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.

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Ryan Jacobs is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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