Gangs, poisoned dogs, and fake fungus: new book explores the underground truffle trade
Author Ryan Jacobs offers an inside look at the shady underworld of the global truffle industry
You might call them the diamonds of the food world.
The rarest truffles — like the Italian white truffle — are insanely expensive. Just a few shavings on your dinner at a fancy restaurant might set you back a hundred bucks.
With so much money at stake, Ryan Jacobs took a look at the dirty tactics some people resort to in order to profit from the funky fungus.
When the investigative journalist went digging into the story, he found corruption throughout the supply chain — theft, sabotage, fakery, even the killing of truffle-hunting dogs.
As It Happens guest host Megan Williams spoke to Jacobs about the industry and his new book, Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World's Most Expensive Fungus.
Here is part of their conversation.
Mr. Jacobs, what makes truffles so valuable?
Truffles are extremely scarce. They grow during very short seasons during the autumn and winter. They're found underneath the ground and in order to get them you need an expertly trained dog to do so.
We can cultivate black truffles, which are one of the crown jewels of the trade. But no one's been able to figure out how to cultivate the white truffle, which goes for about 6,000 euros per kilogram.
You tasted them for the first time and had something of a revelation. Can you tell us what it was like when you ate truffles for the first time, and perhaps why people are so willing to pay that much to eat them?
It's almost an indescribable experience. They taste sort of like the earth. They sort of taste like what the mountain air smells like.
You could compare it to garlic, but there is another quality of them that you can't really put your finger on. It's sort of this primal, intoxicating thing.
One woman who I spoke with, she was a longtime truffle trader, she said it's like trying to describe a primary colour.
The best analogy is almost like taking drugs or having sex. It's a completely intoxicating experience.
Most people probably haven't had a chance to taste truffles because they're so incredibly expensive. But there's also a lot on the market that are being passed off for the real thing that aren't. How can you tell whether or not you're really having a truffle when you buy truffle oil or the actual mushroom itself?
It's really difficult. So a lot of people in the trade have passed off different species.
There's a black truffle that grows in Sichuan, China that looks identical to the black winter truffle that grows in France and also in Italy.
The one that grows in China is a completely different species. People compare it to sort of like a battered tennis ball. It doesn't taste or smell like the black winter truffle, but it looks exactly like it.
So what they were doing is sort of cutting flour into cocaine and selling these things on the international market as these prized commodities when they were really just cheap, basically counterfeit, stuff from China.
And now, you have a similar problem with the white truffle. There's a desert truffle that grows in the sands of Tunisia and several other North African countries and they're using that now to mix those into batches of the white truffle, which is the most expensive.
So it's hard to determine, unless you ask really tough questions of your restaurant server and you're very careful about where the truffles are coming from.
A lot of people, in order to get a little taste of the truffle, if they can't afford the actual truffle itself, are buying the oil. What kind of fabrications go into making a fake truffle oil?
Most of the truffle oil on the market, which is actually most people's connection to truffles, is not truffle. It's bis-methylthiomethane, which is a petroleum derivative. It basically is a synthetic that kind of smells like truffle.
Which sort of makes it sort of, kind of, tastes like truffle, especially if you haven't had real truffle. But it's a very overpowering kind of pungent scent and it really has nothing to do with real truffle.
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Now, you've spent quite a bit of time with people who cultivate the truffles, which, as you mentioned, is a challenging endeavour and also a cutthroat endeavour. What kinds of stories did you discover about the competition among those who cultivated and sell it?
Some of the stories are crazy. In southeastern France, there are, basically, armed gangs who go in at night into people's truffle groves and steal their truffles.
The thieves are really advanced. They use night vision goggles. They usually have rifles or other weapons. They hurl stones at the farmers. They fire warning shots into the sky.
Actually, in 2010, a guy ended up shooting a truffle thief in his grove because he was so afraid that he was armed.
And then, on the Italian side, you have guys who are fiercely competitive about the spots that they go foraging for the truffles.
So you have guys who are stealing other people's truffle dogs because they notice on the mountain that they're really good and they want to use them for themselves.
And then you have guys who — and this is sort of the most brutal form of sabotage — leave meatballs that are laced with strychnine, which is a colourless, odourless toxin that you use to remove gophers and that.
This is to poison the dogs?
Yeah, once you poison your competitor's dog, that guy is out for at least the season because he has to go out buy another dog.
So it's basic economic sabotage, but it's really sort of devastating for a lot of these truffle hunters because they develop a really special relationship with these dogs.
Written by Kate Swoger and John McGill. Produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.