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The smell of success

Categories: News and previews

It was 10 years ago this month that Tartufaia first turned the pungent scent of truffles into a defining element of the Borough Market atmosphere. Co-founder Mario Prati reflects on a challenging but hugely pleasurable decade of trading

Words: Ellie Costigan

It was 10 years ago this month that two Italian brothers set up a truffle-selling business that has gone on to become a genuine Borough Market institution: a major anniversary and one that ought to be the cause of considerable excitement. But over the hum of a coffee machine on a cold, bright Friday afternoon, Mario Prati seems almost bemused to be celebrating a decade at the Market. “We didn’t even realise it was 10 years—somebody told us!” he laughs. “It’s the height of truffle season, so unfortunately we are too busy to celebrate. Perhaps we will have a belated party in the new year...” In its humility, cheeriness and unwavering work ethic, this response sums up just about everything you need to know about Tartufaia.

Born to chef parents, Mario and his brother and business partner Francesco are “a little obsessed with food”. When Mario came to London 18 years ago, he followed the family profession, working under Stuart Dunseath. “Stuart took me from kitchen porter to chef in three years. He taught me everything. He was a mentor.” His brother soon left England for a spot of global travel, and Mario followed suit, heading to south-east Asia. The two eventually reunited in Burma, where the idea to open a truffle stall struck.

“It’s a bit of a weird story, I know!” says Mario. “I had worked as a chef at the Banana Store at Borough Market, which is where I got to know all the traders. I also worked at Gastronomica for a time, and I came to really love the Market. I think it’s the best food market in London. At the time, there wasn’t a truffle stall—in fact, we realised a couple of years after we opened that we were the first stall in the UK to solely focus on the retail of truffles.”

Francesco and Mario Prati

Potential disasters
Tartufaia has changed considerably since Mario first set up his stall under an umbrella in Three Crown Square, selling a small range of Italian truffles—and the journey hasn’t been without complications.

Truffles are expensive—get it wrong when buying in high volumes, and the financial implications could be disastrous. In that first year, Mario and Francesco had a few close calls: “In the beginning, it was tricky. The white truffle can lose up to 10 per cent of its weight in 24 hours if it is not left in the fridge. We did not know that. This is something that costs between £2,500 to £5,000 a kilo—it’s a lot of money! It was a real learning curve.”

The uncertainties of demand and supply could also be problematic. “The tricky part about the truffle business is they are seasonal. Italy is the only place you can get them year-round, but even still it’s hard to make it worthwhile,” he continues. “The other truffle-based products we do have been key to our sustainment—truffle salt, truffle butter, truffle honey, truffle cheese—all of which we make here. If this week’s truffles are not sold, next week they will be made into something else. Otherwise it would be impossible.”

It is the inevitable expense of this highly prized ingredient that sometimes puts off not only less-determined wholesalers than Mario and Francesco, but also—initially, at least—some potential customers. Part of Mario’s mission with Tartufaia (and no doubt a huge factor in the stall’s success) was to make truffles more accessible. “There’s a lot of misconception about truffles,” he laments. “It’s a product people can be a bit frightened of buying—how do I use it? What can I do with it?—and because it is expensive, people would rather go to a restaurant and let a professional chef cook it for them. But some of the best dishes you can ever have with truffle are very simple—scrambled eggs, tagliatelle—and once you explain it to people, they realise it’s actually very easy to use. Being on hand to answer people’s questions and help them pick the truffles really adds value to what we do here.”

Tartufaia

Pick up and smell
Far from being “behind crazy amounts of glass, high up in the window” as they often are, Mario has purposely made the truffles at his stall available for people to have a good look at; to pick up, smell, and choose for themselves. “The whole ‘smell me’ idea [the sign above the stall pointing to a bowl of truffles] actually came from a friend. It is a bit of fun, yes, but the idea is for people to explore and to get an idea of what the different truffles are like.”

Thanks to the on-hand advice from the expert staff at Tartufaia, the stall’s customers have grown in number, but also in knowledge and confidence. “At first, people knew there are black truffles and white truffles. That’s it. Now, many of our customers come back each week to see how the truffles change over the season. They have the confidence to pick their own. That’s what we want—people to trust their senses, not a label, so it’s very rewarding for us to see people doing that.”

Over the past few years, Tartufaia’s offering has grown from the seven species of native Italian truffle (five white, two black) to include some of the best truffles from around the world. “We now have truffles from Wiltshire in England, Australia, Spain, we are exploring French truffles at the moment. No two truffles are the same—it depends how deep in the soil it is, how far from the tree it has grown, what kind of tree it grows under, all these different factors. The calypso trees in Australia, for example, give the truffle completely unique, interesting notes. This is why it’s so important to have the jars for people to look at each truffle side by side. I would say the expansion of our range of truffles has been the best thing that has happened.”

Further exploration
Expanding the range has been an educational experience for his loyal customers, but also for Mario and his staff. “We have learnt so much from all of the different farmers we have met, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the truffles we have come across. It also means we can have black winter truffles, which are considered better and more flavoursome, year-round, because of course Australia’s season is the opposite to Europe’s.”

Tartufaia has also increased its selection of mushrooms—and this is an area that Mario is keen to explore further. “We are working with an ecologist at the moment to learn how we might be able to grow our own mushrooms organically, indoors, using waste coffee grounds. We have a big warehouse about a mile and a half from the Market, so if we could do it, they’d be the freshest mushrooms in London,” he says excitedly. “We’d also love for people to be able to come and pick their own. It’s interesting for families; to get kids involved so they can learn and understand. It’s something we’ve been exploring.” Watch this space.

So, what is it that has kept him going for all these years? At heart, Mario remains a food-lover and a passionate chef. “I have to say, the best part of what I do is still the cooking; the terrines in particular. It is a hobby of mine and I would do it during my time off, so being able to do it for work is a bonus,” he says. “There’s an element of freedom to it. I can express myself.” The finest ingredients, brought together with love and expertise: this is true of Mario’s terrines, and it’s true of Tartufaia as a whole—and why, we’ve no doubt, this singular stall will endure for many years to come.