Many years ago, I happily achieved one of the life goals on my bucket list. I went to the White Truffle Festival in Alba, Italy. For many years I hoped to attend, and when I finally did, it truly was a highlight, an experience that I will never forget. I had been to Alba many times the Piedmont region as it was close to where we lived in Alassio. I would always walk down the main street and visit one of my favorite stores, a tiny very chic boutique Tartufi Ponzi. They carry all sorts of truffle-infused products along with beautiful fresh white truffles which are all displayed under lock and key in the front window. One of my favorite products is their truffle potato chips. Always perfect for aperitivo.
As most of you know, I am obsessed with truffles, and truffle hunting, and the business of truffles. I was able to return to Alba a couple of years ago when I took the La Fortezza Workshop team, the chef, Philip, and the guest liaison, Rachel, to the 2018 Slow Food Festival in Bra, Italy. The city of Bra is right next door to Alba. Of course, I had to take the team to visit my favorite truffle store in Alba Tartufi Ponzi.
As luck would have it, that evening Gianfranco, the owner, was in the store. He was delightful, telling us all about his business, the wholesale/manufacturing business and the retail store started by his parents. One of the charming stories he told us is that when he was a kid, he was not thrilled about this family business. He told us that kids would tease him and say that they could tell he was coming because of the smell of truffles that preceeded him. We all laughed when he told us the story.
We talked and shopped for an hour. In passing, I asked him where he would recommend we have dinner. He was so kind and made us a reservation at his favorite restaurant in Alba immediately. He joined us at the restaurant when he closed up the store. We had the most delicious truffle-infused meal. Of course, the truffles at the restaurant were supplied by Gianfranco. In fact, he is a bit of a rock star in Alba as you can imagine. I felt I had made a new friend. Gianfranco and I have indeed become friends we keep in touch; he’s just the nicest guy and I hope to see him this year.
Speaking of this year, some exciting news is that Gianfranco was the fixer and on a new movie/documentary called The Truffle Hunters. I asked Gianfranco a few questions about how he became involved, and what his role was in helping make this movie happen. I am so excited to share this interview with you.
Q: How did you participate in the film, I remember you telling me that you helped with arranging the activities and organizing the truffle hunters that appeared in the movie?
A: I actively participated in the film. I was what they call a fixer, the liaison between the filmmaker and the truffle hunters in the Piedmont. I am very connected in this world given my decades of experience in the world of truffles. I helped connect the filmmakers with my friends and my relatives, these are the people I work with every day in my business. I helped the filmmakers unlock our world, a world that is little known and sometimes secretive. I loved being part of introducing the world to our world. A place filled with the natural beauty around us. The world of white truffles cannot be studied in books. Truffle hunting is a skill passed down verbally over generations. I was fortunate to be born into a family of truffle hunters. My family taught me everything that I needed to know.
Q: How did you meet the filmmaker?
A: I met Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw during the annual White Truffle Festival. They came into my shop and from there we started a wonderful collaboration. It was amazing that I could even stop to talk to them. This is a time that there are tons of people in our shop. We were all busy selling truffles. It was a tough time for me and my family as well, my Father was very ill and I had to manage the store and help my Mother. The highlight was the filmmakers asking me to help with this project. It gave me something to look forward to during this challenging time. We communicated, and I got an idea of what they were looking for. Once they arrived to film, I had everything arranged for them. So many wonderful people allowed themselves to be filmed, I was so grateful.
Q: Who do you sell your truffles to in the US?
A: Thanks to this new world of technology, it is much easier. Our website has connected us to the world. Currently, we are working on our online store. But most of our customers contact us by e-mail or by phone. Our clients include serious foodies and chefs. We sell to some of the best restaurants in the world. Our mission is to select the truffles with care the best quality white truffles. We pack them the day they come out of the earth. We ship them in refrigerated packaging, so they arrive fresh. Each order includes instructions to better enjoy our “Gold of the Langhe”.
Q: How has Covid-19 affected your business?
