In a regular series that explores the story and philosophy of the Market’s Slow Food approved traders, this month we talk to Mario, owner of Tartufaia
Rare, mysterious, incredibly valuable, their movements a dark secret known only to the chosen few—and that’s just the pickers. When it comes to Slow Food, truffles are in a league of their own. Not only are they slow to grow, rarely fruiting more than once a year, but the art of finding them is so occult, even wholesale customers like Mario Prati, owner of Tartufaia, have to be inculcated.
“The only reason my family in Italy got involved with truffles in the first place was because a man whose land had truffles on it died, without a son. In a situation like that, the relationship between seller and buyer passes down through generations—but my father knew this man and when he died it passed to him.”
Now Mario is the reigning king of truffles among Borough Market traders, yet even he is rarely allowed to follow the foragers when they go truffle hunting. “Most of the time the land is public, not private, so they are very protective about their sources,” he explains.
“They take crazy long routes to prevent others tracing them, and the location is again usually passed down from father to son over the years. After all, there is a lot of money involved.” For families in rural regions, knowing a truffle spot equates to one of few reliable sources of income, at least for the month or so in which they can find them.
Each forager is generally confined to collecting one or two species of truffle, thanks to their seasonal nature and the fact truffle hounds can only be trained to detect one type each. Mario, of course, knows enough truffle pickers to ensure his stall is always well stocked.
“We have more than 100 pickers now, between Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. Between these areas we can get truffles most of the year. Still, trying to plan ahead in terms of when or how much is almost impossible. You can’t book an order of truffles, because they come from the wild.”
Indeed, truffles are one of the few remaining foods that are almost always foraged, as attempts to cultivate them en masse have been largely unsuccessful. “You can spore trees with the fungus and plant them, but they take between seven and 10 years to grow,” explains Mario. “Even then there’s only a 40 per cent success rate. You can’t farm them, though people do try it.”
This makes them extraordinarily susceptible to extremes in the weather and damage to the forest ecosystem—one of the main reasons Italy banned the use of truffle hogs, which tend to dig a bit too ferociously, in favour of the aforementioned truffle hound.
A male hog
Traditionally, female pigs were used due to their keen sense of smell and inability to tell the difference between a male hog and the truffle’s pheromone-like scent.
Hounds take longer to train properly but, in another sign of this trade’s ‘slowness’, they are far more delicate when it comes to detecting without damage. “The dogs usually lose interest when they realise it is a truffle, whereas the pig is still excited and will eat it up if it isn’t restrained.”
Funnily enough, one of Mario’s best suppliers of English truffles is a free-range pig farmer in Hampshire. “There were truffles on his site for centuries. He didn’t know what they were. Now he is making more money with truffles than the pigs!” he laughs.
One of the things Mario most likes about truffles is the way they lend great value to woodland, which might otherwise be regarded worthless. “All you need is a fence to keep deer and boars out and a forest will give you an income, without it being turned to farmland.” At a time of global deforestation, he argues, the potential this holds is “wonderful”.
Quality, ethics and sustainability
Seasonal wild mushrooms are also an important part of his offer on the stand—another fungus, albeit far more common. Here too the Slow Food principles of quality, ethics and sustainability ring true.
Mushrooms might grow faster than their truffle cousins, but learning what to pick and how much is neither quick nor simple. “They are very easy to wipe out, if you don’t leave enough spores for next year—and from a safety point of view expert identification is very important. All our pickers are certified and very experienced.”
They may not attract the premium price of truffles, but his mushrooms are no less valued by Mario. None go to waste. Those that aren’t sold in one week become pates or terrines the next, under his talented chef hands.
The ingredients in these are also sustainably sourced: “Wild rabbit from Yorkshire or free range pork, as well as wild mushrooms from Italy. Customers often ask me why I don’t make more of them,” he smiles, “but they are all handmade. We can’t make more than we do, and my regulars like that they are unique to our stall.”
Mario is proud of his regulars, and justifiably so. “Earlier this year Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, visited Tartufaia. He comes from a truffle region in Italy, and was amazed that our English customers were so well-versed. We have customers who understand perfectly how to choose a truffle by look, by smell, by weight,” Mario says.
“They know the seasons of truffles. They understand the differences between them. For me, one of the best things we did here was invite customers to pick up and smell truffles—to get close to them. That’s how you choose a truffle. Selling online just does not work.” As the founder of Slow Food himself appreciates, even the process of buying truffles is best done slowly.