The Dark Side of the Truffle Trade

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.”

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Ryan Jacobs is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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