Nothing. Again. But surely, this was the place. Mark Stanvick walked out of the dank bar in the central square of the desolate Spanish town and threw up his hands—a signal to his wife, Heidi, who was waiting in the car, that once again the five-hour drive from Barcelona had turned up nothing. Nada. He shouldn't have been surprised. This was yet another remote, nowhere place they'd been sent in search of truffles for sale. But all he had found was what he always found: a few old, slightly sinister-looking men sipping cafés con leche and polluting the room with cigarette smoke.
Mark turned and walked back into the bar. After almost three months of searching, he and Heidi had yet to buy a single black truffle, the underground fungus that is the culinary equivalent of black gold. He stood at the bar and tried, again, to explain to the bartender in his rusty Chelmsford High School Spanish what he wanted. There's supposed to be a truffle market here, he said, stabbing the bar with his index finger. Mercado de las trufas? Aquí. Hoy. The bartender just shrugged.
Then one of the old men got up. He tapped Mark on the shoulder, pointed to the door, and walked outside. At the Stanvicks' car, he motioned for Heidi—her long auburn hair peeking out of her bottle-green hooded coat—to get in back; he settled in front and began giving directions. They drove to a house, but there was no answer to the bell. More directions through the winding, narrow streets until, at the top of a hill, they reached another house. This time, a bright-eyed woman came to the door. She and the old man spoke, eyeing Mark and Heidi, who waited nervously in the car, wondering just what two Americans were doing in this business—and whether they would end up dead in someone's trunk.
After what seemed like hours, the woman waved Heidi and Mark inside, opening the door wide and offering them coffee. After three months of angst, thousands of miles traveled, and dozens of false leads, the Stanvicks had made their first underground contact. They would have to make several more pilgrimages here before they were finally trusted enough to be ushered into the garage and allowed to examine the truffles.
The murky truffle business isn't a mystery only to brash American interlopers. It's the drug trade of the food world, a symbol of how far people like the Stanvicks will go to bring exotic culinary delicacies to increasingly insatiable Boston gourmets. The markets in southwestern France, where country folk show their wares in rustic baskets, are for tourists. The real markets are invisible to the untrained eye, and cameras are officially unwelcome. The real markets are those sinister, greasy guys hanging out in smoky bars. If they trust you—and, as Americans, the Stanvicks will probably never be entirely trusted—they'll finish their drink and wander out to the parking lot, where they'll pull dirty plastic bags out of the trunks of cars and weigh the goods on portable scales. Cash only.
All of this skulking around is part necessity, part smart business, since just how truffles grow remains a mystery. Trufflers know their valuable fungus thrives among the roots of trees, often oaks, in areas of heavy rains at key points in the growing season. But yields are unpredictable: In the 19th century, France, the spiritual home of black truffles, produced around 675 tons annually. By the 1960s, output had fallen to around 90 tons annually; last year, 34. Under these conditions, big truffle dealers don't want to tip their hands to their competitors, and small dealers want to maximize profit by avoiding taxes. Oh, and then there's the tradition: Would truffles' allure be so strong if they weren't so mysterious?
Parallels to the drug world continue once truffles reach the plate. Truffle lovers think of their prized fungus the way addicts regard crack cocaine. One whiff and you're hooked by that powerful, indescribable aroma: damp leaves and earth mixed with a touch of sweet rose and a hint of garlic. Inhale again and you realize the scent is sex. That musky fragrance of stale sex that lingers on twisted sheets and makes you blush. One smell and you want it—need it—again.
It's this addiction that the Stanvicks want to import to New England—then cash in on. While chefs in Paris, London, and New York have long lured gourmets with such classics as roast chicken with truffles under the skin, truffles haven't had such broad appeal here in Boston, where tastes are more conservative and many diners would (understandably) blanch at spending $95 for an entrée. "Truffles are not the easiest sell," says Patrick Connolly, executive chef at Radius, who uses about half a pound per week. "Some weeks we don't sell any, but people who crave them expect us to have them."
The Stanvicks are convinced that one taste is all it takes. Though they've always been foodies, they didn't have their own "wow" truffle moment until a 1999 trip to France. Mark had never tasted one, and Heidi had never tasted one that good. "Oh, my God," remembers Mark. "The aroma was incredible. There were truffles on everything. It was a head-filling moment."
Not to mention phenomenally expensive. White truffles (Tuber magnatum), harvested from October to December in northern Italy and parts of Croatia, can sell for as much as $1,800 a pound; blacks (Tuber melanosporum), which are found in France and Spain from December through early March, fetch up to $1,000 a pound. Last year a group of celebrities, rumored to include Gwyneth Paltrow, paid $52,000 in a British charity auction for a 1.9-pound truffle. (It rotted after sitting on display, but was returned to Italy, where it was buried in hopes its spores might spawn a new prize.)
