Where to buy truffles?
I'm looking to purchase a single truffle (of the fungal, not the chocolate, variety) as a holiday gift for a fellow foodie, and I'm wondering where the best place is to do this. I think Far West Fungi (in the Ferry Building) sells them, but I don't know of anyplace else. Where would you recommend looking?
My one experience with Far West Funghi wasn't so great--they seemed like an afterthought necessitated by the high-end location.
The Pasta Shop does a really good job--they have specific shipments, and they line up customers ahead of time through an email list so you can pick up your truffle practically the moment it lands on US soil. They have a pre-christmas shipment coming in, I don't know if it's sold out or not. Call the rockridge Pasta Shop and ask for Julia.
The black truffle we picked up from the Pasta Shop the Tues before Thanksgiving was amazingly fresh and the price fair.
Important caution to be aware of, unless you've been dealing with truffles for a long time (at least 10-15 years) in which case you likely know this already. The "fungal, not chocolate" truffle of cooking literature and fame was, until a few years ago in the US, normally Tuber melanosporum if black (from the Périgord and elsewhere) or T. magnatum [pico] if white (from Piedmont in Italy and elsewhere). These are the famous rare, expensive fungi, extremely aromatic and flavorful if good. Secondary or minor species have always existed in larger quantity, and many are good to cook with, but they are not the famous ones and not the same in cooking.
A few years ago, amid constantly rising prices for the famous black and white truffles, firms knowing the difference began shrewdly marketing minor species to US consumers who didn't. This can entail outright fraud (labeling something "black truffle" that isn't T. melanosporum), or use of similar-looking names (the "black" summer truffle, T. aestivum, which has little in common with the classic black truffle besides recent marketing). Minor species are OK at minor prices -- a few dollars each -- and if you know clearly that you are not getting the fungi that all the fuss was about. More, and some local sources, in a past thread here:
Another factor, fairly recent: Classic European white and black truffle species are now successfully grown in the US (after long efforts that began in the 1970s). Truffles tend to smell and taste different when grown outside their native soil, so before accepting them as equivalent, get an independent, experienced truffle user to evaluate them. And always consider where your information comes from. Much recent info about truffles is produced by people selling minor species or new sources. They have little incentive to clarify the distinctions I've mentioned. Also, "truffle"-infused oils routinely get most or all of their flavor synthetically. Look up chef Daniel Patterson's May 2007 exposé article (New York Times food section, syndicated elsewhere) for details.
For reference, 20 years ago reputable Bay Area dealers of fresh classic European white and black truffles retailed them, when available, for (in today's dollars) around $150-200 per ounce (or 30 grams) for white, $40-$60 per ounce for black (the black were much more available). I paid those prices. They generally have gone up since. If the price you see looks much cheaper, beware.
Fresh truffles must be used as soon as possible, they decline over a period of days.
I recently purchased a truffle from gourmetfoodstore.com - prices were fair and quality was good.
They have them at Fatted Calf in Napa (great butcher located next to the Oxbow Public Market in Napa - Ferry Building's sister development on a smaller scale). They have amazing bacon and all sorts of other stuff (have a foie gras tucked in the frig for the holidays tomorrow).
Oxbow is a fun stop if you like the ferry building in case you're up for a daytrip (they also have a new Taylor's Refresher burger outlet next to Oxbow just like the one in the Ferry Building in the city).
Contact the owner (forgive me, the owner's name escapes me) of Oliveto in the Rockridge district in Oakland. Every year, he has a menu based on truffles. Be really nice, and sound really rich and generou$, and you might be able to weedle out of him the purveyors he uses for his truffles.
Thank you all for the very helpful comments! After reading your responses I decided to purchase my truffle from The Pasta Shop inside the Rockridge food mall. My experience was mixed. The short version is that the truffle was quite good, but I won't be going back.
Here's the (much) longer version. I contacted Juliana, who was extremely enthusiastic over the phone and who encouraged me to come to the store the following day to brainstorm truffle recipe ideas with her. Although I already had plans for my little fungus, I accepted the invitation - I was exchanging gifts before the truffle pick-up date, and wanted something tangible to actually give. Juliana said she would be delighted to write out and sign a certificate "for one gorgeous black truffle"; she would either do it for me the next day, or would write it out in advance before I arrived.
Unfortunately, when I made the hour-long trip to the store Juliana was busy in the basement. The woman at the cheese counter called her by phone, but Juliana declined to come up and there was no note waiting for me. I placed my order and was told that I would be e-mailed some kind of truffle certificate before the end of the day, but that didn't happen either.
A couple of days before Christmas, shortly before I was supposed to pick up the truffle, something came up and it turned out I wouldn't be able to cook for the recipient until just before New Years. So I called to see if there was another truffle delivery at a later date. Juliana informed me that she was getting another shipment a week later and was delighted to postpone my pickup, since she said she had an overabundance of interest in the pre-Christmas batch.
Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story. I called The Pasta Shop around noon the day I was supposed to pick up my truffle to make sure the shipment had arrived. Juliana was out and the woman who answered the phone didn't know; she told me Juliana would call back within an hour. 90 minutes later I called back; this time Juliana was there, and she informed me that there was some problems with the shipment and she was trying to arrange a delivery from a wholesaler near San Francisco; it wasn't clear if the truffle would actually make it. Obviously I wasn't thrilled at this news. Several phone conversations later I was informed that the truffle would be arriving, so I left to pick it up.
When I arrived at the store Juliana was behind the counter and my truffle was waiting for me, wrapped in gauze and encased in a small plastic container. It smelled incredible. However, the price was a very round number, and it seemed obvious to me that nobody had bothered to weigh it. When it was put on the scale at my request, it turned out that I had been overcharged by almost 25% - and this despite the fact that the price per ounce was higher than either of the two figures I'd previously been quoted. Juliana offered a quick "sorry" and the comment that she'd gotten a different weight the first time, but that was the only explanation I got.
And the truffle itself? It was fantastic. I used it in a couple of dishes over the next three days, the best of which turned out to be a very simple breakfast of truffled scrambled eggs. The little fungus was unbelievably aromatic as well; my clothing smelled the entire first evening I used it.
Overall, were it not for the price screw up, I would probably return to the shop again. There were certainly some things I was very happy with (Juliana's initial enthusiasm, the shop's willingness to delay my pickup, and - most importantly - the quality of the truffle itself), and some things I found disappointing (no note waiting for me, nothing e-mailed to me despite promises to the contrary, the price per ounce changing, me having to discover myself the problems with the truffle shipment). But I can't get over the blatant disregard of customer service by pricing the truffle without weighing it. To me the overcharging was inexcusable, and I will not be going back to The Pasta Shop.
Crazy experience. Try the Fatted Calf next time you're up towards Napa. It's a cool shop with all sorts of sausages, meats, etc. (kind of bizarre they stocked truffles at the holidays but they did). Overall, I've found them very helpful but had a minor mishap when I wanted Italian sausage not in casing for a strata. The initial salesclerk told me they didn't have any but his colleague pretty much slapped him around and suggested he provide some service and remove the italian sausage from the casings for me (not that it's difficult to do yourself, but when you're paying premium prices, I kind of want it my way). As an aside - Oxbow (the marketplace attached to Fatted Calf) is supposed to be getting a Kara's Cupcake this spring. Wow - Taylor's Refresher and Kara's Cupcake under one roof - I'll need to limit my trips or gain 600 pounds.