just simply shaved on top of scrambled eggs or a lightly buttered pasta. This way you really get the truffle flavor and aroma coming through. More often than not, when you’re in a restaurant and you see chefs using it, they will prepare a very simplistic dish that is a little bit more neutral on the flavor side so that the truffles really do stand out from the dish. You don’t really want too many competing flavors.
J: Right, so Adam alluded to this in the beginning, but maybe you can walk us through how truffles are harvested?
A: By pigs.
D: The truffle pig, as we like to say here, was the OG truffle hunter. It’s how truffles were first discovered. Someone thousands of years ago noticed pigs in the forest digging up truffles just furiously and engorging themselves with it. They have the cajones, let’s say, to actually say, “Hey, let’s give that a shot. What doesn’t kill you?” Thousands of years ago, somebody said, all right, let’s give this a shot. They discovered, wow, truffles are really amazingly flavorful. Fast forward eons and eons to the 1900s. Truffle pigs were still being used, but over time they figured out that truffle dogs were much more effective in finding truffles in that they don’t have to fight them once they find the truffles. The reason you have to fight a pig, a truffle pig is the truffle aromas and the vial, the volatile organic compounds very closely mimic the pheromones of a male pig in heat. Female pigs were typically used to find truffles because they found they would smell these pheromone aromas coming out of the ground and furiously dig them up because they thought, hey, it’s sexy time. As you can imagine, it was tough to get the pigs to let go of that truffle once they found it because they would just try to eat it. It’s much easier to wrestle an 80-pound dog than it is a 400-pound pig. The government of Italy actually outlawed truffle pigs in 1985 besides the fact that they probably didn’t want to pay for shoulder surgery for their truffle hunters under their medical system over there. They also realized that pigs are — their hoofs are really detrimental to the root systems of trees so as they’re digging, they tend to damage the root systems and that creates all sorts of forestation issues in Italy. It was a two-pronged approach on the Italian government side to outlawing truffle pigs.
Z: I have one more question for you, Dave, which is, Adam on the podcast has expressed his love of white truffles, which I think I certainly and Joanna share and you mentioned that one of the methods that is most common is just thinly shaved over your pick, your starch, your fat, whatever. For people who are interested in some of the flavor, but for whom purchasing a white truffle might feel like a little more of a step than they want to take, what are some other ways to get some of that flavor that are maybe less of a commitment than an actual truffle?
D: Yes, so I would always recommend after the white truffle flavor the truffle aromas and flavors are very fat soluble so that’s why truffle oil is a very common ingredient used by chefs. Our truffle oils, what we do is we have access to the most truffles across Italy, across most of Europe. As I mentioned, chefs really look — it’s like the 4 S’s of wine. You see, sniff, swirl, sniff again, and then sip. For chefs, they really want a nice round truffle and anything that doesn’t meet the aesthetic qualities of what chefs would like will often be used on our side. There’s still perfectly good truffles loaded with these aromas. We use a steam extraction process, which is distilling, so we’ll extract the flavor out of the actual truffles to create our truffle oils. What you’ll notice with our truffle oils is they’re much more complex, and they give you a pretty round, robust profile of the white truffle without having to spend a ton of money on the actual white truffle itself.
A: Dave, I wanted to ask you a question about truffle oils as well so I’m glad that Zach got us there. There are differences though, right? Aren’t there some truffle oils that are basically all chemicals?
D: There are. I can’t speak too well to those because all of our truffle oils that we make are all natural. As I mentioned, when you have access to the real deal, we don’t really have to go down that route, but the industry is tarnished by some of those bad actors. It is really unfortunate, but for us, we really focus on giving an authentic expression of what the truffle is and all the products we create.
A: You want to look for an oil that actually has natural truffle extract in it. It actually has truffles as opposed to something that maybe doesn’t say that at all. Just tastes like truffle flavor. Yes, that has flavor.
D: Exactly. For us, as I mentioned, we extract that flavor from actual white truffles and black truffles for our truffle oils. What you want to look for is something that’s labeled all-natural and usually, it will say it’s infused. That’s how they’re using actual truffles and infusing that flavor that’s extracted from the truffles into the oil. As I mentioned, those volatile organic compounds are really fat-soluble, so that makes it so that the truffle flavor and aromas really stretch a long way once you start adding it to fats.
