The Dark Side of the Truffle Trade

Nighttime heists, Chinese knockoffs, and poisoned meatball-sabotage: Inside the high-stakes pursuit of the world's most-prized fungus.
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A white truffle harvested near Alba, Italy's white truffle capital (Reuters/Stefano Rellandini)

Before the delicate, pale brown fungi enter Fabio Trabocchi’s Washington, D.C. kitchen, the award-winning chef insists that his staff at Fiola handle the specimens in the same clinical fashion. Soon after the box they arrive in is pried opened, each piece of white truffle is carefully unloaded and analyzed for flaws. Then they are individually wrapped in paper towels and placed on a scale to ensure the total weight matches the amount the Italian eatery purchased.

“I’m not shy to [immediately] tell the vendor that provided us with truffles that there is something wrong with the product,” Trabocchi said. “Technology helps us a lot nowadays because we can shoot them a picture within three seconds.”

The rare bulbous ingredient, which is found buried among roots in select patches of Italy’s hillside oak and hazelnut groves, cannot be cultivated like its black winter counterpart. Foragers traverse the soil carefully with dogs trained to sniff out and dig up the pungent tuber, and then pass it along a series of hyper-competitive and, at times, secretive market channels before it lands on plates overseas. As in the luxury art and jewelry worlds, only the most reliable connoisseurs are trusted as sellers.

Depending on quality and availability, Fiola features white truffles on menus from September to January, roughly when the hunting season back in Italy has finished. Between October and March, Trabocchi offers black winter truffles, which grow in the wild and can be cultivated on plantations in Italy and, most famously, near Périgord, France. During the short seasons, a coterie of the world’s gourmet chefs, celebrities, and business moguls compete over a limited supply, which has grown scarcer over the years because of the increases in temperature and reductions in rainfall that climate change has brought to the world’s best truffle-growing regions.

Trabocchi works exclusively with suppliers he’s developed a relationship with over the years, and even then, he subjects them to a certain amount of interrogation. “I always ask the source of the truffles. I always ask when they landed into the United States,” Trabocchi said.

But both producers and buyers who do not exercise the same caution are vulnerable. The high-end industry has spawned a shadowy underworld, where tax evasion, nighttime heists, counterfeits, and sabotage are not uncommon. The schemes span continents and truffle types, but all of them boil down to scarcity and cash. “You know, it’s a short season. And for some people that make their profit within very tiny windows of the span of an entire 12 months, it’s very important that they’re making the best out of it,” Trabocchi said. “Therefore, sometimes, maybe [cash motivates] people to do things that are not completely legitimate.”

According to Bruno Capanna, the president of the truffle foraging association in Acqualagna (one of Italy’s most productive truffle-growing areas), white truffles typically retail for between €2,000 and €5,000 per kilogram (or between $2,753 and $6,883). Top black winter truffles go for between €1,500 to €3,000 per kilogram. The demand for truffles, which is especially high around the holiday season, tends to outpace the supply. And competition for product from renowned areas like Alba, Italy (the Mecca of white truffles) and Périgord, France (home to the best winter blacks) can be even fiercer. “It’s a very well-sought-after ingredient [for] any fine-dining establishment, all over the world, even if they’re not Italian restaurants,” Trabocchi said. “It’s like you’re buying, I don’t know, the price is caviar, but it’s only available from September to January,” he added, referring to the whites.

In November, an anonymous bidder from Hong Kong—purportedly a “‘famous Chinese writer’”—placed a call by satellite phone to a white truffle auction at a castle in Italy’s Piedmont region and shelled out $120,000, or three times the price of gold, for two pieces weighing a total of just over two pounds. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was gifted an $8,000 specimen from the same auction, which he promptly gave away to a local school. In 2012, after Jay-Z dropped more than $20,000 at Alba’s local truffle haunts, traders speculated that he could do for their market what he did for Cristal champagne. The rapper P. Diddy once demanded that New York-based French chef Daniel Boulud “shave that bitch” onto his plate. And back in 2010, Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho spent $330,000 on two pieces that weighed 2.87 pounds.

Photographers take pictures of two truffles weighing 2.09 pounds during a white truffle auction near Alba, on November 10, 2013. (Reuters/Stefano Rellandini)

Various attempts to explain the value of the fungus have veered into farcical territory. Writing in Time, food writer Josh Ozersky once described its scent as “a combination of newly plowed soil, fall rain, burrowing earthworms and the pungent memory of lost youth and old love affairs.” New York City chef and Food Network notable Alex Guarnaschelli told Ozersky: "It conjures up images of a locker room. But the aroma deceptively conceals their complex yet delicate taste. They are sublime." The aroma is so unique, Trabocchi said, that a few slices sprinkled over a simple dish can generate a transcendent, “sort of umami experience.” “When you use truffles in general, my philosophy is that you don’t need anything else,” he said. “The truffle is the star of the dish. [While] there’s nothing wrong [with slicing] some black truffle over a beautifully cooked piece of beef or over foie gras to make the indulgence of a very extremely high level, I think that especially when you use white truffle or winter black truffle ... they just solely need to showcase themselves in a simple preparation.”  

