Truffle cheats unearthed

BALKAN IMPOSTORS are threatening the integrity of the prized white Alba truffle crop - to such an extent that experts are relying on a computerised nose to sniff out frauds.

They may not be dealing with diamonds but, at pounds 1,000 a kilogram, a truffle from Alba is no small gastronomic investment. The local tourist board is working with Turin University to ensure prospective buyers know they are getting the Real Thing.

At Alba's annual truffle fair, which began this weekend, a "smellometer" is for the first time helping human connoisseurs. The device, developed by researchers at Turin University, translates the odours released by a truffle to a graph on a computer. If the curve matches the standard Alba pattern, it is the genuine article. If it does not, the fungus has been slipped in under false pretences and can expect instant ejection from the world's most prestigious truffle mart.

For truffle-lovers, Alba's tuber magnatum pico is the fungus to beat all fungi. A shave or two adds the ultimate je ne sais quoi to the repertoires of the world's leading cooks.

But careless management of the woods where truffles once flourished, coupled with acid rain and pesticides, has brought about a steady decline in the quantity of fungi unearthed each autumn.

"Over the past 20 years, there has been a 40 per cent drop," said Agostino Aprile, chairman of the local truffle-pickers' association. "People don't care about their woods anymore. They don't clear out undergrowth or dead timber. In conditions like that, the fungi don't grow. Our dogs sniff out fewer truffles every year."

With supplies of the real thing dwindling, recent truffle fairs have seethed with ugly rumours of sub-standard substitutes from the Balkans finding their way onto the Alba market and being foisted off on unsuspecting truffle addicts.

"Nothing more than rumours," said tourist office spokesman Mauro Carbone. But the Alba authorities are taking no chances with a product which generates an estimated pounds 4m in its two-month season. "About 300,000 people will flock here from all over the world, just for our truffles," said Mr Carbone. "We'll try anything - even an electronic nose - to get the very best."