A: One last question for you. You talked a lot about delicate pairings with these truffles. When I see certain Instagram photos, especially of a chef or someone who’s taken a ridiculous burger and then shaved a ton of black truffles over it or a steak, what are the truffles bringing to those? Is that overkill? Is that more just because it looks awesome and baller? Or is the truffle bringing something to those types of cuisines as well?
D: I think it’s a little bit of both. Certainly having truffles shaved on your dish at the restaurant makes you a baller, right? It gets everybody in the restaurant turning around looking at you like, “Hey, that guy’s a big spender.” On the burger’s a great example. If you’re shaving black truffles or white truffles for that matter on a burger, what they’re adding is that earthiness that really — they’re adding umami and a lot of more robust deeper, richer, earthier flavors to the burger. I would call it maybe your best mushroom burger on steroids. It’s like just that much richer, that much deeper. That much more of an intense flavor that you’re going to get, it complements. If you think about mushrooms and beef, think beef bourguignon as a good classic pairing of the two. This would be that 100 times.
A: Wow. Then I guess in terms of the white and the black truffle, white truffles are only available for a very specific amount of time, whereas black are year-round?
D: I’ll start with the white truffles. Those start becoming available around late October or early November and they’ll last through New Year’s, maybe into January, or mid-January. The last couple of years we’ve actually seen white truffles coming in as late as early February, like getting us to Valentine’s Day. That’s more of an anomaly. Whereas black winter truffles, those come online around November, and that season for black winter truffles will go as far as March comfortably sometimes. The season can even stretch into, or the first week of April. Then there’s a little bit of a low for a month or so. Then black summer truffles come online. That season will run from early May to September-ish. You do have access pretty much year-round to black truffles in some form. Black winter truffles are much more intense and robust versus black summer truffles. If you think about it in terms of the cuisine of the season, you’re eating lighter cuisine in the summer anyway so you don’t necessarily need that intensity. One of the things that we’ve done is partnered with truffle growers down in Australia and we’ve helped them plant truffle plantations in western Australia, a little east of Perth. That gives us the ability to bring black winter truffles to the North American market and global market in the typical summer months. From, say, late May through a good chunk of August, you’ll see black winter truffles available from Australia from us. We pretty much only focus on the most popular and most in-demand truffles species to import to the U.S. and globally. There are something like 200-plus species of truffles, but there’s really only four species that are in demand and it’s mostly because of their aromatic in their flavor profiles.
A: That’s very cool. Dave, thank you so much for joining us and talking to us about one of my favorite things: truffles. For everyone who is listening, there’s no better way to start your Friday than a 15 percent discount, which we did not ask you to offer but you very graciously did. You just have to type in VINEPAIR15 at sabotinotruffles.com and you get some fresh truffles for New Year’s Eve, which sounds pretty dope to me, or Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, whatever you need. Get some fresh truffles, or some other amazing products you guys have like the oils we talked about, the truffle zest, the spreads, all that great stuff. Thank you again so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.
D: Thank you. Happy holidays to everyone.
A: I love truffles.
J: I feel like I have to buy some now.
Z: How many did you order with that? I was just playing around with the — because to look because it says, look, I’m not going to go buy a crazy white truffle but like you could get, you can get a half-ounce white truffle for $124 and with a 15 percent discount, that’s not bad for two people to have some white truffle over some pasta or eggs over the holidays.
J: It’s very special.
A: It’s like a special thing or one-ounce of truffle for $250. 15 percent off, that takes you like what? $200? It’s special. We talk about buying wines and stuff like that at this price all the time. I don’t know, man, SabatinoTruffles.com, VINEPAIR15, get that money. I don’t know. I had one-
J: You’re biased. It’s fun but the black truffles are actually really — a one-ounce black truffle on the site’s $90. It is literally $160 cheaper than another white truffle ounce plus then you get 15 percent off. That’s a pretty even black truffles are baller. It’s just that as he said, you can cultivate them. It allows for a much more affordable experience. Black winter truffle with your New Year’s Eve dinner, that’s good. I have to do this.
Z: Can I tell you guys my one other little interesting fact? As I mentioned a couple of episodes ago, one of the first times we talked about truffles, I went on this expedition when I was in Piedmont with my wife and a truffle hunter and his dog. He told us — the really interesting thing was, as Dave mentioned that with the pigs when they used the pigs, they didn’t have to do anything because the pigs are naturally drawn to the truffle aromas. With dogs, they don’t give a sh*t about truffles, which is great because you don’t have to fight them for them. It does mean you have to convince them. You have to teach them to find it.