It's stories like these that propagate the substantial canon of truffle lore. Ask any truffle lover and he will breathlessly recount the golden age of 19th-century France, when black truffles were often so big that the great chef Escoffier devised a recipe for woodcock cooked inside a truffle. Ask the Stanvicks how they like their truffles and they'll quote, in unison, the famed French food writer Curnonsky, who, when asked the same thing by a Parisian hostess, said: "In great quantity, madam. In great quantity."
Spanish entrepreneurs would like to re-create those glory days. And so, over the past 35 years, many have planted the oak trees truffles love and intentionally infected the roots with spores. The world's largest truffle plantation, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has 150,000 trees on 1,500 acres. Small farmers can buy preinfected trees for $9.50 each.
Even so, as the Stanvicks quickly discovered, following the truffle trail would be anything but easy for two Americans with nothing more than a passion for food and some money in the bank. To do more than tilt at windmills, they would have to embark on an odyssey into the Byzantine world of truffles, earning trust on both sides of the Atlantic—from the wary Spanish trufflers and from Boston's best chefs, who can't afford to make mistakes at $62 an ounce.
Trading in truffles was the last thing 40-year-olds Mark and Heidi had in mind when they sailed into Barcelona Harbor on their yacht in September 2004. They'd just finished a 27-day Atlantic crossing after a leisurely winter in the Caribbean. Mark was tired. He'd worked at high-pressure, high-tech startups, and made enough to take a lot of time off, though not retire, when his company, Burlington-based consulting firm Mint Technology, was sold. (The Stanvicks won't reveal their take, but point out that the leader of the four cofounders got the lion's share.)
But Heidi was ready. Having left her job at a software design firm back in 1998, she traveled with Mark on a six-month assignment to Paris. She studied at Le Cordon Bleu, then, back home, took charge of ordering and customizing the couple's 43-foot Shannon cutter, Verve, which they sailed to Newfoundland before Mark left Mint for good in 2003. "We realized we didn't really need two high-tech salaries. We could have a more fulfilling life with less," she says.
"Fulfilling" for two entrepreneurs meant a sharp turn back to business—with the parameters, of course, that it not interfere with summer sailing. And Mark was hardly surprised to learn that Heidi was interested in a food business. On summer vacations to Hampton Beach, nine-year-old Heidi impressed the family with afternoon cooking demonstrations—how to make brownies, or a banana cake—all in a squawky, faux�Julia Child voice. When Mark was first invited to dinner with her parents as a feathered-haired, 17-year-old senior at Chelmsford High—the two were high school sweethearts—Heidi's dad informed Mark, "We eat. Heidi dines."
While in the Caribbean, the Stanvicks looked into importing exotic fruits, spice blends, even creating a line of island salsas. But, Heidi says, "I couldn't imagine how we would build a business on pineapple-and-coconut jam. Then we got [to Spain], and I saw a book with a blurb about truffles. That's the thing about not working. You have the time to explore things and see where they lead you."
Truffles are rare. More important, they're ephemeral. Connoisseurs prefer to eat them within 24 hours—though even the best cosmopolitan restaurants can't get them on the table in much under 72. To compete in the truffle world, the Stanvicks decided that their business—dubbed Vervacious, after their boat—must provide not only the most-reliable and most-fairly-priced truffles, but also the freshest.
And so, each week, they begin the race against the clock. At 6 a.m. Wednesday, in the pitch darkness, they clamber off the boat with their truffle kit: a set of soft brushes and local spring water for cleaning, organic paper towels, glass canning jars, a cooler, and ice packs for storage. It's five hours each way to their dealer, and they'll have a long lunch with his family as a show of respect.
That's the only way if they're to have enough time to sort and package before Mark leaves Thursday for Boston. The Stanvicks buy only what chefs request, and orders continue to arrive by phone and e-mail as late as Wednesday afternoon. By the time Mark arrives at the city's top restaurants—Mistral, Spire, and Radius among them—the truffles will have been out of the ground for only 48 hours.
Mark is at the wheel; Heidi navigates, though she is by far the better driver. Still, this is how things work. Mark is the team's frontman. The one who speaks passable, if still largely present-tense, Spanish. The one with boundless energy not quite tamed. In the car, he involuntarily taps his fingers, tosses his head like an impatient stallion, or, if there's a silence, hums a few bars to fill it. Heidi is as circumspect as Mark is voluble. Her voice is thin, and you have to lean in to hear her. But it's quietly steely. She doesn't mind the grind—the early wake-up calls, the truffle dirt under her fingernails, the days spent apart while one of them flies to Boston to make deliveries. "It's only six months," she says. "This gives us the freedom to do other things."
