By Lucas Witman
Each October, foragers in France, Italy and a handful of other European locales head into the wilderness, armed with a sack and a shovel and hoping to procure one of the rarest and most luxurious ingredients in the culinary world: the white truffle. Often accompanied by a specially trained dog, these modern foragers harvest truffles today in much the same way as adventurer-gourmands have done for centuries, navigating the forest floor and carefully digging along the roots of oak and poplar trees in search of the elusive, highly prized edible fungus.
It is difficult to imagine a specialty food product that originates in a peasant’s sack on a French hillside and eventually finds its way into the finest gourmet shops in the world’s biggest cities. However, this is precisely what is happening today, as foodies across the globe are purchasing fresh truffles and truffle products that find their way to market in this way.
The truffle has long been a popular ingredient in Italian and French cuisine, but in recent years, there has been an explosion in interest in the product within the American culinary market as well. Once reserved in the United States only for the very wealthy, today one can find truffle products in most grocery stores and specialty shops, where truffle oil, truffle paté, truffle cheese and truffle butter have developed a loyal following.
The mad dash by restaurants and specialty food companies to procure truffles begins every October 1, when the season for white truffles officially begins. This is the most highly prized variety of truffles, as they are the rarest and can never be cultivated. Truffle season carries on into the fall, as the black truffle becomes available in mid-November. In Europe, the harvesting season for truffles lasts until March. Buyers are often willing to pay anywhere from $300 to $1,500 for a single pound of the delicacy.
“It’s the rarity,” said Vincent Jeanseaume, Vice President of Sales for Sabatino Tartufi, explaining why people are willing to pay such high prices for this unique ingredient. “It takes a lot of effort, a lot of human resources to harvest a few kilos of truffles, and we might have to buy 10 kilos of truffles to sell two or three decent kilos.”
Founded in Italy in 1911, Sabatino Tartufi has become one of the largest distributors of fresh truffles in the world and the single largest importer of truffles into the United States. In addition to fresh truffles, Sabatino produces a wide array of truffle products, including oils, vinegars, sauces, salts, butters and prepared meals. All of the company’s products sold in the United States are made with authentic imported Italian ingredients and manufactured in a state-of-the-art 42,000-square-foot processing facility in West Haven, Conn.
According to Jeanseaume, Sabatino Tartufi sets itself apart from other companies in the U.S. truffle product market primarily because of the quality and freshness of its offerings. “We bring products that don’t get any fresher,” he said.
Still, Jeanseaume acknowledges that marketing truffles and truffle products in the United States is a completely unique enterprise, and Sabatino Tartufi has had to dramatically rethink its business model in reaching out to a U.S. consumer base.
“We very much have been able to adapt to the demand of the U.S. market,” said Jeanseaume. “We have that sort of flexibility and think-outside-the-box mindset that maybe the older Italian and French companies don’t have. Sometimes you need to shake things up and do things a bit different. We make certain things different here than we do in Europe.”
One of the ways that Sabatino Tartufi has been successful in reaching a U.S. clientele that is particularly hungry for luxury products is to focus on fine packaging. “We have some very consumer friendly packaging, and we try to give the brand a very unique luxury look to it,” said Jeanseaume. “We use the finest bottle companies out there. Being that we process truffle products—it’s not a cheap product—our customers expect this kind of packaging.”
However, simply re-envisioning the packaging was not enough to bring Sabatino Tartufi products into the shopping basket of the average U.S. consumer. For that, the company had to develop new products that specifically target this market. Sabatino Tartufi came out with truffle couscous, risotto, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese that were specifically designed for American palates. “Basically the idea is to bring to the average consumer a very easy-to-prepare gourmet meal,” said Jeanseaume. “The truffle mac and cheese is not something that would be popular in Italy, but it works here.”
Sabatino Tartufi is not the only company working to innovate the American truffle marketplace and bring truffle products into the kitchens of average food-loving consumers throughout the country. A number of specialty food companies are working truffles into their product lines in particularly creative ways.
Squirrel Brand may be best known as a high end producer of nut products for the specialty food industry, but the company is no stranger to the truffle trend. The company uses truffles in two of its products: Italian Black Truffle Almonds and Italian Black Truffle Almond Butter. A true culinary innovator, Squirrel Brand may in fact be the only gourmet company marketing a truffled nut butter in the United States.
“Let’s just say I have a muse,” said Squirrel Brand President and CEO J. Brent Meyer, explaining where the idea for the truffled almond butter originated. “My wife inspires many of our ideas. It simply made sense, and we did it. We have our Italian Black Truffle Almonds trademarked, so why not extend it further.”
Meyer recommends that consumers use his company’s truffled almond butter in any number of culinary capacities. It is delicious by itself, slathered on a piece of crusty bread, or it can be used as an ingredient in recipes, imparting a flavor that particular compliments arugula, figs and other items. However, Meyer cautions that because the product has such a unique flavor, it is best to keep things simple. “There is something so beautiful about not trying to outshine the product,” he said.
As Squirrel Brand has slowly introduced its Italian Black Truffle Almond Butter to retailers and consumers, Meyer jokes that it has often been a challenge getting people to understand the product. “If people like truffles, the response has been energetic and very positive,” he said. However, we get the occasional person who sees the word ‘truffle’ and they think we are sampling chocolate truffles. Needless to say, they [are] in for a surprise.”
For Meyer, when it comes to successfully marketing truffles and truffle products in the United States, the answer ultimately comes down to finding the right audience with an appetite for the one-of-a-kind flavor of this luxury ingredient. “We believe people either get it, or they don’t,” he said. “Fortunately, most folks in our industry do get it.”