The Culinary Underworld: Truffle Trade

by Elizabeth Palmer Starnes

*Photo of genuine French truffles courtesy of Chef Mitchell Altholz of Highlawn Pavilion

Shady business deals, big time crime bosses, and back alley beatings usually bring to mind unsavory commodities like illegal drugs and weapons. But in recent years, this business environment has encompassed the worldwide truffle market.  

CBS News recently ran a piece exposing the largely unknown side of one of America’s favorite luxury culinary treats. As a food enthusiast, it was most shocking to learn how truffles really find their way onto American dinner tables.

Truffles have quickly become the most expensive food commodity in the world. European White Truffles sell for as much as $3600 a pound, with one two pound truffle recently selling for over $300,000.  Such an exorbitant price tag brings with it unsavory people looking to turn a profit, often at the expense of quality.

A sort of truffle mafia has emerged in Europe, with the big bosses coordinating truffle robberies from the finer restaurants in Italy and France, later selling their spoils off the backs of trucks.  These contraband truffles end up back in the consumer market, probably ending up in expensive European or American restaurants, where a few shavings could set a diner back hundreds of dollars.

Local truffle farmers have recently fallen victim to beatings and robberies, regaining consciousness to find their truffles, trees, and prized truffle-finding dogs gone.

Truffles weren't always such a hot commodity. Though consistently expensive, only in recent years has the truffle market come to resemble the illegal drug trade. In another unforeseen consequence of global climate change, the annual truffle harvest has depreciated from 2,000 tons one hundred years ago to a measly 30 tons annually in 2011.  The shortage of truffles even has churches holding masses in their honor, with patrons dropping both money and truffles into the offering basket.  Such a drastic decline in supply has caused the demand to skyrocket, fostering the dangerous organized crime environment, which now taints the entire truffle market.

Climate change and criminal bands of truffle thieves are the least of concerns for those hoping to preserve the quality and tradition of truffles. Chinese truffles have recently come into the market place as a cheaper alternative to pricy French and Italian truffles, though of a substantially lesser quality. Raked directly out of the ground, before they have had a change to ripen, Chinese truffles possess none of the characteristic fragrance, aroma, or earthy flavor that are hallmarks of French and Italian truffles. 

Sneaky and devious truffle purveyors have taken to cutting their authentic French and Italian truffles with smaller quantities of subpar Chinese truffles.  A pound of Chinese truffles sells for a paltry $20 a pound. Mixing the two types of truffle increases the weight of the shipment and in turn augments the purveyor’s profits; the same way cocaine dealers cut their product with flour to stretch the overall quantity.

But the difference between a Chinese truffle, and a properly harvested truffle from France should be discernable to a trained chef.  According to acclaimed gastronomic professional, The Culinary Mercenary, "If a chef cannot determine the difference between a European truffle and a Chinese truffle, they do not deserve to be using them in the first place." The Mercenary further adds, that "chefs are meticulous people, rigorously checking all product - especially product that pound for pound costs as much a Leer Jet! If a less than superior product, at that price, is sent to me, it goes right back."

But it is possible that American consumers with the best intentions can wind up with Chinese truffles on their dinner table. A can of truffles marked as “Product of France” can contain Chinese truffles that have been shipped to France and the repackaged as a French product.  You would be none the wiser unless you knew that “tuber indicum” is the Latin name for Chinese truffles, and noticed this qualifier in small print on the back of the can. 

While there are classifications for truffles, according to The Culinary Mercenary, "we just do not know about them.  All truffles from the region of Alba are (by law) not allowed to be exported from the province. If you get an "Alba" truffle, you are most likely getting a truffle from Abruzzo or other region that was mailed out of Alba."

If this process continues, the world wide quality of truffles could decline, as Chinese strains of truffles infect the true French and Italian strains. Italy recently passed a law making the importation of Chinese truffles illegal, and there is pressure in France to do the same.

The Culinary Mercenary adds, that though "there are laws within France and Italy regulating the truffle trade, whether or not they are governmental laws or "pinky ring" laws (wink wink), what we see from Europe is an amazing product, but like everything else they keep the best for themselves."

How do you feel about the dealings in the truffle underworld? Have you ever had a Chinese truffle? Were you able to tell the difference?