A: At the beginning of 2020, we never thought that a virus could change our lives so much. In the first months in lock-down, we did not have white truffles. Then summer came, work resumed and in September the white truffle season finally started. Then another lock-down arrived. We had to assess how we would make our business work, like so many. Our truffle hunters were out hunting, so we were able to ship every Monday and Tuesday until the end of last year. Lucky for us, we had customers that were ordering although business was definitely affected. We are so grateful for our loyal customers. We are hoping to welcome everyone back this fall. It was a big adjustment, but we are tough and we will be alright. I believe all of us will be alright.
Q: How has this film impacted your business?
A: The Film was viewed at a few film festivals in 2020. It will be distributed in 2021; look for it online in May. We were lucky that in October 2020, they were able to organize the White Truffle Festival and people from neighboring regions were able to travel. A Swiss girl in front of my shop recognized me from the film and was thrilled to have found us. She saw the movie at The Zurigo Film Festival. I was very pleased. So the film is slowly starting to circulate. I am sure that once the film is readily available to view, we will enjoy some notoriety. Which obviously I look forward to since it will be great for business.
Q: How did the film impact the people featured in the film?
A: It was all so surreal, the stars of the documentary are humble people from our countryside. They have always lived a simple and quiet life and suddenly they were thrown into the spotlight. Yet I was not surprised they did a great job sharing their rich lives with the filmmakers. It was fun to hear our villagers speaking in dialect during filming. It is such a real slice of our daily life. It is an authentic view of how we work here in the Piedmont. The documentary really highlights the struggles and victories of the truffle hunters and their friends and family. I feel it has never been seen before. The documentary is a beautiful memory for them to pass on to their children and grandchildren.
Q: How long have you been working in the Truffle business?
A: Since I was a child, I have always had truffles in my hands because my mother and her sister started the business with a restaurant that shaved truffles on pasta and risotto. My aunt opened a company of truffle products. My mom started the shop in 1987; she started selling truffles and my aunt’s preserved products. The world of truffles has evolved, and we have as well. Now I run a truffle boutique that is highly successful. My cousins have since taken over running the company that develops and manufactures truffle-infused products. As you can see it’s a family affair. We distribute fresh truffles all over the world, and fresh truffles are sold in our shop as well. I’ve been living on truffles for almost 40 years. As a child, my breakfast was biscuits and truffle milk. Every morning my mother and I went to the truffle hunter’s house to collect the morning truffles, and we would have the freshly picked truffles in the fridge.
Q: I was curious when he said truffle milk so I asked Gianfranco “What truffle milk was?”
A: He told me that in the early years, they had just one refrigerator in the house. So all the truffles for the shop were stored in that fridge. All the food in the fridge became infused with truffle flavor, the eggs, the cheese, and the milk. So when he would drink milk it tasted of truffles. Wild, I love it.
Q: Tell us about some of the special products in your store.
A: The products are constantly evolving year after year. We study new recipes, new colors, and we are always improving to keep up with people’s requests and needs. For some years we have embarked on the path of organic products, gluten-free products, and some vegan, always maintaining the taste and aroma of our truffles. We have created a line of freeze-dried truffles, that is truffle flakes ready to be re-hydrated in hot butter and consumed as fresh almost as good as fresh. I must say that this new line is very popular. We sell most of this product to America, China and Japan. You can eat white truffles at any time of the year by purchasing our dehydrated or preserved products. Our best sellers are white truffle salt best on meat and fish, white truffle powder that can be used on everything, as you would use spices, organic white truffle butter, and white truffle cream. Available online.
My favorite products are the white truffle chocolates and the white truffle potato chips and the dehydrated truffle is crazy good, let’s face it I love it all…except maybe truffle milk, hahaha.
Thank you Gianfranco ci vediamo a presto, can’t wait to see you again. x
Here’s the trailer for The Truffle Hunters. I hope you enjoy it.
Look for The Truffle Hunters streaming by mid May 2021.
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