At Fiola, that’s exactly what he offers, and at a comparatively practical price of $85. Epicureans can enjoy it shaved over their choice of the Piedmont region’s classic pairs: freshly made and generously buttered Tajarin noodles, a simple Parmesan risotto, or a few farm-raised eggs. Customers can also swallow with at least some certainty that shady truffle bandits haven’t tainted their bite.

***

Though some news organizations, including CBS’s 60 Minutes, have painted the darker actors in the truffle industry as members of a Mafia-style organization (it is Italy, after all), Federico Balestra, the president of one of the largest Italian truffle purveyors, Sabatino Tartufi, balks at the notion that there are truffle bosses ordering assassinations in the name of fungi. “Everybody likes to talk about a great world war where ... weird stuff is going on,” Balestra said. But he insists that most crimes in the industry are committed by rogue truffle hunters trying to up their profit margins during a short season, rather than a murderous criminal network with a top-down stranglehold on the industry.

A seller shows a truffle to customers at the truffle market in Alba. (Reuters/Stefano Rellandini)

Balestra, who is originally from Italy and now runs his grandfather’s business from New York, offered a helpful analogy: a man once entered his father-in-law’s New Jersey Chevrolet dealership and shot his colleagues. The unfortunate incident didn’t “mean that they have a business that is full of crooks, or full of delinquents,” he said, it simply indicated that “somebody’s crazy.” The same lesson holds for the truffle business. But judging by his and others’ descriptions, the industry has known its fair share of insanity.

At least one attempted truffle heist has ended with a fatality. In 2010, a truffle farmer named Laurent Rimbaud spotted a man skulking under the oaks of his truffle patch in the village of Grignan, in southern France. Fearing that the man was carrying a weapon, Rimbaud fired his hunting rifle twice, connecting with the man’s thigh and head. The local thief, who was known to police, succumbed to his wounds not long after, and a local prosecutor filed a case against Rimbaud. Nighttime truffle thefts had become so common, though, that around 250 fellow farmers and truffle growers staged a march to protest the legal action against Rimbaud, with one lamenting that truffle fields had become “open-air safes.”

Though deaths are certainly rare, Balestra does admit there are certain criminal acts that are considered standard costs of doing business.

Most, if not all, truffle hunters refuse to produce tax invoices for buyers and will only accept cash for their goods. The Italian government is so familiar with truffle tax evasion that it allows truffle distributors to pay the fees on behalf of hunters, and Balestra said that most companies do exactly that. Even the Italian truffle supplier Urbani Tartufi, which commands a self-professed 70 percent of the international truffle trade (competitors dispute that market share), has been accused of tax evasion.

Secrecy is also common. The exact locations of the parcels of dirt where truffles are uncovered is often guarded from even close friends because a select patch of forest can often translate into a consistent source of wealth over a lifetime. An average Italian working a typical job may only bring home between €1,000 to €2,000 each month. If that same person leaves work, picks up his dog, and goes for a jaunt through the woods each day during truffle season, Balestra explained, even stumbling upon one pound of truffles could mean doubling his monthly salary in just a few lucky hours. Sometimes, a hunter may even conceal the spots from his own sons. "That's a secret, unique thing," Balestra said. "They give a gift, for when they die or something.… They say, 'That's a good place to go truffle hunting.'"

Local rivalries can also sow jealousy, especially when certain farmers are blessed with particularly large hauls. The drive to beat out neighbors can lead to sabotage and other malicious tactics.

A well-trained canine, especially one with a record of success, can make for an easy first target. Even the best-trained truffle hunters usually rely on dogs (or pigs, though they have been known to eat the truffles before allowing their handlers to retrieve them). Pointers, hounds, and setters are often used, and they can retail for between €2,000 and €5,000. Truffle hunters “can tell you which side of the land has more truffles than the others but, from there, to actually be able to smell it and remove the surface and find the truffles underground, [there’s] a hell of a difference,” Trabocchi said. That’s where the dog comes in. “They are certainly the most prized tool of work for a truffle hunter,” he added.

As a result, some hunters have planted spiked traps or poisoned meatballs in the weeds of select patches to eliminate expertly trained dogs, and then returned to the area later to sweep up truffles with their own hounds. The best-trained dogs have also been known to go missing. In August, truffle hunter Luke Fegatilli had three hounds worth €7,000 stolen from his farm in Celano, Italy. The loot included a curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo, a breed famed for its truffle-detection abilities. "The dogs disappear into a kind of black hole,” Fegatilli told the local press, adding that there was a “real war” unfolding in his countryside. Newspaper ads displaying pictures of stolen truffle dogs are not rare.

