‘Tis the season for all things decadent like the exceptional and exquisite line of truffle and truffle products from Sabatino Tartufi! The Chefs’ Warehouse and Sabatino
Tartufi has enjoyed an enduring partnership that spans several decades. This is
exemplified in CW CEO Chris Pappas’ recent truffle hunting expedition with Sabatino Tartufi founder and CEO Federico Balestra this past summer in Umbria, Italy.
CW’s very own highly-rated podcast Ingredient Insiders, created and hosted by John Magazino and Andrea Parkins shines the light on Federico Balestra to get the divine inside scoop on truffles and truffle products from one of the best truffle companies in the world, Sabatino Tartufi. Like sacred Sabatino truffles, content this good should be savored in a variety of applications!
John Welcome Federico Balestra, one of the pioneers of truffles in the United States, whose family owns and operates Sabatino Tartufi. How many years of truffle history does your family have in Italy? I mean, you guys have been around forever.
Federico The company started in 1911 in Umbria by my grandfather. His first name is Sabatino. That’s where the name came from, along with my grandmother Giuseppina.
John How many types of truffles are there?
Federico There are 250 species total. But only four or five species are commercially viable: two on the black side—Black Summer Truffle and Black Winter Truffle. And two on the white side: White Alba Truffles and the Bianchetto Truffle, which is a lower quality than the White Alba.
John What are the seasons for truffles?
Federico Let’s start with white. You have the White Alba truffles from October to December. In January we start the Bianchetto Truffle, with its peak season in March. The Black Summer Truffles are in May and finish in October. Finally, we have Black Winter Truffles that start in October and finish in March.
John What’s the price for white truffles in a normal year?
Federico White truffles can vary from 3k to 6k per pound. The reason is that the white truffle cannot be cultivated. Everybody tried and everybody failed. It’s extremely complicated. White truffles are also extremely difficult to find because they are very deep in the ground. You need very advanced dogs with expert truffle hunters. Another big problem is that the white truffles grow very far apart from one another. When you find a black truffle, you have a good chance that you have 4-6 others around because they grow as a family. White truffles are lone truffles. You can find one here and then find another one miles down the road in the middle of the bush and difficult places to hunt. So you need a lot of space and a lot of dogs.
Andrea How did your grandfather come to the business?
Federico Where we come from truffles are normal. Everybody hunts truffles. But our business didn’t start with truffles because no one at that time could survive selling just truffles. We used to sell olives and olive oil and other products local Italian farmers cultivated around our village. Then there became more possibility to grow truffles and then we focused on them specifically. To add to this, every family has their own truffle dog. They don’t go out and find kilos and kilos of truffles but they go out maybe ten times a year. They take it as an excuse to walk, like playing golf here. Basically their dog finds a little truffle. They bring it home, they freeze it and give it as a gift for Christmas. That’s how we grew up.
John How much does a truffle hunting dog cost in Italy?
Federico A black truffle hunting dog can go for $1,000 to $5,000 depending on the experience level of the dog. White truffle dogs can go for $5,000 to $15,000, sometimes up to $20,000 if you have a champion. They also have dogs for short and long distances.
John How many trees do plant a year for truffle cultivation?
Federico Right now in Italy we’re planting about 10 to 12,000 trees per year. The demand for truffles is going up every year. With the climate change it is more and more difficult to find black truffles. With our plantation it is still a wild natural product but we can control the watering. Basically we want to invest in planting more and more to be sure to have truffles for our customers. Traceability is also another reason our plantation is a positive part of Sabatino. All of our truffles are USDA Organic Certified. We give our customers the safety to buy the product and know where it came from.
John At The Chefs’ Warehouse we have a great history and the partnership with you guys because we sell so many of your fresh truffles obviously, but we sell so many of these preserved products like truffle pastes, oils, purees and salt. One of the great things I think that Sabatino has done is that you guys have production going on in the United States for these products. I think that’s amazing because it really it helps you guys to be really well priced. There’s a quality control and there’s a comfort level knowing that it’s produced in America. We don’t have to worry about shipping delays and all of these other issues, the tariffs that arise. How did you guys come up with the idea to actually start production in the US?
Federico Around 2004-2005—we were bringing in many products by container like everybody else from from Italy. I said to my family in Italy, ‘Why don’t we open a place in the US instead importing everything?’ Now we import bulk twice a year, and then we repack in the US. We save on shipping because we can buy everything else in the US, but also we can plan much more and the customer can buy last minute and they don’t need to buy huge quantities.
Andrea How do your produce your Truffle Oil?
Federico We’re the first company to extract the product naturally from truffles. We do an extraction process with steam that is able to extract the flavor. We then blend that with other products. We are the only truffle product that is vertically integrated. If you guys visit our farm in Italy you will see that we have an extraction room where truffles come in fresh.
John Sabatino Truffle Zest is one of the most innovative new truffle products to come out in the last few years. Tell us about it.
Federico We added Sabatino Truffle Zest in 2017. It was the first type of ingredient in this category. It’s basically an all-natural truffle seasoning. You can use it just like you use black pepper. Same thing here. It’s a spice.
Andrea It comes in like a little shaker. A little bit goes a long way. The aroma is so intense and beautiful that I think any chef would be silly not to use it in their kitchen.
John So chefs seek this out. It’s called Sabatino Truffle Zest. Sabatino is the only company in the world that make it. The Chefs’ Warehouse obviously carries this item and chefs should really be taking advantage of it.
We love Sabatino Tartufi, USA, and Italy. They’ve been a great partner of The Chefs’ Warehouse, and we look forward to some amazing stuff coming out in the future.
Federico I want to thank you for having me on Ingredient Insiders and The Chefs’ Warehouse for being a great partner. I look forward to coming back anytime!