The truffle industry spans continents due an ever growing obsession with this illustrious delicacy. Let us start our journey into the truly underground, shadowy nature of Truffles. Given their desirability, scarcity, untraceability and Mediterranean roots, it is little surprise that the truffle world has a dark side where tax evasion, night-time heists, counterfeits, and sabotage are commonplace. Any little treasure popping out of the soil must come with a cost. But for some, the cost is rather excessive.
We live in a land of plenty. In our small corner of the Périgord, fruit and nuts grow in abundance, seemingly going to waste. Throughout the Spring and Summer months, plums and cherries drip from the trees; raining luscious sweet fruits along the roads and walk ways. Next come the berries, hazelnuts and walnuts; all just an arms reach away. Tantalizingly close. As the seasons progress, temptation doesn't get any easier - the arrival of cèpes and chanterelles testing even the strongest among us. Yet there is more to come. The pinnacle of the year, the crescendo, the most delightfully beguiling morsel mother nature can offer up, when all else is gone. Not even a single leaf rests on the trees while the ground below is burgeoning with this wildest delicacy of nature - The Truffle. Just one little nibble.... no one will see....
But be warned, you will not simply receive a scornful look as a child would whilst scrumping for apples. Truffle theft is treated as theft. It carries a punishment of fines and even imprisonment. But greater perils than those are at stake.
On moving to this area we felt delighted to have discovered a time portal. Rewound to a place where cyclists leave their bikes and bags freely leaning against the wall; where front doors remain unlocked; where car keys linger in ignitions and where children are still allowed to play outside in the countryside without a chaperone. Unsurprisingly, it was a shock to us when a friend of ours, a 70 year old local, had two of his tyre valves vindictively sliced off when walking in a cèpe rich woodland. Two. Not one, two - just to make sure he couldn't use his spare tyre to get home. When it comes to fungi, there is no messing around. And with truffles having a value of 40 times that of cèpes, the stakes only increase.
Perhaps it is tax evasion that leads truffle hunters down a winding path of secrecy strewn with erroneous deeds intended to protect their prize and extreme actions to beat competing truffle hunters: ultimately leading to dishonour, injury and even death. Few ever admit to how much they paid or made – and deals are reached within a few minutes, often in hushed tones. Truffle deals are all made cash in hand, thousands of Euros changing hands with nothing written down.
I will now share with you a very sad story of a man in his early 30s, living in southern France who cultivated truffles as a sideline business to support his young family. Unfortunately, members of the local truffle cultivating community found evidence of a truffle thief visiting during the night and making off with their black diamonds. The farmers, foolishly, did not report this to the police for fear of calling attention to their own (untaxed) truffle businesses. So instead, the worried farmers guarded their prize-laden lands. On discovering the thief in the night in his truffière, the young farmer shot him dead and landed in jail. He shot him once in the leg and once in the head. A terrifyingly gruesome conclusion showing us what can happen when greed and desperation are allowed to get the better of us.
Back in 2005, there was a huge scale truffle heist in Provence, France. The night-vision goggled villains made off via rope ladders with €100,000 worth of Périgord black truffles. Since then, companies have had to invest in special security equipment to keep thieves from ramming trucks into truffle warehouses.
Sadly, I have read about the problems the innocent truffle dogs face in Piedmont. Of course, you may have seen the award winning Documentary ‘The Truffle Hunters’ and are already aware of the shadows that are being cast on what is a miracle of nature. The dogs that hunt the tubers face the threat of rival hunters’ poison. As yet, the Piedmont White Truffle, Tuber Magnatum, has not yet been able to be cultivated on any scale and as such territories for these truffles are highly fought over. The ‘old school’ method of was to put poison in meatballs (only in Italy!) and leave them around the woods in truffle regions. But as these horrific tactics have been cottoned on to, the fiends have begun poisoning puddles so the dog can't even pause for a drink without dicing with death. Remo Damosso, a veterinarian with a practice near Alba, estimated he sees three or four poisoned dogs per week during the truffle-hunting season from September to December, killed by everything from rat poison to shards of glass. It is a devastating reality in Piedmont where the future of the industry must be in some doubt. For us, here in the Dordogne, we breathe a sigh of relief knowing that our futures, and our dogs, are looking a great deal safer.
Truffle-hunting dogs are also regularly stolen, not only to remove the competition, but also because they are themselves a valuable commodity. It would be difficult indeed to find a truffle without the help of your Lagotto.
Some crime associated with truffles is far less covert and sits right in the face of the consumer. Multitudes of 'truffle' products out there should also be made illegal - synthetically manufactured truffle oils and 'truffle' goods containing lesser quality truffles are lining up to assault the senses. This deliberately misleading packaging (by not stating the type of truffle) is on par with those manufacturers that have been caught cutting lower quality truffles into high-grade ones like flour into cocaine.
Luckily for us we have encountered nothing but encouragement and welcome from our local truffle farmers. But we are always careful to keep to our own land. As even as I write, Chris is installing a sturdy gate and fence to prevent our incredible little truffle magnet wandering off for a truffle spree of his own!
I suppose in some ways, the dark side of truffles adds to their mystery and appeal. But before you dig another man’s turf or close a shady deal, remember that although these delicious little morsels can be cooked in a multitude of ways, poaching truffles is most definitely a recipe for disaster.