Fungus and the bogeymen

A tiny village in south-west France is the centre of the secretive truffle trade. But now, reports Mark Smith, it is threatened by a Chinese invader
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A STRANGER at the Tuesday afternoon truffle market in Lalbenque, deep in the heartland of south-west France, will find the streets deathly quiet. Past the padlocked storefronts of boulangeries and charcuteries, two rows of low wooden benches will stretch silently up the gentle incline of the main street. The market will seem long since abandoned.

This little village - concealed amid the rolling hills of vineyards and dark oak trees on the fertile rim of the Lot valley - is the hub of one of the world's most secretive food industries. Last week, it was also the centre of a storm over a multi-million francs counterfeit operation that has put at stake the reputations of villages, the country's top restaurants and the good name of haute cuisine itself.

Lalbenque closed in on itself after press reports alleged that an inferior fungus had been fraudulently passed off in the village as the esteemed and revered French Black truffle. In the little world of trufficulture, this is the crime of the century.

Gastronomically speaking, the French Black truffle is one of the world's most sought-after delicacies, reverentially referred to as the Diamont Noir or "Black Diamond". With a market price of up to Fr3,500 (£420) a kilo, bogus dealings in this purist business are trs serieux.

The scam has come in the form of the wart-encrusted Tuber himalay-ense, now notoriously known as the Chinese truffle. Connoisseurs and scientists alike have condemned it as tasteless, scentless and, above all, not French. But in appearance it is indistinguishable from the authentic French Black truffle, and it can be purchased at a fifth of the cost.

Since the beginning of the year, 20 tons of these Chinese duds have flooded into France, an alarming quantity when last year's total output of authentic French Blacks was only 22 tons. Even more alarming is the market value of the so-called "Chinese invasion" - Fr70 million (£8.25m). It could be argued, however, that it's the cloak-and-dagger nature of the industry that has allowed it to become the perfect spawning ground for the hoax.

Walking up the main street, the southern French winter sun slanting down, a stranger will gradually become aware of a kind of low murmuring. The two village bars, the Caf de France and the Hotel du Lion d'Or, both jammed with people, face each other across the empty market. An outsider entering either establishment will bring an abrupt halt to the muttered conversation.

Inside the Caf de France, groups of truffists, wearing large, black berets and with plastic bags in their fists, stood in tight groups, speaking quietly and downing measures of Calvados. Across in the Hotel du Lion d'Or, tables were packed with buyers - women in furs and men with gold chains and fat cigars. They were chefs, middlemen, delicatessen owners and the Paris rich. The atmosphere was tense and suspicious.

For centuries, the trade in truffles has been shrouded in secrecy. Cheques are not accepted and receipts are never given. The French truffist is not eager to declare his earnings. But he is as keen to protect his sources as the middlemen who sell the truffles on to the world's top restaurants and the Paris delicatessens, where the kilo price last month was as high as Fr7,000 (£875).

Adding a sense of urgency to the business at hand, fresh truffles have a shelf life of only three weeks, after which there is a rapid deterioration in quality. Each year, a proportion of the total production is processed, but top chefs will only cook with the fresh product. It is believed that with processing, 90 per cent of the flavour and aroma is lost. Nor can a customer test the goods before purchase. Buyers can handle or sniff the revered black lumps (some the size of cricket balls) but tasting or cutting them open is not permitted.

The Lalbenque market was billed to begin at 2.30pm. But at 2pm, one of the truffists from the Caf de France made his move. He strode quickly into the street, pulling from his plastic bag a little basket, which he set on a wooden bench. There was probably about £1,500 worth there. The other truffists followed quickly, emptying the caf in seconds.

Almost at the same moment, the Hotel du Lion d'Or emptied. There was a flurry of activity as the street filled. Some buyers put their noses to the truffles, others fondled them, still others ran to the weighing machine at the Mairie. Then, suddenly, not more than 15 minutes later, the market dispersed as abruptly as it began. Once again, the street was eerily empty.

But business was far from over. The rest of the dealing continued in the two empty lots that served as car parks, one near a barn that was all walls and no roof. From the boots of old Renault estates and dented 2CV vans, bags of truffles were exchanged furtively for fat wads of 100, 200 and 500 franc notes. At least Fr90,000 (£l0,500) and 30 kilos of truffles changed hands.

Press reports alleging that Lal-benque truffists had passed off Chinese truffles were inaccurate, but the implications of fraud at the principal market in France became a matter of national concern. French legislators are now looking at ways to control the huge influx of Chinese duds into France and a new law is expected later this year to prevent the Tuber himalayense being sold on the open market. However, the Chinese truffle will still be available in France through mail order and the numerous Italian agents. So the problem is not likely to disappear by next season.

"Any legislation that does not immediately halt the integration of the noble French Black truffle with other inferior varieties would be disastrous," said Pierre Sourzat, head of the government-sponsored truffle cultivation scheme in the Prigord region. "The French truffle industry has already been flooded with hoaxes. This year is the first time the Chinese truffle has appeared on the open market, which is of enormous concern to us.

"If the quality and name of the French Black truffle are compromised any further, we may find that the traditional market can no longer maintain itself commercially, and may disappear completely."

At the less prestigious Riche-renches market, and some other markets in Provence, Chinese truffles were found to be impregnated with the scent of the French variety, thus creating the perfect bogus truffle.

"If Chinese truffles are mixed in with French truffles, not even the most discerning of connoisseurs could pick out the hoax," said Sourzat. "We believe the operation is being controlled from Italy, where massive quantities of Chinese truffles are being purchased from Asia, and then brought over the border into France. And we think it's only a matter of time before some of the country's top restaurants are caught passing off the Chinese truffle as French. We are certain it goes on at all levels."

