Interviews

ID Interview: Céline Labaune

celine labauneCéline Labaune was born in the south of France but now resides in New York City.  Through Gourmet Attitude, the company she founded in 2003, Céline has become the truffle purveyor to some of the nation’s finest restaurants.  Her truffles can be found on the tables of Chefs Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Grant Achatz, Jonathan Benno & Douglas Keane.  She talked to Ingredient Driven about this year’s harvest and how she came to be in the truffle trade.

How is the harvest this year?

For black truffles, the harvest has just started.  The first market was about two weeks ago at the end of November and right now it seems like the quality is not great so far.  In France the truffles are not fully ripe – are also a bit pricey, I think.  But that might change.  Next week might get much better.  It’s still very early, very new, so it’s hard to say.

What is the issue with these early truffles?

There’s been a lot of rain, so right now many truffles are wet and unripe because of the weather.  Also, a lot of truffles have worms, also because of the weather.  So that’s the way it is right now, but that might change overnight, it’s still very early.

Were conditions good for truffles this year?

For truffle growth you should have a warm summer with heavy rain about once a month – particularly in July and August.  Actually this summer conditions were pretty good.  But now it’s still very warm in France – as it is in New York – and that’s not good for the truffles.

How have the white truffles been?

It’s been too warm for the white truffles.  So there’s been a small harvest and that makes expensive truffles.  I am getting good quality, but the selection is very small so the price point is very high.  So this year we have a small harvest because of the weather conditions, but there’s always something going on.

Where do your white truffles come from?

Italy of course, from Piemonte, that’s a nice area for white truffles, also Tuscany.  There are also some white truffles that come from the northern part of Croatia.

They actually found one white truffle – because white truffles grown only wild – in France in the Rhone, north of Provence.  It was actually my truficultur who found it.  So they had it analyzed, and it was in fact magnatum pico, so now maybe they are going to find some in France, I’m not sure.

Usually they grow in Italy, Croatia and a little bit even in Hungary, but I don’t know, they are different, I don’t really care for them.  Probably Romania also, but also to me these are different.  It is mainly Italy – Piemonte, Tuscany, Bologna – where they are good.  The ones I’ve been getting this year have been excellent actually.  Everyone is complaining about this season but I think my truffles have been very good.  In part I think it is because they are expensive and I can handle the price, but what I am getting is very good.

What is your process for purchasing truffles?

I deal with just a few truffle pickers in France.  They harvest the truffles at the end of the week on Friday, Saturday and Sunday using truffle dogs.  It’s not until then that we know the price of truffles, once the supply and demand are clear, so I place my order over the weekend.  The truffles are packed and shipped to me on Monday so I receive them on Tuesday morning.  I then either deliver them or ship them to the clients who receive them on Wednesday.

How long have you worked with the same truffle pickers?

I’ve worked with the same people for a very long time – about eight or nine years. My main business, black truffles, is in France, and so are all of my main pickers.  I’ve also been starting to deal with truffle pickers in Spain and Italy a little bit.  They know exactly what I need and what I want so they won’t send me things they think won’t be good for my clients.  It all depends on the relationship you have with the person you work with.  If the person understands your quality and what you need they are going to send you good product.  I don’t deal with agents, I deal with the truffle pickers.

Do your pickers maintain orchards?

Yes, they do.  Also I have other pickers who bring their production to my main pickers who then consolidate and ship to me.  I need a lot of truffles.  5 kilos is not enough, I might need 20 or 30 kilos each week, sometimes more.  I need the production, whatever the other pickers get.

How did you get into the truffle business?

First of all, because I like food.  I was working for a foie gras company in New York about 12 years ago, and then by chance I had the opportunity to work with the subsidiary of an Italian producer of truffles.  For three years I worked for them and then I opened my business, Gourmet Attitude.

So in the beginning it was by chance but then I had many connections that helped.  My dad is from Périgord and my husband is from Provence.  Provence is about 80% of the production of truffles in France and everybody in his family has truffle connections.  Everyone grows truffles in their fields and sells them through the Confrerie de Truficulture – it’s the biggest region in France for the truffle harvest.  Périgord is actually quite limited – everyone associates black truffles with Périgord but really its only about 10 or 15% of the production in France.

Any recommendations for individuals purchasing truffles?

At the beginning it is always hard to know, it is very difficult because now the price of the black are not too high but I’m sure next week the price will be higher because demand is always strong in December.  In December you sometimes have a situation where the quality is not quite there yet because it’s still very early and yet the price is very high.

The best time to buy black truffles is beginning of January.  Because the quality is very good and the price is low because the first week of January nobody wants to buy truffles  – they ate too much during the holidays.  This year it’s been a little bit of a difficult start I think, but its still early, so we need to wait one or two weeks and the news might be different.

What is your favorite way to enjoy truffles?

I enjoy them in very simple ways.  I really like black truffle with eggs in dishes like egg à la coque.  For white truffles I like fresh fettuccine with a nice cheese sauce and the truffles shaved on top.  That’s my favorite way to enjoy truffles.

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