Truffles are the black diamond of cooking: everyone wants one, few can have them. They have been served to kings, emperors, and wealthy socialites. There are two basic types of truffles that Americans are familiar with and they are both from Europe. The white truffle, Tuber magnatum, is associated with Italy’s northern regions. Black truffles, most popular in France, are similar to the white truffle in both flavor and aroma, but are also found in Italy. The majority of truffles are harvested within small communities, where their trade is an important part to the local economy. It is a tradition sustained within families by passing the skills down through the generations. These communities use local organizations and clubs to set their own rules and regulations to ensure the quality of each year’s harvest. However, there are several new threats to the truffle industry that will make you think twice about whom you purchase them from.
The three largest producers of European truffles, France, Italy, and Spain, are known to trade amongst themselves in an effort to manipulate the market. A lack of international regulatory body makes it legal for labeling truffles any way they want, claiming any origins that they want. France imports nearly thirty to forty tons of truffles annually from Spain, and can resell them labeled as “French” truffles. This unregulated trade between larger companies affects smaller growers, importers and exporters. Truffle crime is not uncommon, especially within the small truffle communities. A Google search turns up countless examples of armed robbery of foragers in their homes, cars, or still in the forest. Interpol and Europol have their hands full with illegal smuggling. It is estimated between ten and fifteen tons of truffles are confiscated annually from airports and security checkpoints and then destroyed.
The second threat to truffle hunting is the production of Chinese truffles. Within the past twenty years, China has secretly developed a way to harvest or “cultivate” the truffle, which, after many attempts by the Americans and Europeans in the twentieth century, was considered impossible. The variety of truffle grown is considered to be extremely low quality, without the same intensity in flavor, aroma, or texture. Little is known about their production, but the process allows China to sell them at an unbelievably low cost. Since 2008, it is estimated that between one hundred and two hundred tons of truffles are exported to France annually, and are then resold under French labels. In order tor these subpar truffles to blend in with their European cousins, the Chinese truffles are mixed with their superiors in order for them to absorb some of the European truffle’s aromas. They are also mixed within the same packaging, and are nearly indistinguishable from each other. Unfortunately, you might have encountered a Chinese truffle in your dining and shopping experiences.
The final threat to truffle hunting is truffle oil. For many, this is the cheaper alternative to buying the tubers whole (in Boston, they can range from $50-100 an ounce), which can be very convenient for the home cook. The average cost of a ten-ounce bottle in Boston’s North End is between fifteen and twenty dollars. It’s strange to learn that unlike the prices of the whole tuber, truffle oil prices rarely, if ever, fluctuate. Upon closer inspection of the labels, however, the reason becomes obvious. In my search for truffle oil, I did not find one bottle that wasn’t labeled truffle “flavor” or “aroma.” The oil is rarely made with real truffles. Instead, the flavor is derived from chemical agents that simulate the truffles natural flavor. The most common chemical is 2,4-dithapentane. The lack of an international truffle regulatory body means that companies can label and market their oils any way they choose, making claims that they do not have to prove, such as calling their oils “superior quality,” “pure,” or “all natural.” There is no way to prove the validity of these claims, and companies do not have to list the chemical ingredients.
This blatant disregard for the local, traditional practices of truffle hunting undermines the truffle’s perceived value and rarity. The artificial manipulation of the truffle market shortchanges the actual truffle hunters, who operate on smaller scales within their own communities. International trade and Chinese truffles lower the value of their work, causing confusion amongst consumers. It’s not just home cooks who can be hoodwinked. Chefs are also scammed by the relabeling of inferior truffles, or are not familiar in what a real truffle tastes and smells like. All the confusion and lies surrounding truffles will eventually lead to what I believe to be one of two scenarios: a collapse in the market or the organization of an international governing body. Very soon truffles might be labeled certified, fair trade, or listed with the region they are harvested from and a local purveyors mark. In the mean time, I, and hopefully you all, will be more conscious of anything labeled “truffle” that comes our way.
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Renowden, Gareth. “Truffle Wars.” Gastronomica 8.4 (2008): 46-50. JSTOR. Web.
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