Going Underground in the Truffle Market’s Dark Economy

Book review: The Truffle Underground, by Ryan Jacobs (Amazon / Book Depository)

The larger industry has managed to manufacture an image of pure beauty and romance for its consumers. “They see the truffle on the table…but before that, they don’t know anything. They don’t know the underworld.”

Truffles, one of the priciest delicacies you can spend your money on, have a complex economic supply chain that extends far beyond the awareness of their wealthy consumers. The finest and most sought-after varieties are naturally the most costly – the Alba white truffle, Tuber magnatum pico, or black winter truffle, Tuber melanosporum. But where there’s a lot of money to be made, fraud, theft, deceit, sabotage, and even darker criminal elements find footholds, and so it’s been in the dark, secretive economy behind the world’s most expensive fungus.

Ryan Jacobs, an investigative reporter with outlets including The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and currently deputy editor and investigations lead at Pacific Standard, deep dives into the mysterious market environment in which diners are willing to pay sky-high prices for the privilege of having rare, exclusive tubers on their plates without always knowing what they’re actually eating. Interviewing many links along this supply chain, from truffle hunters and dog trainers to product inspectors and internationally renowned traders, he uncovers the numerous loopholes where fraud of various stripes is rife in the famously secretive industry.

He also fascinatingly covers why truffles are so precious. Just that one exists is something of a marvel:

The truffle’s existence and scarcity depend on a long and circuitous collision of natural events that the spore and later fungus must encounter before it even has the chance to fruit. Against chance, many hundreds of conditions must align. And even when they do, the truffle presents only a narrow window of opportunity for foragers to harvest, before it rots in the ground.

A major aspect of the criminal underworld in this market revolves around truffle-sniffing dogs. We learn dogs are used more often than pigs, because it’s easier to train them to drop the truffle if it’s in their mouths. Truffle hunters spend great amounts of time and money training their dogs, but rival hunters plant poisoned meatballs, either to eliminate promising dogs or scare them off truffle-rich territory. It’s vicious and disturbing.

I was surprised to learn how little regulation exists in this industry, quite simply: “There are no truffle regulators to ensure the sanctity and purity of the product that ends up on plates across the world.” This seems unbelievable, not only because of the massive amounts of money involved, but how relatively easy it is to trick people. It’s up to sometimes unscrupulous dealers, and major, long-established supplier companies have been involved in grifting despite their promises of experienced, deeply knowledgeable buyers.

Even truffle aficionados don’t always seem to know what they’re eating, making easy marks for cheap product with high prices – Jacobs calls it a “geographic grift” using lesser fungi grown in Slovenia and Hungary and alleged to be the real Italian deal. He describes “truffle fraudsters” as “understand[ing] who their target market is: diners looking to buy truffles for what they represent – class, wealth, refinement – rather than for what they really are.” Beware any product with a low price point claiming to be the prized black or white truffles, as it’s more likely made with cheap infused oils or poor-quality, junky leftovers swept off the floor, basically. A supermarket truffle pizza is the store-brand 99-cent hot dog of the truffle world, unfortunately. With truffles, if it seems too good — or inexpensive — to be true, it is.

Then there’s the unusual, difficult nature of the forest-to-table harvesting and marketing endeavor. It’s difficult, labor-intensive with potentially low reward, and not adaptable to any easy modern methodology:

The farmer must pry his prizes from the hound’s mouth, drive them to market, and approach a middleman, who has the audacity to haggle him down from his asking price, if he’s intrigued enough by the shape and quality of the specimens to make an offer at all. It’s a medieval undertaking in a smartphone world.

As well written and fascinating as some parts were, I did find that I’m not quite as interested in the topic as I thought I’d be. This isn’t any fault of the author’s – sometimes in a book with a topic I’m moderately interested in, I end up surprised how invested I become over the course of it, and sometimes it just goes the other way. I’m not a truffle fan myself, and perhaps being one is a necessary prerequisite to fully appreciate this exposé.

For those who are, this provides an eerie, unsettling, and detailed account of what the process entails, from a truffle’s delicate growth to getting it on a table, especially if the dish is expensive and the truffle allegedly a finer one. You get what you pay for is extremely applicable here. Although it seems that the world of truffles is one in which, even if you’re willing to shell out the big bucks, you may not be getting what you think. Fast-paced, information-packed, and endlessly surprising. 3/5

The Truffle Underground:
A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus 

by Ryan Jacobs
published June 4, 2019 by Clarkson Potter

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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11 thoughts on “Going Underground in the Truffle Market’s Dark Economy

    1. You and me both! I’ve never had a high-end one, just a truffle gnocchi once. The lady sitting next to our table told us it was amazing, she comes to the restaurant just for that, etc. Honestly? Nothing special. But it wasn’t that pricey, and what I learned here is that that means it’s a very low quality, sort of truffle-related product, there’s just no possible way to offer anything high quality at less than luxury prices. I’d love to know what the fuss is over the fancy ones, but don’t see that changing anytime in my future, either! I suppose somehow we’ll get by 🙂

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  1. I am not a foodie so don’t think this is a book for me. Interested in learning how they get the dog to drop the truffle – I struggle to get my own dog to let go of anything and have been know to prise his jaws apart to stop him eating something harmful – he has no common sense!

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    1. I thought I was enough of a foodie to enjoy it but I’m not into truffles, and that does seem to be a prerequisite here! They train the dogs to get a different treat if they drop the truffle, and the dogs are very specialized hunting breeds so I think easier to train than your dog, sounds like 😂 but pigs wouldn’t respond to even that and sometimes they ripped the truffle out with a hook!!! It’s awful what people do to animals so we can sell some fancy mushrooms for a lot of money, UGH!

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  2. I’m very intrigued by this one! It’s possible I’ll also find myself less interested than I expect when I pick it up, but it seems to fit well with my interest in off-beat jobs 🙂

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