Ezio Costa, a fourth-generation truffle hunter, searches for truffles with his dog Jolly in the woods near Alba. (Reuters/Stefano Rellandini)

Securing hilly swathes of land against thieves who enter people’s property at night is extremely difficult, and often requires constant patrol. “It’s very hard to control because you have acres, acres, and acres,” Balestra said. Even if an intruder is spotted breaching a fence, itself a costly investment, it can be almost impossible to track the trespasser through, say, a forest. According to François Le Tacon, a French truffle scientist and the director of research at a Université de Lorraine-affiliated laboratory focused on forest microorganisms, many property owners have attempted to protect their truffle orchards with trespassing signs—a practice that, predictably, has done little to halt robberies.

Le Tacon’s own research is focused on increasing truffle production through pruning and irrigation of the cultivated plantations in southern France. In a grove of three-decade-old trees in Vaucluse, a fertile farming region in southeastern France where Le Tacon conducts experiments with the cooperation of a private owner, bandits snuck in at night with dogs and without detection, stealing large quantities of truffles. Ironically, the heist ruined an experiment designed to eliminate, or at least better manage, the low yields that most likely motivated the crime.

French authorities have, at times, taken extreme measures to catch thieves, including conducting “paramilitary” patrols near truffle farms and setting up “roadblocks to search cars for stolen fungi.”

Thieves’ tactics have been equally dramatic. At sunrise one morning in November 2007, Dario Pastrone, a well-known truffle hunter, was driving a car loaded with €2,000 worth of white truffles to a truffle market in the Italian town of Asti when a car pulled alongside him and forced him off the road. Three men, dressed as police officers, leapt out and asked Pastrone where he was concealing his drugs. They popped open the trunk, grabbed 400 grams worth of truffles, and fled. In 2012, at least two truffle bandits broke through the security gates of a facility belonging to Urbani Tartufi in Sant'Anatolia di Narco. They covered up surveillance cameras, pried open a warehouse door, removed between €50,000 and €60,000 worth of truffles and associated merchandise, and sped away.

***

Truffle crime doesn’t just afflict producers. Restaurants and other big-time purchasers must also carefully evaluate sellers to ensure they’re not being fooled by substandard or counterfeit product. The largest, most shapely truffles command a much higher price on the market than their smaller, irregular counterparts. “When I’m paying [for] truffles, I try to compare always to the diamond business,” Balestra said. “When you have a truffle [that’s] full of soil, or is cut, the shape is not round, it’s worth a lot less money than a truffle that’s round, is perfect, and is hard.”

Truffle hunter Ezio Costa picks up a truffle found by his dog Jolly in the woods. (Reuters/Stefano Rellandini)

But as in the diamond industry, truffle hunters and merchants will try to conceal imperfections to increase their profits. A wayward hunter or middleman may infuse cracks in the fungus with topsoil to increase its weight and therefore its price. Other shady operators may try to offload worm- or bug-infested truffles, or use mud or pieces of other truffles to reconstruct damaged product. “And you only figure that one out after you bought it, and a portion of the [truffle] kind of crumbles on your hands,” Trabocchi said. Buyers must also beware of truffles that do not come from the regions that suppliers advertise—usually Alba, Italy for whites and Périgord, France for blacks. But that type of mischief can be tolerated, Trabocchi noted. Most French and Italian truffles are of high quality, no matter the valley or mountainside where they were found.

The underlying problem is that there’s simply not enough European truffle supply to meet demand. France produced around 1,000 tons of black truffle in the early 1800s, but that number has fallen steeply to around 30 or 40 tons today, according to Le Tacon. Experts like him believe climate change has contributed to this decline. Lower rainfall means less water is showering trees and soil, where fungi flourish. Increasing temperatures have spurred surface evaporation, meaning even less water is reaching tree roots. In addition, farmers often fail to regularly prune and irrigate truffle orchards. Le Tacon is working to change this state of affairs, but it takes 10 to 15 years before inoculated tree seedlings bloom with fungi. “It takes a long time to invert the curve,” Le Tacon said.

The lagging production has forced French and even Italian suppliers to import truffles from outside Europe, mainly from China. About 30 or 40 tons are imported from China to France each year, Le Tacon estimates. A Chinese truffle will only go for about $70 or $80, whereas a black winter truffle from France may sell for 10 times that amount to a wholesaler like Balestra’s Sabatino Tartufi. The two types of truffles are almost indistinguishable, even for experts. “Really, I cannot make the distinction between Chinese black truffles and Périgord black truffles,” Le Tacon explained. “To recognize them, we have to use molecular tools.” He added that the flavor is also nearly identical, but that’s only if the truffles are eaten fresh. “Maybe the intensity of the flavor is less with the Chinese truffle, but [it is] really difficult to [tell] the difference,” he said.