A: You have to teach them to actually want them.
Z: The way they do it, which I think is one of the ways they do it, which I think is super interesting, is actually he said like they apply a tiny amount of truffle oil to the nipples of the mother as the prospective truffle dogs are like first nursing. They learn to associate that smell from birth. Just the picture of like this rustic Italian gentleman like using an eyedropper or something to dab tall amounts of truffle oil on the — sure. Why not? That seems like a good strategy. I can’t really think of a better one.
J: Yes, it’s brilliant.
A: That’s hilarious. I never realized that’s how they would do it. It does make sense. I think what’s funny, though, is we’ve talked about this a bunch and we asked Dave about shaving the truffles over ostentatious burgers and things like that. I wonder why we haven’t seen them in cocktails. It’s such an aromatic garnish. Cocktails are all about aromatics. I wonder why you don’t see, even with just black truffles, someone doing this. We’re at the point now where people are doing caviar bumps all over the country. Why don’t you think we see black truffle garnishes?
J: I think it’s because it really can overwhelm. I think maybe because the caviar has this tradition of being served with vodka, which doesn’t really have any flavor to impart. I just feel like truffles don’t have the same tradition. To add them to a drink, and probably you’d be adding truffle oil, which I really think has the capacity to overwhelm. That’s why we don’t see it.
A: I also think if the truffle oil’s fake, like we talked about, it’s disgusting.
J: Oh, it’s fake. Truffle oil is the worst. It is a scourge in the cooking scene, I think right now. We see it so often of truffled mac and cheese and truffled pizza and everything. I think it can be so bad.
Z: It’s very true that your $7 truffle fries probably are not using real truffle oil.
Z: I actually totally disagree with you, Joanna, about the reason why we’re not seeing shaved black truffles in cocktails. I think, sure, maybe it’s because some very particular bartenders are like, oh, it could overwhelm the flavor, but we see all goofier dumber sh*t out there all the time. I think the reason is that people just aren’t creative enough. We haven’t seen enough or creativity is maybe the wrong way to put it. They’re not brazen enough to go out and figure out ways to get people to spend $75 on a cocktail.
J: That’s true.
Z: As was mentioned in the interview, a big part of the reason why you started to see restaurants offering to shave truffles onto whatever dish you wanted for a truly astronomical price was, okay, yes, maybe it makes the food better, but also because they know that some amount of people will pay to be the center of attention in that way. If you think people won’t pay to be the center of attention in a restaurant or will pay to be the center of attention in a restaurant, but won’t do the exact same thing to get everyone in a bar to look at them when the bartender pulls out a little tiny mandolin and takes the truffle out of the case and shaves it over their f*cking Manhattan or whatever, you are clearly deluding yourselves. I just think no one has really thought a lot about it. I think in pausing this whole idea, I myself have wondered why we haven’t seen a little bit more of this because we are in this period of time where whether it’s the caviar bump or other luxury accompaniments to drinks, cocktails specifically are definitely blowing up. Why aren’t we seeing foie gras, which is always a really hard set of words for me to say without sounding like I’m eating marbles. Foie gras-washed bourbon Old Fashioned. We got the bacon Old Fashioned played out, up your game, people. I think there’s this whole world of the — so many of the really expensive cocktails we talked about, and when we did an episode about expensive cocktails, we all fixated on and rightly so, the idea of an expensive cocktail being made from a very expensive base spirit. That’s the way you get to a really high-end cocktail as you put really expensive liquor in it. The other way you do it is by adding these very classic luxury ingredients in a way that, hopefully, let’s be clear, makes the drink better or at least more interesting or something. Frankly also appeals to the kind of audience that wants you to know that they can order an $80 cocktail and will. All you’ve ever seen with those things is expensive spirits or gold leaf, neither of which are that interesting to be in cocktails.
J: Gold leaf.
A: I think you’re right.
J: I would love to get a bartender’s take on this.
A: Me too. I feel like, look, if we are also saying that one of the bigger trends that we are seeing as well is the tableside cocktail service, this is perfect for that. Obviously, this doesn’t work if you’re at more of a traditional classic now high-end cocktail bar where if you’re sitting at the bar, yes, you see the drink being made but if not, it’s just brought to your table and you’re done. I think with these tableside services for you to be able to order that and then pull out the truffle shaver, it makes a lot of sense. I’m curious what cocktails do you think would work well with truffle?
