The Dark Side of the Truffle Trade

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.

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Ryan Jacobs is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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