The Trade Secrets of the Truffle Industry
This post is not about the scams that go on in the truffle product industry. Rackets like truffle oil, though still not widely recognized, are at least fairly well documented. And frankly people should learn to read ingredient labels.
This post is about trade secrets. These exist in the majority of industries-secret recipes, insider knowledge, skeletons in the cupboard that rattle in different shapes and sizes. Let’s be clear, there can be a rationale behind these secrets, not all exist to mislead, some are in place to protect.
Smoke and Mirrors
In the world of luxury products, there is a heavy reliance on smoke and mirrors to create a demand and justify exorbitant prices. But within the truffle world there is also an inevitable, inherent secrecy which extends beyond the simple manufacturing of an illusion for promotional purposes. The secrecy starts at the bottom level with us, the hunters, and continues until the final stage of the truffle’s journey into restaurants of the world.
Secret Life of the Truffle Hunter
I have moved up the ranks from the ground level as a hunter. As I got older and was no longer able to keep up with the dogs and fellow hunters, I turned to selling our truffles . So here is the first insider secret – the job of the hunter is exhausting and badly paid. Most hunters are in the business for the thrill of the chase. It is the middle men who make the real money, with the hunter lucky to get 10% of the truffle’s final selling price.
This seems unfair considering the hunter is the one who puts in all the hard work. Until, that is, you consider that the most difficult and highly-skilled task is that of the hunter’s dog. With no employment laws to protect them, these key workers spend hours sniffing for a subsistence wage. This amounts to a bowl of food when they get home at night and some sausages throughout the course of their working day depending on how well they perform in the field.
The Case for Some Transparency
These days I work with truffle buyers rather than dogs and whereas the latter are loving and trusting, the former tend to be suspicious and combatative. Most business transactions are fraught and understandably so. Buyers are expecting some dishonesty and trying to protect themselves from getting burned. Customers are for the most part unaware of the various deceits that go on before the truffle arrives in their kitchen. However, time and time again you hear tales of disappointment involving truffles – the build up, the money spent, the preparation and then the huge let-down. So, while it is fine to say that secrets must exist to protect the industry, customers need protection too – without them there would simply be no industry.
So with that in mind, let’s talk about transparency. From bottom up. Dogs = entirely transparent, they openly work for sausages and keep no secrets. Once they have found a truffle they will share the knowledge with no qualms. Hunters, on the other hand, have to protect their truffle patches. Especially the places where they hunt white truffles. Sometimes truffles grow in well-known, well-traversed locations, others are a lot harder to access. These are the fiercely-guarded secrets. These spots may be passed down through generations like family heirlooms. No one speaks of them. Likewise no one speaks too openly about the conditions needed for white truffles to grow. The factors which promote truffle growth, the combination of trees and plants which are a good indicator of the presence of truffles – these are all undiscussed unless in the vaguest of terms, peppered with red herrings.
Truffle Tours and Other Deceits
It is easy to find tour guides posing as trufflers. These are paid to take tourists on a truffle hunt. The tour organizers bury a few truffles and visitors look on in amazement as dogs dig up these truffles a few hours later. Real truffle hunters do not reveal what they do. The last thing a truffle hunter wants is to attract a following.
Trufflers might pose as game hunters. A friend of ours tries to hoodwink his nosy neighbours by putting a rifle in the car when he goes hunting. When he comes home he talks loudly about woodcock and pheasants.
The forests are already overcrowded and even more hunters translates as fewer truffles for those trying to make a living. Trufflers are rarely honest about where they hunt. They will have permits for different regions and when they say they are hunting in Tuscany they are more likely to be in Abruzzo. They may even be abroad. There are more secrets but that is enough about hunters for now.
The Truffle Dealer Network
Truffle dealers are in a competitve business and their product is high risk. Prices fluctuate but worst of all, the shelf-life of a truffle is notoriously brief. The truffle dealer is not necessarily deceitful but it as at this stage that the business becomes rather shady. Truffles begin to change hands , a local dealer may collect from all the hunters in the area and then pass on these truffles to a bigger dealer. He is invariably the flashest guy in the supply chain and has a network of international connections. These will be mostly truffle companies who import as well as upmarket restaurants and hotels.