In the southern Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, according to Le Tacon, who has traveled there, truffles grow naturally in millions of hectares of wild forest. Since trees there stand far apart, and goats graze shrubbery and small plants, abundant rainfall can reach the open soil and truffles with relative ease. The supply is so vast that low-paid workers use rakes to pull truffles out of the ground, no dogs necessary. The relatively high supply and low labor investment combine to lower the price of Chinese truffles.

Some truffle snobs maintain that the taste and smell of the black Chinese truffle is inferior to its European counterpart, but that’s not because the Chinese variety is categorically deficient. The real culprit is travel time. Truffles are extremely perishable and the delivery channels from China to Europe are notoriously slow, which means the tubers often arrive in poor condition. “They smell very badly,” Le Tacon said. “Sometimes, they are rotten.”

Nonetheless, Chinese truffles are occasionally mixed in with European batches and fraudulently sold as Europe’s finest because they are so hard to tell apart without microscopic scrutiny. Often, the problem is not discovered until a chef comes across them during a taste or smell test in the kitchen. “You only realize that when you start to slice them, then you notice that one has a lot of flavor, and one doesn’t,” Trabocchi said.

Cardoon with white truffle and pear at the Guido restaurant in northwestern Italy (Reuters/Stefano Rellandini)

Passing Chinese truffles off as European has become so pervasive that the practice has even come across the desks of the folks at Interpol, the international police organization. “This is a trend, for sure, that has been identified immediately, from the very first operation that we carried out,” said Interpol criminal intelligence officer Simone Di Meo, referring to Operation Opson, a task force focused on tracking substandard and counterfeit foods. The agency, which helps law enforcement outfits around the world share criminal intelligence, has recruited Asian partners like South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines to the project, but Chinese authorities have shown no interest in cooperating.

“Information from the private sector should be followed up by [information from Chinese] police officers and translated into police knowledge with seizures, with arrests, and so on,” Di Meo explained. (Enlisting the private sector in investigating food crimes isn’t always easy either, since companies are often not willing to share intelligence, fearing brand destruction if the information goes public.)

Interpol and Europol, the European Union’s police organization, paired up to start Opson in 2011 after reports to the agencies about food-related crime reached a critical mass. Moving on intelligence about erroneous geographical labels, expired foods repackaged to appear fresh, and other frauds, agents expected to find criminals focusing on conventional brand-name products. To their surprise, the world’s more lavish victuals and spirits were being manipulated as well. In addition to hauls that included “30 tons of fake tomato sauce, around 77,000 kg of counterfeit cheese,” and “nearly 30,000 counterfeit candy bars,” Interpol also seized large quantities of fake caviar and truffles. During his work on the beat, Di Meo has also come across fake champagne, Prosciutto di Parma, and mozzarella di bufala, and received key intelligence from companies like Prosecco.

In the time that Opson has been in operation, French customs agents have discovered and shut down a series of seedy websites that peddled large quantities of illegitimate “French” truffles of unknown origin at competitive prices to international restaurants and customers around the holidays. “Both for caviar and for truffles, it was the same modus operandi, actually,” Di Meo said. “It was presented as a very high, top-quality product, produced in some very renowned areas for products. And sold at high price. Of course, the high price was lower than the price for a genuine product, but was still high. So, we are not finding truffles or caviar sold at €10 per kilo. It was not €1,000 per kilo, but it was maybe €700.”

Determining whether fraud has taken place usually involves assessing the item’s quality and origins, which can make it difficult to trace. “The problem is that we are still trying to identify if there’s an involvement of criminal networks in this particular production, or it’s just, let’s say, someone working on an individual basis that’s trying to make money with these particular products,” Di Meo said. According to the Interpol official, caviar fraud has penetrated “official distribution channels” like supermarkets. This and the sophistication of the truffle websites may indicate the presence of organized crime. It’s too early to know for sure, but Interpol suspects that some of the millions of euros made from the illicit food trade are used by criminal networks to fund human and drug trafficking.

With low penalties and little regulatory scrutiny, the shadow truffle trade has room to expand. Unless there is a serious threat to public health and safety—like a recent case of Czech vodka that killed 20 drinkers with its dose of methanol—the criminals identified with Interpol’s assistance are often released by the relevant national authorities without much more than a slap on the wrist. “The opportunities to be identified are low, and the opportunities to get money, to get margins, are high,” Di Meo said.

With threats at almost every corner of the market, Trabocchi and other truffle bon vivants must continue to evaluate the product methodically, peering intently at its texture and carefully inhaling. Then, and only then, can they take that first bite.

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Ryan Jacobs is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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