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From Pearson to Pangaea, a truffle pusher's journey

From left, Michael Sangregorio, managing owner of Local Kitchen and Wine Bar in Toronto, and chef/owner Fabio Bondi examine Wanda Srdoc's freshly delivered truffles from Croatia

Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail/tim fraser The Globe and Mail

Wanda Srdoc parks her silver, 3-series BMW in an alley off Bay Street and pulls a Styrofoam box out of the trunk. Into her purse, she shoves a Dora the Explorer backpack commandeered from her oldest daughter. It contains a small electronic scale she bought from a head shop on Queen Street West, where she requested the most precise gadget they had, one that came with a container to weigh loose pieces of product.

The teenage clerk had stared at the petite brunette in her tailored leather jacket and sparkly diamond ring and asked, "Are you the lady from Weeds?"

Striding through the kitchens of some of Toronto's best restaurants in knee-high boots, her scale tucked under one arm and a pungent aroma trailing behind her, Ms. Srdoc is, in fact, dealing a coveted product priced by the gram.

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But unlike Mary Louise Parker's HBO character, who sells marijuana to support her family, Ms. Srdoc deals in truffles.

The seasonal delicacy appears on city menus for just a few months each year, between early October and late December. Her wares, which retail for about $12 a gram, are flown directly from her family's property in the Motovun region of Croatia, renowned for the white and black truffles that grow beneath its forest floors.

A former designer, she entered the family business six years ago, joining her cousin, a truffle sommelier in Croatia, and uncle, who deals the product in Manhattan.

"We're like the Beverly Hillbillies of truffles," she explains. "We were born with oil on our grounds."

Once a week, she collects a box containing about $10,000 worth of truffles from the airport, where she is required to spend about three hours presenting import permits and certificates of authentication to skeptical customs officials.

Pulled from the ground each Sunday, the edible fungi will last at most a week, even after being coated in a natural preservative that is brushed off before they're shaved for service.

From Pearson, Ms. Srdoc begins her rounds immediately, and has usually sold the entire box by Thursday.

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This week, the mother of two's first stop is Bay Street's Pangaea, where co-owner and chef Martin Kouprie is overseeing the butchering of a 25-kilogram halibut for a sustainable seafood event.

"Every ingredient has a story here, and Wanda is a part of that," says the chef.

With access to such a privileged resource comes a certain confidence, and Ms. Srdoc unpacks her wares in the middle of a bustling prep station, chatting with the male kitchen staff as she pulls white truffles from their paper-towel wrapping.

Sous chef Chris Waye chooses truffles close in size to small cloves of garlic, and packs them in glass jars of carnaroli rice, which will be used to make risotto. The rice absorbs the truffle's natural oils and aroma, infusing dishes with another layer of flavor. Pangaea buys about 150 grams of truffle from Ms. Srdoc each week during the season, to be incorporated into risotto, as well as salami and camembert that chef de cuisine Derek Bendig makes in house.

Ms. Srdoc's truffles can be found elsewhere across the city - further proof, if any was needed, that Torontonians are proud of their fluency in fancy foods. The earthy nuggets are now available at Pusateri's and other gourmet grocery stores, smaller downtown bistros such as Noce and the Niagara Street Café and new hot spots like Scarpetta, in the Thompson Hotel. She is also in discussions to teach a course on cooking with truffles at George Brown College chef school.

"If you're going to spend $300 to $500 a shot, you better darn well know what you're doing," she says.

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She has recently started receiving orders from private homes, including that of a man who ordered $1,000 worth of truffles to a Bridle Path dinner party, and answered the door in his track pants.

Another man recognized her on the street and chased her down, waving a $100-bill. "I thought I was going to get mugged," she says.

The threat of robbery is not unfounded. Ms. Srdoc used to ship her supply through France, but the box would often get stolen at Charles de Gaulle Airport. She worries about people knowing her route through the city, and parks the car close to restaurant doors so she can dash quickly inside.

With the clock ticking each week, she does not let herself get intimidated by the notoriously male-dominated world of Toronto kitchens.

Once, a prominent chef asked her for the biggest truffle she could find. When it arrived, all 500 grams of it, he told her he was joking and didn't want it. She refused to leave until he handed over the cash. In 2007, while pregnant with her daughter, she delivered truffles to Bymark after her water broke; last Saturday, she left the same girl's third birthday party to make a special delivery to Pangaea.

She does not disclose her annual earnings, but the job allows her to work just three months a year. In New York City, she says a truffle dealer can clear between $150,000 and $200,000 a season, but cautions that the Toronto market is "much smaller than that."



She used to sell a kilo of truffles a week to just five restaurants, but now the box is divided among about 15 establishments.

At Local Kitchen, the popular year-old bistro near the intersection of Queen West and Roncesvalles, Ms. Srdoc used to come through the back door and unload her wares in the storeroom, but owners Michael Sangregorio and Fabio Bondi asked her to conduct the deal in the dining room, so that their guests could witness the arrival of a truly seasonal culinary product.

They use white truffles on just one dish, a $30-plate of fresh pappardelle pasta over which they shave layers of the delicacy table side. It is so popular, they usually run out after two days.

"It's pretty amazing when it's somebody's first time eating them," says Mr. Sangregorio. "You can't help but smile."

Upon her arrival each week, the aroma of truffles fills the small dining room, and Ms. Srdoc says she is often embarrassed that people think the smell is coming from her.

After three days of visiting kitchens, her clothes and hair are infused with the upmarket aura, which lingers even after the truffles are gone.

"My car smells until spring," she says.

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