This Europe: Temperamental French truffle cannot live with the summer heat

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France faces a disastrous truffle harvest this winter - and for the next two winters - because the searing heat this summer has destroyed the breeding grounds of the temperamental and much-prized underground mushrooms.

Experts are predicting that few, if any, truffles will be found when the main collecting season begins in December, opening the floodgates to cheap but relatively tasteless truffles imported from China.

"The prolonged drought has been catastrophic for truffles in all the main truffle producing regions [of France]," said Albert Verlhac, the director of the national truffle research station at Chartrier-Ferrière in the Périgord area of the French south-west. "The 2003 harvest will be useless and probably the 2004 and 2005 harvests as well," M. Verlhac added.

In some areas of the French south, there has been almost no rain since February. The Tuber melanosporum or "black diamond" of the Périgord, which can sell for €250 (£175) a pound, needs regular downpours in the summer months to develop underground through a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain trees.

M. Verlhac said that these "truffle trees" had, in many cases, already lost their leaves in the heat and drought. Early loss of leaves, he said, was an "inexorable" sign that mycorisation - the process that produces truffles - had not occurred. In other words, the minuscule, baby truffles formed in circles around the tree roots had withered and disappeared.

France, which produced 35 tonnes of "black" truffles in the 2002-03 gathering season, is already suffering from an influx of a cheaper variety of Chinese truffle which, according to connoisseurs, have only a fraction of the taste of a European truffle and will ruin its mystique.