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Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Truffle Don

Whitetruffle

The scene was a dark parking lot, somewhere in Monte Carlo, in the Principality of Monaco. We had been waiting impatiently for the arrival of a mysterious figure, known only as the Truffle Don.

The Truffle Don is something of a legend amongst those in the know up and down the Riviera. Many have heard of him. Yet only the lucky few could truly vouch for his existence. He always travels with a driver, who looks to me more like a bodyguard. I suspect he serves both purposes.

He sells the best truffles. Only white. And only from Alba. Nothing and nowhere else. The problem is you'd have to find him first. And, between you and me, that's not an easy thing to do. Of course it is not a simple matter of money. This is the Côte d'Azur we are speaking of. Everyone here has money, and probably more than you or I have.

It is only by proper introduction would the Truffle Don agree to meet you. Our references were required, and evidently thoroughly checked, before he would agree on a time and place to meet. And even after all that he changed his mind at least twice before the final rendezvous with us.

Earlier in the evening our dear friend Mikael collected us from the airport in Nice. We had just arrived on the 6pm Fly Baboo flight from Geneva. At 6.15, precisely, Mikael's mobile rang. The Don himself was on the phone. We received the instruction to meet him at a certain parking lot under the shadow of a busy street in Monte Carlo. And to bring cash, lots of it. We raced back to Monaco to make it in time to meet him.

That was how we found ourselves pacing up and down the small, dark lot, waiting with impatience for the arrival of the Truffle Don. Finally, a brand-new, jet-black Mercedes pulled up. The windows were tinted, although in that light we couldn't have seen anything anyway.

The car came to a stop by us. The window on the driver side rolled down. A voice emanated from the dark interior, speaking in heavily italianated French.

"Bonne sware….vous êtes Mikael?"

"Oui", Mikael quickly replied. "Vous êtes.." …….then he stalled….how was he supposed to know how to address the Truffle Don in person?

"Ah, bon", another voice came from the back of the car, saving our Mikael from a certain embarrassment and who knew what more. A pot-bellied, balding, and outrageously Italian man stepped out, as if straight from a Martin Scorsese set. He was very well dressed, wearing a pair of expensive shoes so highly polished they shimmered in the dark. The driver came out right behind, without bothering to stop the engine or move the car from the middle of the driveway. The Don himself opened the trunk, inside of which were a few portable coolers. The pungent scent of white truffles hit our noses almost before he unlocked the trunk. He opened one of the coolers, showing us layers of neatly stacked packages, each loosely wrapped in a kitchen towel. He removed the first two layers before unwrapping the third one.

This time, the heady scent washed over us like a wave. Inside the package were what looked to me like a few pebbles covered in dust, but that unmistakable stink betrayed the real identity. (No, they were not old socks.) We sniffed, squeezed, and passed a few around until we found the two we liked most, all the while being watched ever so carefully by the driver. Out came a precise digital scale and on went the truffles. The two we wanted weighed in at about 100 grams, and at just about two hundred euros. That was certainly at wholesale price. Our connection was better than even we had realized.

We paid him in cash. There was of course no receipt. Another friend who'd had a previous transaction with him via post received his overnight package in a box with no return address. When he requested a receipt, an envelope arrived the following day, with a small white sheet of paper, on which was written, with a pencil, the amount he paid the previous day. That was the Truffle Don's idea of a transaction record.

Walking away, the Don turned around and spoke to us. "Now that you know my number, you could always buy directly from me, no need to bother with that fancy place" he said, pointing to the other side of the parking lot, directly at the most expensive gourmet food shop in town. He was right, just a few feet over that way, the price would have been twice what we paid him just now. Funny thing is, our friend Mikael the Monagasque was pretty sure the Don supplied that place too. When it comes to the economics of the truffle world, what makes what or whom ticks I shall never understand. All I know is, next time I want white truffles I know where to go. I will ask for another audience with the Don.

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