Truffles: Luxury Knows No Season
Dubai is known as a place of unadulterated luxury. Massimo Vidoni of Italtouch realized this and started importing the amazing experience of truffles. Black or white, pure and whole or in truffle oil, Massimo is the name you need to know if you want to taste luxury. Meet “the truffle man”.
The Pemberley: Tell me about yourself and how you ended up in truffles!
Massimo Vidoni: I was born in Pordenone, a small town 40 minutes from Venice, northeast of Italy. My parents are from there and I grew up and went to school there. After high school, I went to New York to study business marketing and I was working as a waiter to make extra cash. Because I was Italian, I was called for jobs in Italian restaurants and slowly began to realize that people spend a lot of money on truffles, caviar and anything extravagant. The tips were high, and so I started saving money. One day a client picked me up in a limousine and brought me to the Upper East Side where he owned about 17 buildings and offered me three months’ rent free at a little corner store. I opened my first café and became busy very quickly— also selling caviar and truffles. I started to bring the truffles to one of the owners of Tasivano, and he wanted me to stay over for New Year’s Eve and Christmas, so he paid my first-class ticket to Venice. To thank him, I brought back a kilo of truffle at a good price, and some good wine. He was so happy, he told me to go back to get more. Since he was paying for my ticket, I figured that maybe I could find other people who wanted truffles. I went back for truffle season and started selling truffles in New York.
TP: How did you learn the ins and outs of the business?
MV: I worked with a big company, Urbani, who has been selling truffles for 2 generations. They offered me a 10% cut of whatever I sold, and I got to know the business trade by learning from others. It's easy to open a company in New York, but the actual importation, the operation and doing everything correctly, can be challenging. I worked for Urbani for 6 years and then when I started making too much money, they offered me a commission instead. I declined the offer and they fired me.
TP: Is that when you started your own business?
MV: Yes, I opened my own company right away because I knew what to do and was well known in the industry and a great salesperson. I went to all the top restaurants and got to meet the greatest chefs in America. I was the truffle man. I became well known in ‘97 when I imported a truffle that was 2.6 pounds, and all the big Italian restaurants didn’t want to commit because it was too big. And I remember I was with Rick Moonen of Oceana, we were playing pool, they said how much does it cost? I said 3,600 dollars. He handed me 600 dollars and told me he’d give me the 3000 the following day. I learned PR from them, and I started to send it to CNN and New York times, they waited for me in the airport in New York. It worked very well, they followed us, we were making truffles for the cops, the construction workers, nobody knew what it was
TP: How did you end up in Dubai?
MV: After I sold my company in New York, I couldn't sell any more truffles in America for 2 years. In the meantime, there was the big crisis of 2008 and we were expecting a baby, so we decided to move to Italy. My wife was working in corporate advertising, and there was an opportunity to work in Europe. We stayed in Italy until my daughter was a year-and-a-half and then I had the urge to get back to truffles. We were considering Shanghai or Dubai. Shanghai seemed attractive because of the potential, and for me it’s the new New York— like the financial center of the world. My wife preferred Dubai, because Shanghai seemed to be challenging as a mom. We also realized we may not fit in— people want to take a selfie with you— when you go to the bar people want to buy you a drink, because you’re white. It's a bit weird. Also, the Chinese culture is very different to what we are used to.
We came to Dubai in October 2011. For me it was like Vegas— the atmosphere, the restaurants, the water, everything aside for the gambling. It’s like living in a bubble, it’s very safe and great for kids, and the weather was amazing. We were there for three months and then decided to stay longer. I came here with 4 kilos of black truffle, and opened my company Italtouch in 2012. My first client was Zuma— I took my business card with a piece of truffle, stuck it together with a stapler, and sent it to him. Before that, there was no specialized company that was focused on truffle and truffle derivatives. During truffle season in October and November, you ordered a kilo, had a truffle week festival, and then it was over. It was very expensive and were priced sky-high.
TP: What exactly is a truffle and where do they grow?
