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.
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 maufacturing 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. And let’s be clear, there is a rationale behind secrets, not all are designed to mislead, some exist to protect.
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. The real money is made by the middle man and the hunter is often 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 undertaken by the hunter’s dog. Unprotected by employment laws, these key workers are literally paid 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. More about truffle hunter secrets later.
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, the consumer is vulnerable. Buyers are expecting some dishonesty and trying to protect themselves from getting burned. It is fine to say that secrets have to exist to protect the industry but our customers need to be protected too. As an insider, there is an onus to inform, to help clarify murky waters. Yet there is a fine line between being transparent and giving too much away and damaging the business. Too many ill -thought-out disclosures and you may quickly end up a pariah in an industry which is your family’s livelihood.
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. Hunters on the other hand have to protect their truffle patches. Some 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. Noone speaks of them. Likewise noone speaks too openly about the conditions needed for 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.
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.
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 these truffles will be usually passed on 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. White truffles are harvested 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. 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 .
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 a white 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 were no longer interested in his produce. Presumably they wanted to be persuaded by the next dealer, the one promising to supply them with the real deal from Alba. Smoke and mirrors.
At least in the previous deceit, little real harm is done. You buy a tuber magnatum supposedly from Alba, which sounds impressive. In reality the truffle is from Romania which 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 kind 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 they are unearthed using raking methods. Dogs can tell when a truffle has matured and obviously rakes do not distinguish. Besides this ruthless harvesting practice, even at their peak these truffles do not have a great flavour. So imagine the scandal in 1998 when 47 tons of Chinese truffles turned up during a raid. These were sitting in the warehouse of the largest truffle company in the world, Urbani who control 67% of the global market. Being flavourless should be a huge drawback for a truffle but the nondescript tuber indicum is suprisingly popular for all the wrong reasons . Firstly they are incredibly cheap to buy. Urbani had bought 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.
Surely the lack of a complex aroma would alert people to a fake truffle? Not necessarily, as weak-smelling truffles can be stored with other more fragrant truffles and will take on their smell. In the same way that some people chose to 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.
Anyone who knows anything about truffles will tell you that truffles are more or less equal and that the main factor in great flavour is freshness. The reason for the lack of flavour 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 where most truffle businesses are concentrated, 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.
That truffle could be part of an anniversary dinner, a proposal, an important business lunch, a last meal on this earth. The cutomer is paying a small fortune for a dining experience that should be sublime. 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.