The Dark Side of the Truffle Trade

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.

Presented by

Ryan Jacobs is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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