“I was reporting on international news from Washington, D.C., and this story came up about ‘porcini foragers at large in the German forest,'” he says. “According to the article, these guys had been foraging in an area they weren’t supposed to be in and they ran over a forestry guard that approached them and essentially backed up over his leg and were never caught. I called this guy in the U.K. who was an expert on porcini foraging and asked if there was something more to this in the porcini trade. He said no, and I was feeling kind of deflated like, ‘I guess this isn’t a story,’ but before we got off the phone, he said, ‘if you really want a crime story, look at truffles.’ That’s how the whole thing started.”
The ‘thing’ began as a 2014 Atlantic article on the shockingly competitive and cutthroat world of truffle hunting that Jacobs later developed into 2019’s critically acclaimed book “The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus.” The exposé brought to life “a love story that’s as seductive as the buttery fungus” according to bestselling author Derek Thompson. So what’s the true story of truffles, and why are these mushrooms (not the chocolates, sorry — we’ll get to that) so sought-after and so, so expensive?
What Are Truffles?
First things first: The truffles in question here are fungi. Yes, there are delicious, buttery chocolate treats that go by the same name, but the moniker is all they have in common besides their lumpy shape. True truffles are subterranean tubers unlike their similar but distinct relatives, mushrooms, which sprout above ground. Unlike mushrooms, which disperse their spores out in the open, truffles “prefer to have sex in the dark,” according to Boston magazine, meaning existing plants rely on animals to dig up their sacs of spores and distribute them throughout the surrounding area through their feces. Hunters originally used wild pigs for this task for a good reason: Truffles contain androstenol, a sex hormone that acts as a sort of aphrodisiac for the animal, attracting it directly to the source of the scent.
“Wild pigs are naturally attracted to truffles because the aromatic compounds are similar to the pigs’ sexual pheromones so they like to dig them up and eat them,” says Ken Frank in a phone interview. Frank is executive chef and owner of the Napa, California, restaurant, La Toque, which has hosted an annual all black truffle dinner for nearly 38 years.
Over the years, however, hunters have mostly transitioned from using wild pigs to employing dogs to dig up truffles. The reason? “Practicality,” Frank says. “First of all, a dog makes a great pet and might weigh 30-40 pounds. A pig weighs hundreds of pounds — imagine shoving a pig in the back of your Fiat and driving through the foothills of Piemonte. Also, what do you do with a pig for the other nine months of the year that it’s not hunting truffles? You also have to fight the pig for the truffle because it doesn’t want to give it up.
“Originally, pigs were used because they don’t really require training — they know where to go. But dogs have great noses and you can make it into a game. The dog doesn’t want to eat the truffle, it just wants to play the game and please its master. It’s far more practical. Using pigs nowadays is very unusual.”
Where Do Truffles Grow?
Truffles come in black and white varieties and are grown in Italy, Spain, France, the U.K, Australia, Chile, South Africa, Sweden, Spain, New Zealand and, increasingly, the United States. The American Truffle Company (ATC) is invested in making the U.S. a more hospitable place for truffle growth.
“We conduct research and come up with scientific knowledge and data about how to grow truffles — specifically the European black truffle,” says ATC managing director and chief truffle officer Robert Chang. “We use that scientific know-how to help truffle farmers successfully grow truffles. Truffle farmers have been trying to grow in this country for 30-35 years without much success. In fact, the failure rate in this country is over 98 percent. That’s simply because the science of growing truffles is not out there.” In order to amp up successful cultivation in the States, Chang and his team partner with truffle farms, providing inoculated trees, ongoing scientific info on growth and analysis of progress.
“We also distribute the truffles once they’re harvested,” Chang says. “Broadly speaking, you need a Mediterranean climate, and in the U.S., that’s the entire west coast up and down from say, central California to the Canadian border. We also have suitable climates in the mid-Atlantic states — the Carolinas, Virginia, down through parts of southern Kentucky, northern Alabama, effectively the entire Appalachian mountain area. And then other selective areas around New Mexico and Arizona.”
Why Are Truffles So Expensive?
“The reason truffles are so expensive is because they’re so scarce,” Jacobs says. “It’s incredibly hard and time-consuming to find them and if we’re talking about white truffles, they only grow in a few areas of Italy, and some areas of Slovenia and Croatia. You have to have a dog and you need to go out in the woods at dusk or dawn.”
White truffles are considered the rarest variety of the species, so it’s no surprise they cost big bucks. But just how many big bucks might surprise you. In 2016, a 4.16-pound (1.88-kilogram) white truffle — the world’s largest — sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $61,250. And, if you can believe it, that price was something of a bargain considering a solid rainy season in Italy had caused wholesale prices to drop by 50 percent from 2014. To a phone bidder in China, it was actually a bargain price for the oversized fungus.
So why are white truffles so rare? “One of the reasons for that is the seasonality,” Jacobs explains. “White truffles tend to only grow starting in September and finishing up by December, so it’s a really short season. A lot of these guys who are doing this as supplemental income are really desperate to find as many as they can. And if you find an area in the forest where white truffles grow, chances are if you come back next season, they’ll grow there again. The legend or folklore is that even grandfathers won’t tell their grandsons the spots they go to until they’re basically about to die.”
