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Economy & Business

Why Do People Pay Good Money For Bad Smelling Truffles?


Truffles, the wildly expensive fungi, are in season again. And if you head to some of New York's fancier restaurants you'll find them being shaved over $100 plates of pasta. Stacey Vanek Smith from our Planet Money team followed one truffle dealer on his rounds.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: I meet Ian Purkayastha at a warehouse in Queens. It's late morning and a big shipment of truffles has just come in from Italy.

So how much money is in this box?

IAN PURKAYASTHA: I think this is about $20,000.

SMITH: There's $20,000 in this styrofoam box?


SMITH: That is about eight pounds of white truffles. No one has figured out how to cultivate white truffles, so the supply is very limited. Most are found using dogs that are trained to sniff them out in the forest.

PURKAYASTHA: I'm just removing all the icepacks from the top of the box.

SMITH: Oh, is that the smell?

PURKAYASTHA: That is the smell.

SMITH: Truffles smell kind of like dirty socks and taste famously earthy. People pay a small fortune for that flavor. One pound of white truffles costs $2,000. And most restaurants won't pay that until they see them. So Ian is taking these truffles, in person, to some of the best restaurants in New York. Ian loads a styrofoam cooler into the trunk of his car, and we're off. Ian needs to sell his $20,000 worth of truffles today because every moment a truffle is out of the ground it is losing water - and value.

PURKAYASTHA: I'm probably going to lose about $1,500 today, just in evaporation loss.

SMITH: Just in the trunk?

PURKAYASTHA: In the trunk.

SMITH: Do you think about that when you're sitting in traffic?

PURKAYASTHA: I mean, I've learned not to.

SMITH: A few red lights later, we arrive at Lure Fishbar in SoHo.

So you're parking, like, in a red zone right now?

PURKAYASTHA: I'm in a red zone.

SMITH: You just got to park. The truffles will not wait?

PURKAYASTHA: They can't wait.

SMITH: During the few months that white truffles are in season, Ian's company, Regalis Foods, makes most of its money for the year.

JOSH CAPON: All right. Let's make it quick.

PURKAYASTHA: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello, truffle man.

SMITH: It's the middle of lunch rush. The chef comes out to meet us.

CAPON: My name is Josh Capon. My good buddy Ian - Ian's actually in my phone as Ian truffle boy.

SMITH: Chef Josh holds up a truffle. They look a little like Yukon gold potatoes.

CAPON: What do we got? What are we doing here?

SMITH: Chef Josh piles a few truffles on a kitchen scale.

CAPON: I say we knock this number down to $1,200 even.

PURKAYASTHA: All right. We'll do it. We'll do it.

CAPON: If we could - $1,000 even.

PURKAYASTHA: I can't do $1,000.

CAPON: Come on, 1,100.

PURKAYASTHA: (Laughter) I can't.

SMITH: Is it worth it? Those are like, that's like four - five truffles for $1,200.

CAPON: Well, we - it really comes down to the portions.

SMITH: The typical portion for truffles is about five grams, the weight of a nickel. Chef Josh will shave that onto plates of lobster risotto tonight and on a special cheeseburger he makes.

CAPON: Just come have the white truffle burger. It'll literally blow your mind.

SMITH: For the mind blowing price of $68. Chef Josh will pay around $20 for the truffles on that burger. So around $40 of the $68 dollars will be pure profit. But Josh says people are happy to pay that. Most places don't even have truffles, and getting to try one is special. Ian and I rush out of the restaurant and back to the car. Ian still has dozens of kitchens to visit and thousands of dollars in sales to make.


PURKAYASTHA: And no ticket.

SMITH: No ticket.

Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.