MV: Truffle is an underground fungus which is a gift of Mother Earth— it’s not something you can cultivate. The shape is like an asteroid, but if there was no blockage of the dirt that surrounds the truffle— if it was possible to grow in water— it would be shaped like an apple, a perfect ball. Because the spores are between roots and stones, they take the shapes, and no two truffles look the same. The spores stay dead and reactivate every year— the season is from October to December and the peak of the season is in November. Then it freezes in the ground, the project stops, they deactivate, and stop reusing until the next October. Organic truffle doesn’t exist because it’s impossible to have an organic version of something when you don’t know where it grows. If the environment is not pure, it's very hard to grow truffles— even power lines are a killer. If there's a street nearby, you won't find any truffles for at least a kilometer.
TP: How do you know if a truffle is good?
MV: When you order a truffle, there is a trust factor, but it's always a surprise because you need to rely on other people to purchase it for you. Not every truffle is good— each one has a time machine, a life expectancy. If I order 10 kilos, they're probably coming from 80 different towns that are more than a kilometer from each other. There's no date on the truffle, so there's no way to know how fresh it is. The truffle hunter may have found it on Tuesday, put it out on Wednesday, gave it to me on Sunday, but they will say that it’s from yesterday. Truffles lose 2-3% of their weight every day, and after maybe 5-6 days, one may become black overnight, get soggy or start leaking.
TP: Who are your customers?
MV: I send to Singapore and from here I sell to Bahrain, Iran, and many clients in India. They collect more clients and order 2-3 kilo and then it's worth it for them to buy a ticket to come here and pick it up— because then they can select the truffles they want. In the past, the customer would just sign for the kilo even if it was poor quality. Today, I go to a restaurant, we choose it together, and we bargain. After a while I know who wants only a big size, who wants a mix, who keeps some to cook in the kitchen, and a bigger one to show off to the customers. Every client is different, and I try to do a tailored customized job for each one. When I started, it was just me doing invoicing, collecting and the deliveries- but now we have 14 people on the team.
TP: What are the challenges in the truffle industry?
MV: In early season, the truffle may have worms in it, because it’s dirt. Usually when it's hot, they come out. You can find it other vegetables such as lettuce, but you can just wash it off. With truffles however, you can't see them from the outside— they can be hatching inside— but when they come out, you see the holes. One of the problems with truffles is that the pressure of flying makes the worms come out. So, you may leave with a good batch of truffles, and then when you arrive here, they’re infested with worms and you can’t sell it. I have insurance for that, and I claim on the batches or kilos that are bad, and they send it to me in the next shipment.
TP: What’s the difference between truffle hunters and truffle dealers?
MV: Most of the time, a truffle dealer is a smart truffle hunter. Like with fishermen, one goes and catches the fish, and there's a guy who trades the fish. The best traders are in Japan— they call it a fishmonger. There's no truffle monger, but in Italy, there is somebody who is very good commercially, very bright, quick, good with cash (because we all deal with cash), and then there is somebody who puts together the guys who find the truffles. During the season, there may be no truffles in his area, but he has a request from a restaurant for a party with a kilo or two of truffle. He starts to reach out— if there’s a kilo of grey truffle in Bologna, and you are from Florence, and a Japanese guy wants 2 kilos, you make a call, buy it, send your guy in, and it's shipped out.
TP: Where is truffle produced?
MV: Spain, Italy and France are the biggest producers of black winter truffle and Australia has become a producer of 3 tons per year. They’ve been producing for 16 years and the last 4 years exporting it— I was the first to bring Australian black winter truffle to Zuma. You can get it here in the summer (when it's winter in Australia) and it works well for everybody except for me in Dubai, because unfortunately it’s quiet during the summer from May to September. If you have some money, you don't stay in Dubai for July and August and those people that usually buy the truffle aren't here. But I still sell 2-3 kilos to some top restaurants who want to have it on the menu.
TP: Is truffle only known about in certain countries?
