A Truffling Matter
At a New Year's Day party, Dish caught the scent of sensational scandal: international truffle smuggling! A well-known local restaurateur, it seemed, had managed to bring some of the pricey delicacies through American customs without being detained or charged a duty. He was said to have done this by placing the truffles in an empty box that had been filled with chocolate truffles, identifying the box's contents to the customs officer merely as "truffles" and hoping the strong smell of the fungi wouldn't give the game away.
Next day, Dish called the importer, Gianni Fassio of Palio d'Asti in North Beach, for elaboration and learned that the true story wasn't quite what rumor had made it. For one thing, the truffles -- "a couple of kilos' worth," according to Fassio; that's a little over 4 pounds -- weren't in an empty box of chocolates. But Fassio was bringing back some chocolates, which he listed on his declaration form just before the truffles -- neglecting only to separate the two items with a comma: CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES.
White Italian truffles are worth about $1,300 a pound, so Fassio estimates he was carrying "about $5,000 worth" of them. The issue, however, was not really with import duties, but with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which likes to inspect such items to make sure that they've been properly dusted off. No foreign dirt must enter the country.
"It's hard to make them understand that truffles are highly perishable," Fassio says. "By the time I get them, they're already two days out of the ground, and they only last 10 or 12 days at the most. If Ag [U.S. Department of Agriculture] holds them up for four days, half their life is gone before they reach the restaurant."
Acquiring the truffles in the first place is no easy matter. After late-summer rains, they're rooted out in the fall by unglamorous mixed-breed dogs trained for the purpose. Despite the mud and damp canine fur, the Italian government understands the value of the truffles and imposes a 42 percent luxury duty on them, which has created something of a gray market. Many truffle sales take place at 5 a.m. in various piazze in Northern Italy. Why so early in the morning? "The government knows what's going on," Fassio says, "but bureaucrats tend not to want to get up at 5 in the morning. It's very Italian."
By the time the white truffles reach Palio d'Asti, they're destined to garnish such dishes as risotto and carpaccio. But the season is short, running only from October to January. When it ends, everyone can sleep a little easier -- and longer.