When Gianmaria Buccellati arrived in Los Angeles last week to unveil priceless museum pieces created by the Italian House of Buccellati, the gems he carried were not only rubies, diamonds and sapphires.
Wrapped in newspaper and packed wood crates were priceless gems of a culinary kind. Tucked under his arm were seven kilos of the most expensive truffles in the world-- tartufo bianco di Alba, the creamy white truffles from Alba, Italy, which in today's market range in price from $700 to $7,000 per pound, depending on weight and size.
The truffles were destined for the kitchens of the Regency Club, Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel and Bistro Gardens restaurant, where invited guests were treated to both a viewing of Buccellati's museum treasures and a taste of the treasured truffles in dishes ranging from tagliatelle to filet mignon.
"Truffles are well-known, but not many people have actually tasted white truffles on the West Coast. I thought it would be a nice idea to bring not only the jewels, but something as rare from Italy to give people an idea of what the Italian kitchen is like," said Buccellati, who arrived with an entourage of chefs from restaurants specializing in Piedmontese truffle cuisine in Italy.
It so happened, that the hand-picked chefs are celebrated women chefs from two of the most famous restaurants in Piedmont. Maria Pagliasso is the celebrity chef of Boccondiviono in Bra, and Mariuccia Ferrero is the chef at San Marco restaurant in Canelli, both in Piedmont.
Also passing customs along with the jewels and truffles were wine, cheese and other special ingredients with which to prepare homemade tagliatelle, fonduta (cheese fondue), flan di spinaci (spinach flan with truffle sauce) and panna cotta alla Piemontese, a dessert typical of the region.
Buccellati's dinner at the Regency Club recently, for instance, boasted wines of the Piedmont region around which the menu was actually designed. Barbaresco Bricco Asili Ceretto 1983 was served with both the the tagliatelle first course and spinach flan. With the filet mignon laced with truffle fondue came Barolo Bricco Rocche Brunate Ceretto 1983, which Buccellati considers among the most precious wines in Italy, comparable to the finest Burgundy wines of France. Moscato d'Asti dei Vignaioli di Santo Stefano 1983 was served with dessert.
White truffles, which are even more expensive than French black truffles, are rated by weight and size. The larger and heavier the truffle, the more expensive and better the taste, according to Claudio Colacicco, sales manager at Urbani U.S.A., the largest distributor of truffles in the world, according to Colacicco.
Although white truffles are grown in many regions of Italy, by far the most prized are those grown in Alba in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy, where soil and weather conditions best suit the development of the odd-looking ascomycetous fungi (tubers) that grow deep underground and require the scenting talents of dogs and pigs to uncover.
Limited supply, high demand, fragile shelf life (one week to 10 days under good conditions) keep these precious tubers high in price and rare. Prices sky-rocket during the holiday season when the tubers are normally in peak supply. Truffles are harvested from late August to late December, sometimes early January.
Top-graded truffles categorized as super-extra may range in weight from one-half to one kilo (about two pounds) and costs from $2,000 to $3,000 a pound, although a truffle weighing one kilo is considered priceless and will command whatever the market will bear, sometimes up to $6,000 to $7,000 at auctions. "These are prize truffles, generally auctioned to benefit a charity in Italy," Colacicco explained.
Lesser, but excellent grade truffles, such as extra grade are lower in weight and smaller than super extra, and cost from $700 to $900 in today's market.
First choice grade truffles are considerably smaller than either super or extra grades, and less expensive, about $400 to $600 per pound, depending on weather conditions. Poor weather brings higher prices. These lesser grades are generally shipped to markets, such as Irvine Ranch market in Los Angeles, while super extra grades go to Spago and Michael's restaurants in Los Angeles, to be featured in pastas, meat and sauce dishes.
Many restaurants also purchase broken pieces and peelings that cost $27 to $29 per pound, which is still exorbitant by most restaurant standards. Truffle oil from Alba at $11 per two ounce bottle, is another way to arrive at the flavor without having to purchase the truffles. A dash of oil goes a long way in cream sauces, pasta sauces, pan-fried juices of fish, meat or poultry
Also available in some markets is white truffle puree at $130 for an eight-ounce glass, compared with $60 for black truffle puree. Purees can be mixed in meat, pasta or other sauces.