J: I think it’s just a challenging flavor.
A: Could it be delicious as an Old Fashioned?
A: Yes, that could be interesting. Could you infuse the vodka with truffle and then basically do a truffle Martini? I don’t know if it would work with a gin because there’s already too many botanicals happening. I could see that — I think Zach has a point here. Why aren’t we seeing someone trying to infuse spirit with truffle, or using high-quality truffle oil and then adding truffle shavings at the top?
Z: I think just again, you get your classic, your really nice maybe vodka, but I think Jenny could pull it off too Martini and you’re there and again, forget the expressed lemon peel or whatever. Who feels like a cooler person than the person who got the shaving of white truffle on their cocktail and it’s just like floating there in the drink? I don’t actually know 100 percent whether it would truly work. I never tried it because I don’t just have white truffles lying around at home. I do know that I’ve done like a truffle salt — What did we do?
Z: We did a truffle salt rim on a Bloody Mary, actually, which was really interesting like a black truffle salt. Which I thought was really good for some fancy brunch thing I did one time. There’s a lot of potential for these things. I think it’s because again, you have this mix of both possibly bringing a flavor into the party that doesn’t typically get used in cocktails and also, again, to have this mix of very, very obvious luxury and a show. As we’ve been talking about a lot on the podcast lately, I do think there’s a lot of appetite for showmanship in cocktails in particular right now because that theatricality is a big selling point for people. It’s how you would distinguish a night out from a night in a lot of ways. Because in some ways as we’ve talked about a bunch on the Pod, people have figured out how to make them a Manhattan. If you can’t do more than just make them a Manhattan, you can’t give them something else, like, what are they doing? If you need to give them the over-the-top show or the over-the-top ingredient, that’s a thing that a bar can do, even with a discount code most people are not going to do at home.
A: I figured it out and at the cocktail. You would make a truffle Old Fashioned. What you would do is instead of using the sugar cube with the Angostura, you would add truffle honey. Because there’s honeys now that are infused with fresh truffles and truffle flavors. You would use that instead. Maybe you wouldn’t use an Angostura. Maybe you’d use like an orange bitter or something or you’d have to play with that a little bit. Then you make a really basic Old Fashioned, which is already decadent and maybe to up the ante you’d use a very nice whiskey. A more expensive bourbon, maybe one of these rare bourbons, and then you shave black truffles.
Z: I think that would work.
A: I think that would work because anywhere where any drink that already uses honey or sweetness, you could just play with a truffle honey, a high-quality one, then you’re already getting the flavor and then you’re just adding the aromatic of a few shavings of truffle. I cannot see how that would not be something people would order all the time. Especially if you’re then, as Zach was saying, using a very high-end, top-shelf spirit as the spirit. It’s like we’re not going to do an Old Fashioned but then use well bourbon or well rye. We’re using Michter’s 10, which already is super hard to find and insane, but we’re using that as the rye with this and the truffles. Yes, $80, aren’t you trying to show someone that you got to spend? You could see people being really all about it.
Z: All right. If you’ve bartenders out there, if you start doing this, you got to-
J: If you come into a bunch of truffles do some R&D for us.
A: Let us know what truffle cocktail you would be into. Podcast@VinePair.com. Also if you just take part in truffles this holiday season, let us know because I certainly am now going to. I put it out there for the universe. Dave slid into my DMs. It was the best. If anyone else is interested in talking to us about truffles, I’m always open if you hear from other companies. Just let us know. Podcast@VinePair.com, and I’ll talk to you guys on Monday.
J: Have a good weekend.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast, the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast network. If you love listening to this show or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast, whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere. If you are listening to this on a device right now through an app, however, you got this audio, please drop a review. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for some totally awesome credits. The VinePair podcast is recorded in our New York City headquarters and in Seattle, Washington, in Zach Geballe’s basement. It is recorded by Zach, mastered and produced by Zach. He loves all the credit. Keep giving it to him. Drop his name in the reviews. He’s going to love hearing how much you love him.
It is also recorded in New York City by our tastings director, Keith Beavers, who is the managing director of the entire VinePair podcast network. I’d also love to give a shout-out to our editor-in-chief, Joanna Sciarrino, who joins us on every single podcast as our third and most important host. Thank you as well to the entire VinePair staff and everyone who’s been involved in making VinePair as special as it’s become. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next week.