Truffle season is typically marked in Charleston by the appearance of hulking truffle displays in high-end restaurants and celebratory dinners with three-figure price tags. This year, though, truffles are suddenly turning up on pastas, steaks and fish around town, a consequence of the local market gaining its first dedicated truffle distributor.
“Nobody wanted to spend $2,000 on something that just shows up in the mail,” says Edward Crouse, who worked for a truffle importer in New York City before moving to Italy to enroll in Slow Food’s graduate program. The prospect of opening a mishandled box to find a wormy, rotting truffle discouraged many Lowcountry chefs from placing orders with faraway gourmet food wholesalers.
By contrast, Crouse bikes around the peninsula with his wares tied up in dishtowels, so chefs can preview what they’re getting and buy in tiny, experimental quantities. “It changes when he shows up and I can smell and hold it,” The Macintosh’s Jacob Huder says, attesting to the difference one person with a specialized skill set can make to the city’s dining scene.
Chefs were already familiar with Crouse from his stint managing The Daily; he just recently partnered with a former colleague who’s become a New York “truffle kingpin” on the dealership, which he’s currently running out of his apartment. “They’re pumped to hear I had a former life as a truffle hustler,” he says of his clients. Still, Crouse initially encountered some resistance when he suggested ways that chefs could work truffles into their nightly menus.
“Everybody told me ‘I don’t work with truffles: They’re way too expensive,’” Crouse says. “Josh (Keeler) from 492 is a great example. He was like, ‘I dig them, but it’s hard to justify.’ I just dropped in to show him the quality.”
He also ran through the math: At $6 a gram, an upcharge of $30 would translate into a comfortable margin for the restaurant. While that’s not a bargain, a 492 customer could drop about the same amount of money on a seared scallop appetizer and celery salad. Crouse says Keeler didn’t have any trouble selling the truffles he bought.
At The Macintosh, “We sold 30 portions in a night,” Huder says. After one customer ordered a $17 shaving for his steak, “Other people with steaks were like ‘yeah, yeah, more, more.’ It’s definitely an experience.”
The allure of truffles of white Alba truffles is immediately apparent to anyone in the vicinity of its aroma, which dominates the space around it as thoroughly as the glare of a searchlight or the roar of a Mack truck. It’s harder to appreciate Burgundian black truffles without tasting them, but FIG and The Ordinary for many years were the only local restaurants that regularly offered the delicacy throughout its late autumn harvest.
“I realized with a luxury ingredient, you can’t be cheap or skimp,” says Mike Lata, who started serving truffles at FIG in 2010, pairing them with various combinations of butter, salt, starch and eggs. Lata was won over by truffles after tasting them on pasta in Italy. “It’s a blank canvas. And for the first time, I was able to understand.”
John Holmes, sous chef at Edmund’s Oast, remembers learning the same lesson from a truffle-themed meal that featured one elaborate course after another. “The first 13 courses were good, but they would have been just as good without truffles,” he says. And then the pappardelle arrived. At Edmund’s Oast, Holmes has tried to conjure the singularity of that first taste by applying truffles to warm toast cloaked in cheese sauce and mixing truffles into butter.
“What you got today?” Edmund's owner Scott Shor asked Crouse, who met him at Kudu with his stash and a digital scale.
Sizing up the table, Shor admitted, “It’s kind of like a drug deal, except there’s a scale.”
Shor and Holmes left with all of Crouse’s small black truffles tucked into a to-go coffee cup. Holmes planned to work them into the tasting menu offered at the restaurant’s kitchen bar.
“The first guy who had them at the chef’s counter said it made up for taking pickled shrimp off the menu,” he said. “So I figure it was all right.”
Crouse doesn't have a retail license, so can't sell directly to truffle fans, but goat.sheep.cow plans to stock his white and black truffles through New Year's.