MV: Years ago, a chef told me that when he used to sell truffle, it took him an hour to explain what it was, but now the local people are all experts. In London, New York and Japan, consumers all know about truffle. Because of an increase in the population and globalization of food, there are new markets opening in China, Asia, and many requests from those countries to buy. Six or seven years ago nobody was shipping truffle here, but I’ve been shipping big amounts of truffles to Dubai for the last decade, and now I send truffles to Vietnam and Thailand. Because the chef moves around- you have Italian restaurants in almost every resort now- so I’m shipping for the first time to Bali. Italian cuisine is very popular, and when people start to travel to Italy and see not only the pizza and the basil with tomato, they get into it and at some point, they arrive at truffles. When you start to upgrade the quality of a restaurant, most of the time, truffle and caviar are introduced, as well as very good vinegar and very good olive oil. In Italy, a real extra virgin olive oil is not available for less than 12 euro a liter. I don't know how you can find a quarter liter for 2 euro in the supermarket in America, or here.
TP: What is the difference in taste, aroma, and texture between the truffles from Spain, France or Italy?
MV: Even with a very good nose, it’s almost impossible to know where it came from. White truffle comes from Alba which is very coveted— it's a small area, that produces maybe 2 percent of all the truffle produce in the world and so everybody will say that it’s from Alba but there's no way of tracing it, unless you do the DNA of the dirt. Most of the truffle area has the same DNA, the same minerals in almost every place, so it's very hard. I can probably tell from the dirt and shape of the truffle— the argyle of the dirt, the compact of the dirt, is different, let's say in Croatia than in Italy. In Croatia the dirt is harder, and when the truffle grows, it tends to be flatter, and makes a crest like a rooster. A Croatian truffle is very round and nice. Black winter truffles are more powerful, and they all look alike. Spain produces 60 percent of black winter and black summer truffle in the world. They only export maybe 5 percent and the rest are from France and Italy. They travel and end up in the very famous markets in France and Italy.
TP: Which is your favorite truffle and why?
MV: I love the white truffle because the flavor is something you cannot describe. It's very gassy, almost garlicky, something you feel in your nostrils even more than on your tongue (black truffle is felt on your tongue and throat). If it’s a good truffle, the whole room will smell. There are many ways of describing it, aphrodisiac and exotic are two that come to mind. Either you hate it, or you love it. Some people say it smells like feet, but if you're a connoisseur, you’ll appreciate it— after one or two times you'll get hooked. If you ask me which truffle, I prefer the chef to cook, it’s the black. The white is amazing for the two months when it’s in season, but the black is available all year long and is more versatile for different sauces. Black truffles are available in two varieties: winter and summer— which are totally different (one is black inside).
TP: How much does truffle cost?
MV: White truffle is approximately 4000 euro a kilo, because we're just at the beginning of the season— but it can be much higher. Black winter truffle is in the range of 1500 euro a kilo. With globalization and interest in truffle increasing, customers are more educated, and more chefs everywhere— demand is increasing and there is less truffle available, which makes the price go higher.
TP: How is truffle best enjoyed?
MV: The best thing to bring out the flavor of truffle, is something fatty such as cream, butter or eggs. You can shave truffle on a steak, and it will taste amazing, but it won’t merge very well, even if it's good in your pallet. A cream or a butter or truffle cream can make it more affordable. A weight of 12-15 grams is needed to fill truffle in almost every bite but a cream using 3 grams will still give you the feeling of truffle on your palette and is more cost effective.
TP: How should truffles be stored at home?
MV: It’s best to wrap it in tissue, put it in a towel, and store it in a Tupperware jar. Every time you open the fridge, the difference in the temperature between the container makes some condensation, which is the reason for the towel, because you want the truffle to have some air but not to touch the condensation and get wet. If you use it in a couple of days, you can put it in rice. But if you do it for more then 2-3 days, you'll have great rice that smell like truffle, and a truffle that's like a potato, because the rice will suck up everything.
TP: What do you want people to know about truffles?
MV: That it’s an experience and they should try it. The restaurants love to sell truffle, because most of the time the consumers who are connoisseur enough to order truffle, are also the ones that buy the best wines, and tend to stay longer at the table. People rarely want to eat truffle in a half hour.
Truffle can be used for everything, and many condiments can be made with it, such as truffle sauce, truffle cream, truffle butter, and you can have it in a sandwich or a salad. You can also enjoy just the flavor, which is much less expensive than the real thing. You don't need to buy vanilla bean from Madagascar if you want to have a good slice of cake. Once you taste the flavor of truffle, you’ll never forget it.