The French Black truffle is the mushroom fruiting body of a particular fungus, the Tuber melanosporum, that grows a few centimetres underground in symbiotic association with the roots of oak and hazelnut trees. The edible portion forms in the autumn and harvesting takes place in winter once the truffle has matured.

Its uniquely pungent odour, rich, delicate flesh, its rarity and the traditions associated with its discovery have for centuries filled the hearts of the French with gastronomic pride. France is the only place in the world where the Tuber melanosporum will grow naturally.

The ancient Greeks and Romans attributed therapeutic and aphrodisiac powers to the French Black truffle, beliefs still in vogue in the last century. The celebrated 18th-century French gourmet, Brillat Savaurin, in his La Psychologie de Gout ("The Psychology of Taste"), claimed that truffles "aroused erotic and gastronomic memories among the skirted sex, and memories gastronomic and erotic among the bearded sex". Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, described them as the "gastronomic holy of holies".

The mystery of the truffle begins with its discovery. Generally, there are three accepted ways to hunt it. The first technique involves a female pig, the classic and most foolproof truffle detector known to man. Recent German research has shown that the truffle contains a steroid produced by male pigs during pre-mating behaviour. This steroid acts as a pheromone, hence the attraction for the female pig.

The only snag is that it is difficult to control a pig on the brink of ecstasy. It is not surprising, therefore, that dogs have become much more popular in recent years. Unlike pigs, dogs do not dig instinctively for truffles. They are trained with a slice of dry sausage dipped in truffle sauce, so the dog can associate the scent of the fungus with his favourite snack.

The final method involves poking around the base of hazelnut and oak trees with a stick. If an insect rises from the roots, you may have disturbed a member of the truffle fly family, which lay their eggs on the esteemed fungus. Many truffists have adopted this technique because walking around with a stick is less obvious than walking around with a pig, and secrecy can more easily be preserved.

Around the turn of the century there was a lively trade in English truffles (Tuber aestivum) around the Winterslow area of Wiltshire, where they were sniffed out from the roots of beech trees by Spanish poodles. But the trade died out with the retirement of the last English truffle hunter, Alfred Collins, in 1930.

Legend has it that Alfred could smell truffles and feel them underfoot. On his best days, he collected as many as 25lbs. In 1920, he put his price up to 2s 6d per pound, but by the time he retired he could get 5s 6d per pound (only 2712p in modern money but quite a tidy sum in 1930). Alfred, however, died a poor man. His father once found a truffle weighing more than 2lbs, which he sent to Queen Victoria, who replied saying she would send him her portrait. Several weeks later a silver coin arrived with the image of the monarch on it.

Toward the end of the last century, France produced up to 1,000 tons of French Black truffles. Since then, output has fallen dramatically, mainly because of the abandonment of land cultivation, deforestation and possibly acid rain. In the 1960s, when the yearly output was down to four tonnes, the French government undertook an extensive research programme in an effort to save the industry. By the 1970s, a technique to inoculate oak and hazelnut trees was developed and achieved some limited success. A number of companies using this technology under licence have produced and marketed several hundred thousand trees, but as much as 70 per cent of truffles still come from native oak and hazelnut forests.

What makes a truffle grow is one of nature's enduring mysteries. Current scientific thinking leans towards a good spring and autumn rain, soil temperature, pH levels, calcium content and latitudinal meridian.

"If the market is left unfettered by cheap and inferior imitations, I believe the future is bright for the truffle industry," said Pierre Sourzat. "But all our efforts will be in vain if the Chinese truffle continues to be mixed and confused with the beautiful and delicious black diamond."

The future of the truffle is not all doom and gloom. With aid of French technology, various other countries - including Italy, Spain, the United States, Israel, New Zealand and Australia - have been attempting to grow the prized Tuber melanosporum. In 1991, a team based in Oregon produced the first French Black truffle outside France. And in 1993, New Zealand produced the first truffle south of the equator.

Most pertinent to France is the Australian experiment. Based on Tasmania, a soil scientist, Duncan Garvey, and a farmer, Peter Cooper, purchased French tree-inoculation technology in the early 1990s. Next year they plan to supply France with their produce, allowing gourmets in the northern hemisphere their first chance to taste French Black truffles six months out of season.

"The Chinese Truffle invasion of France is a big problem," said Dun-can Garvey. "I think when the Chinese take an interest in anything, we have to take it seriously. However, the fact that we will be supplying France during the summer months can only be a good thing for the industry as a whole. Apart from the fact of it being the first time truffles have been available in France out of season, summer buyers can be sure of getting the real thing.

"We hope to be reinstating the good name of the French Black to France. It's a bit like taking the truffle home. We don't see ourselves competing with the French truffle market, but rather, complementing it."

Although their company, Prigord Truffles of Tasmania, is not expected to produce its first crop of truffles until 1996, a 200 hectare plantation, which is expected to yield 12 tonnes of black gold, is planned before the end of the decade.

Garvey added: "The potential became clear to us when we realised that Tasmania's geographic, climatic and soil attributes were almost identical to the principal truffle growing regions of Europe. New Zealand has already proven that truffles can be grown in the southern hemisphere.

"I think that most of the French trufflers I spoke to thought I was crazy when I suggested selling truffles to France - but gradually the idea of eating truffles in both summer and winter has become very appealing to them."

So, with the Chinese threat and so many other countries poised to profit from this pungent and exquisite fungus, does all this spell the end of France's place as the truffle king of the world?

Pierre Sourzat commented: "We welcome all efforts that would return the integrity of the French Black truffle to its former glory. If that integrity comes from the other side of the world, we won't complain." !