The scenery shifts quickly as they drive inland. Away from the water, the landscape becomes mountainous, dusty, rocky outcroppings suffering from the worst drought in 60 years. In the valleys, they pass orange and lemon groves and gnarly olive trees planted in rich, red soil that slowly begins to glow as the sun peeks over the horizon. Around 8, they take their first break at the beloved Autogrill, a chain of highway road stops Mark insists makes some of the best coffee in Spain. Two quick cafés con leches and they're back on the road.
The Stanvicks reach their destination well before lunchtime. Today one of their dealers will take them out to the plantation to show how, despite the record drought, his trees are producing. As they hop into his battered Land Rover, the scent of truffles washes over them. The truffle dog, Bellota, barks. (Yes, José uses a dog. No one uses pigs anymore.)
A small farmer, José has several fields on the outskirts of this austere town, which was all but leveled during the Spanish Civil War. (Despite the fact that they're dealing in truffles, not national security, the Stanvicks asked that José's name be changed to protect their source.) Before José began planting truffle trees, he grew wheat, almonds, and cherries. But the high prices truffles fetch have persuaded him to plant oak trees throughout his property.
At the end of a dirt road, José grabs his satchel, a straight-sided trowel, and a turquoise vinyl pillow, and frees Bellota. He unhooks one segment of a chain-link fence and leads Heidi and Mark in. Within a minute, Bellota is under a tree, digging furiously. José pushes her away, sets down his pillow, and kneels on it to dig. A few inches down, he finds two small, if knobby, truffles, about half an ounce each.
These mountains, José says, pointing beyond his fields, used to be full of truffles. Many years ago, he found nearly 50 pounds in one day. But now the trees are old—truffle trees produce only for about 30 years—and "overfished." And since no one grazes goats or sheep in the mountains anymore, weeds have taken over, choking the trees and truffle spores. Still, times aren't so bad: Within the hour, José has more than two dozen truffles, about three pounds. At the going rate, that's a haul of more than $1,000.
In his garage back home, José lays out the day's harvest, plus a few truffles from the day before. Heidi and Mark first examine each one for shape. Chefs dislike knobby truffles, which are difficult to clean and shave into perfect rounds à table. Next comes size. Hotel chefs in particular serve truffles to impress high-rolling clients. So displaying a pebble-sized truffle won't do. Finally, and most important, there's the aroma. The truffles from today clearly have more oomph than yesterday's, which already give off a tinge of mustiness. "That's why timing is so important," says Heidi.
So is pricing. Conventional wisdom has it that truffles are marked up 100 percent every time they change hands. But the Spanish drought has already sent prices through the roof, and that, combined with a 100 percent U.S. truffle tariff, makes it difficult for the Stanvicks to extract much, if any, profit on small quantities. The business is, Mark points out, very scalable. Like everyone in the truffle business, they won't divulge their sales. Hypothetically, if the Stanvicks sell 20 pounds of the truffles per week at a reasonable markup, they could gross nearly six figures during the three-month season.
Though the clock is ticking, the Stanvicks can't simply pack up and run: Relationships, like truffles, must be tended. They ooh and aah at pictures of José's grandson, try out the family's new massage chair, and indulge in a lunch of pig's trotters wrapped in bacon, scrambled eggs with mushrooms, and grilled lamb—all topped with generous shavings of truffles.
It's nearly 4 p.m. when Heidi and Mark hit the road. They make two more truffle stops, then rush back to Barcelona. In the fading light, Heidi cleans the truffles, first with her brush, then lightly with a wet paper towel, making sure that no water, which would dilute flavor, is absorbed. In the morning, Mark will fly to Milan, then Boston to make afternoon deliveries. If the Stanvicks successfully ignite truffle fever in Boston, next winter they'll base themselves here, where they can also rent a kitchen to create a line of truffle products inspired by Heidi's favorite combinations: truffles with pineapple, with artichokes, and shaved over oysters. For now, though, just getting the best fresh truffles keeps them busy enough.
Having made his deliveries, Mark settles, exhausted, into his cramped seat in coach. But the work for chefs around the city has just begun. At Mistral, Jamie Mammano is prepping his signature truffled mac 'n' cheese, noodles atop a velvety truffle sauce with a shower of fresh truffles. Within hours, dozens of Prada-clad diners will be sliding into one of the sunny banquettes. And though a few will be put off by the price of the $32 dish, it takes only one guest to order it before the fragrance persuades others that whatever the cost, it's worth it. By the time Mark lands back in Barcelona, Bostonians will have already eaten most of what he brought. And then the adventure begins again.