Bowtie-bedecked auctioneer Samuel Freeman was faced with the unusual task of convincing a crowd to buy something he admits he knows nothing about: the Tartufo Bianco d'Alba, or Alba White Truffle.
"I've never auctioned food before," Freeman says, "and I'd never even eaten a truffle until two days ago." Apparently that first taste won him over. "It was unbelievable."
At $458 per ounce once the bidding got underway, those truffles better knock your socks off.
"I think that Americans are fascinated by truffles," says Mauro Carbone, general manager of Italian tourism company Tu Langhe Roero. Carbone tutored Freeman in the finer points of the rare and earthy fungi.
The white truffle holds a certain mystique in the culinary world, adding to its monetary value. A kind of underground mushroom that fruits around tree roots, truffles can't be cultivated and used to be foraged by trained pigs — although truffle hunters generally work with dogs these days. "Pigs love the truffles as much as people do," says Carbone.
The white truffle's flavor is often likened to garlic, musk, and cabbage — which might not sound that appetizing — so simplicity is key to its preparation. Unlike black truffles, which can be cooked, white truffles are best eaten raw, so they are more commonly found shaved over freshly made pasta or paired with lobster and filet mignon.
Carbone was on hand to explain the individual characteristics of each truffle on the auction block at the 17th annual World Alba White Truffle Charity Auction. The event took place earlier this month simultaneously in Philadelphia and Piedmont, Italy.
"The very thin skin of the truffle is influenced by the soil around it, so no two are the same," Carbone says. "When you buy a truffle, it's your truffle. No one else will ever have one just like it."
As 125 guests arrived at the historic Union League of Philadelphia, they peered into an anteroom off the grand ballroom to assess the five lots of truffles, ranging in size from 210 grams — almost half a pound — up to 580 grams, close to one and a half pounds.
In Italy, 4,000 miles away, the Grande Truffle (a gargantuan knob that tipped the scales at more than two and a half pounds and was considered the biggest prize of the night) was being prepared for bidding via a live simulcast auction.
Bidders in Philadelphia were also able to bid on the giant truffle in Italy, which would have to be flown overnight to the United States should an American bidder prevail — so syndicates were surreptitiously being formed among the bidders, even as the auction began.
"It's the finest ingredient in the world," says Joseph Del Raso, chair of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF). "We knew we had the right venue — and audience — for this event."
The Philadelphia auction was dreamed up by Del Raso and his friend Frank Giordano, Union League members who planned the event as a fundraiser for the NIAF and as a way to highlight their Philadelphia hometown to truffle-obsessed gourmands around the world.
"Philadelphia is a great food town," says Giordano. "We don't get the credit we deserve."
Restaurateurs from across the mid-Atlantic region showed up to bid, from local cheesesteak king Frank Olivieri to Giuseppe Sena, owner of the venerable Philadelphia restaurant La Famiglia. Italian Ambassador Armando Varricchio, beer baroness Sandy Muller, and entertainer Deana Martin, daughter of Italian-American singer and actor Dean Martin, also joined in.
The bidding on the American side was more restrained than the tandem event in Italy -- the Americans solemnly raised a finger to bid; the Italian audience members punched the air with excitement. The Italian fervor caught on as the Americans warmed to the task, especially when egged on by auctioneer Freeman. At one point, he chided, "Don't look at your wife, look at me," to spur a reluctant bidder to shell out $5,500 for Lot #2.
Because of the white truffle's brief, but glorious, shelf-life (about seven days after harvest), winning bidders quickly got to work on menu planning.
"It's a perfect storm for a chef," says Patterson Watkins, executive chef for Di Bruno Bros. in Philadelphia, as she started reaching out to local farmers to determine what seasonal items to pair with her truffle. "This is what we all live for."
The Union League's executive chef Martin Hamann had some $20,000 worth of white truffles to play with in his kitchen. "I've been cooking with truffles for three days," he quipped, as he prepared truffle-centric courses for bidders. "Who has it better than me?"
The Philly truffle love has spread to D.C. A 320-gram specimen, which sold for $6,000, graced Varricchio's table in the nation's capital on Nov 18. Winning bidder — and avid cook — Phil Rinaldi, CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, took over the embassy's kitchens to cook up truffle magic himself.
As for that two-and-a-half pounder on the block in Italy?
Despite the best efforts of Philadelphia event chairs Giordano and Del Raso, who bid up to $75,000 to score the big prize, they were bested. After an intense trans-Atlantic battle, Dong Zhenxiang, chef-owner of top-rated Da Dong Roast Duck in Beijing, China, won in Italy with a winning bid of €105,000, or about $112,000.
"We had fun," says Giordano of the event, which netted NIAF $60,000, money that will also help support ongoing earthquake relief efforts following quakes that struck central Italy in August and October. "Although we would've liked to bring that Grande Truffle home. We're already planning our winning bid for next year."