While the Sotheby’s truffle was a major sale, its size made it something of an exception. Typical truffle sales are a bit more modest — but not by much. “At the consumer or commercial level, you can purchase essentially about 2.2 pounds [1 kilogram] of white truffles that’s worth anywhere between $4,427-$7,747, and it goes higher when there’s an especially bad season,” Jacobs says. “Black truffles are cheaper — like $1,107 a kilogram.”
“Exactly like mushrooms, which have thousands of different species, there are over 4,000 species of truffle,” Chang says. “So when you talk about truffles, you have to be careful because there are different species with wildly different price points. For example, in this country, there are indigenous truffles like Oregon truffles or Pecan truffles from Georgia. Those are true truffles, but they don’t have nearly the flavor or aroma as European black truffles. They cost around $50-100 a pound whereas European black truffles have been known to command $1,200 a pound.”
In terms of how that translates to the plate, the markup is somewhat astounding. “In Michelin Star restaurants in Los Angeles or Manhattan, you might pay $100 to $200 for a few grams of truffle — just a couple of shavings,” Jacobs says.
And while ATC is attempting to ramp up truffle production in the U.S., Chang says the increased supply won’t decrease cost as basic economic principles would suggest. “Normally when you cultivate something, you tend to increase supply and drive down the price,” Chang says. “That’s not the case for truffles. The worldwide supply of truffles has actually been declining very steadily over the last 30 years. One of the scientific papers we just published looked at the impact of climate change on truffles in Europe. Spain has the most truffles of any country in the world, and when you look at climate change and its impact, Spain is getting hotter and hotter in summer and experiencing severe droughts more frequently. Because of that, Spain will stop producing truffles in 30 years, and long before that, production will continue to decline. That’s also true for Italy and France.”
The Secrecy and Sabotage of the European Truffle Trade
As you might suspect from the scarce supply and the potential to cash in, competition in the truffle trade is intensely cutthroat. “I would say the most surprising thing I learned while writing the book was the fact that truffle hunters poison their rivals’ dogs,” Jacobs says. “I thought maybe this wasn’t as common as I’d heard, but when I got to Italy, I talked to a veterinarian in one of the most coveted areas near Alba where the most expensive truffles grow — white truffles. He had tons of stories about dogs coming in, mostly from truffle hunters, and it was just wild to hear a mythic thing corroborated by an official source. What he essentially told me was not only was he seeing a few dogs a week during the season, but that there were seven to ten other vets in the area receiving similar numbers.”
Jacobs adds that those numbers only reflect reported poisonings, and true stats could be significantly higher. “The thing about the truffle trade is that it’s super secretive,” he says. “I heard from multiple hunters and law officials that hunters had their dogs poisoned and wouldn’t report it out of fear of retribution. If they’re in an area that’s known to have great white truffles, they’ll either protect it by brutally poisoning someone’s dog or do less dangerous things like slashing other guys’ car tires, denting their hood or planting spikes on the dirt road near their favorite spot. They’re trying to discourage people from going into fruitful areas.”
What Is It About That Flavor?
At this point, you may be wondering what in the world the big deal is. Sure, truffles are rare. But is their flavor really that special? According to the pros, uh, yes.
“It’s hard to describe the flavor,” Frank says. “It’s not just that it’s earthy or pungent — to me, it’s also primal. It’s more than just the flavor, the smell reaches inside you and it’s really compelling and really grabs you and makes you pay attention whether you like it or not.”
But if you’re a truffle newbie, be careful. Frank says many food manufacturers have capitalized on truffle flavor and left the actual truffle out of the equation. “In the 1970s, Italian chemists finally isolated one of the flavor-producing compounds and successfully recreated it in a lab,” he says. “The problem is that first of all, truffles get their flavors from more than one compound. Also, people use way too much of it and it’s fake. It’s way too strong and what ends up happening is that you acclimate your palate to this similar but incorrect flavor and you’ll actually dull your ability to appreciate the subtle flavor of real truffles.”
“All so-called truffle products are fake and synthetic,” Chang adds. Things like truffle oil, honey, salt — they all kind of magically started to appear in the 1970s when scientists figured out what some of the major components of flavor were and started synthesizing those components. And so that’s why you see a proliferation of truffle fries and truffle chips — not because all of a sudden people started using real black truffle but because of the proliferation of the chemical 2,4 dithiapentane, the active ingredient in all truffle flavor.”
Freshness Is Key
Frank also adds that freshness is of the essence, since truffles lose their flavor and aroma at a rapid rate. “Canned truffles are OK, they’re not fake and frozen truffles are OK, they’re not fake,” he explains. “But once you can or freeze them, you kill the aroma and it no longer has that magic. The real key is to buy really fresh truffles and use them quickly because that aroma is elusive and dissipates over the period of a week, so it’s really exciting that in the next few years we’ll have truffles that you can get the same or next day.”