Hunters and their dogs harvest white truffles in many countries in Europe and the majority of these truffles end up in Italy. Some are for consumption in the local Italian market but most go abroad having first been awarded Italian citizenship. This is illegal but it happens and it happens on a massive scale. When dealers are rumbled for this fraud, they simply pay the hefty fine.
The Coveted Alba Title
There are not enough white truffles to keep up with demand. Supply is dropping year by year due to rising temperatures and the destruction of rural truffle areas. Over the past three decades, hunters have started branching out across Europe looking for new unexploited seams of tuber magnatum.
Despite Alba’s slick marketing, there is no basis in the claim that white truffles from other areas are inferior. Where is the great nose or the gourmet who can sample such a truffle and say where it is from based on smell or taste? In his book Truffle Boy Ian Purkayastha who runs the company Regalis in New York confesses that at the start of his career, he was unwittingly supplying some of the best restaurants in New York with Serbian truffles. Top chefs had been using non-Italian truffles for months and were none the wiser. Really, what does that say to you about the relevance of the white truffle’s origin?
Unfortunately for Purkayastha, when he did come clean, most of the restaurants no longer wanted to buy his produce. Presumably, they did not want that information. In New York there are dozens of dealers prepared to tell you what you do want to hear- that they can supply you with the real deal, their truffles are from Alba. Smoke and mirrors.
At least the previous deceit is pretty harmless. You buy a tuber magnatum supposedly from Alba, which sounds impressive. In reality the truffle is from Romania which tastes the same just doesn’t have the same glamorous ring. There is though, another more serious subterfuge which involves passing off one species of truffle as another.
There are two kinds of really valuable truffles, the winter white (tuber magnatum) and winter black (tuber melanosporum). All other truffles are far inferior in aroma, flavour and price. One such truffle is tuber indicum otherwise known as the Chinese truffle (Donald Trump would like this story).
These truffles are of no real culinary aroma. One of the reasons for this is that collectors use rakes to unearth them rather than dogs. Trained dogs can tell when a truffle has matured, obviously rakes do not distinguish. Aside from the ruthless harvesting practice, even at their peak these truffles have a lacklustre flavour. So imagine the scandal in 1998 when 47 tons of Chinese truffles turned up during a raid. These were sitting minding their own business in the warehouse of the largest truffle company in the world, Urbani, who control 67% of the global market.
Though being virtually flavourless is normally a huge drawback for a truffles, the nondescript tuber indicum is suprisingly popular.For all the wrong reasons. Firstly they are incredibly cheap to buy. Urbani had purchased their Chinese truffles for the low, low price of $ 20 a kilo. Another possible reason for buying said truffles is that they resemble the far more expensive and flavourful tuber melanosporum, which in 1998 were selling for $400 a kilo. Or maybe you just got confused. Hmmm.
Fragrance Boosting Scams
Surely the lack of aroma would alert the vustomer to a fake truffle? Not necessarily, given that unscrupulous dealers will store weak-smelling truffles with other more fragrant truffles. In the same way that some people often store their truffles with eggs, Chinese truffles will be shut away for a day or so with other more aromatic truffles and will come out smelling of truffles for just long enough to deceive the buyer. Within a couple of hours though, the aroma will have dissipated and once again disappointment will ensue.
Freshness v. Origin
Anyone who knows anything about truffles will tell you that, within a species, truffles are more or less equal and that the main factor in great flavour is freshness. The reason for the disappointing aroma of, let’s say, a Romanian truffle is not the fact that it grew in Romanian soil. More likely it is under par because it was sitting in the hunter’s fridge for 3 days until the buyer showed up with his van. The buyer then sent the truffle to Italy which has the highest concentration of truffle businesses, this took another two days. From then on, it might take three more days to get to the customer’s plate – at 9 days’ old no wonder the truffle doesn’t taste that great.
Maybe that truffle was the main ingredient in a special dinner, an anniversary, a reunion, a proposal, an important business lunch, a last meal on earth. The cutomer is paying a small fortune for a dining experience that they hope will be memorable. Whoever they are and wherever they are, customers have a right to know what it is they are buying and what it is they are buying into. We need to make clear distinctions between secrecy and subterfuge.