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

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

by Ryan Jacobs


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“The ultimate truffle true crime tale”*: A thrilling journey through the hidden underworld of the world's most prized luxury ingredient.

*Bianca Bosker, New York Times bestselling author of Cork Dork

Beneath the gloss of star chefs and crystal-laden tables, the truffle supply chain is touched by theft, secrecy, sabotage, and fraud. Farmers patrol their fields with rifles and fear losing trade secrets to spies. Hunters plant poisoned meatballs to eliminate rival truffle-hunting dogs. Naive buyers and even knowledgeable experts are duped by liars and counterfeits.

Deeply reported and elegantly written, this page-turning exposé documents the dark, sometimes deadly crimes at each level of the truffle’s path from ground to plate, making sense of an industry that traffics in scarcity, seduction, and cash. Through it all, a question lingers: What, other than money, draws people to these dirt-covered jewels?

Praise for The Truffle Underground

“Investigative journalist and first-time author Jacobs does a remarkable job reporting from the front lines of the truffle industry, bringing to vivid life French black-truffle farmers, Italian white-truffle foragers, and their marvelously well-trained dogs.”Booklist (starred review)

“In The Truffle Underground, Ryan Jacobs presents a lively exposé of the truffle industry, reporting on the crimes that ‘haunt the whole supply chain.’ . . . Even if truffles are beyond your pay grade, there is plenty of enjoyment to be had in the sheer devilment portrayed in this informative and appetizing book.”The Wall Street Journal

“You’ll never look at truffle fries the same way after reading this book. . . .  You can practically smell the soil as you follow truffle farmers and bandits through the groves and fields of France and Italy where the fungi are harvested and stolen.”Outside, “Five Favorite Summer Reads”

“[The] book is a rigorously reported, carefully written, endlessly interesting immersion in a high-stakes subculture.”San Francisco Chronicle

“Jacobs takes us on an eye-opening journey through the prized mushroom’s supply chain and the global black market for these tubers in this tale of theft, deceit, and high-stakes secrets.”Real Simple

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451495693
Publisher: Clarkson Potter/Ten Speed
Publication date: 06/04/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 309,751
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ryan Jacobs is an investigative reporter and has written for The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and Pacific Standard, where he serves as deputy editor and leads the magazine’s investigations desk. Before joining Pacific Standard, he covered international crime for The Atlantic’s global channel, reporting on the largest diamond heist in French history, international carbon market scams, and the dark side of the truffle trade, among other subjects of intrigue. He graduated summa cum laude from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter one

Black Diamond Bandits

At nightfall, the thieves dropped rope ladders through ceiling ducts and drove trucks through warehouse walls. They scaled roofs, broke locks, ripped refrigerator doors off their hinges. They wore night-vision goggles and slinked into private oak groves, their guards holding rifles and standing watch. Their hounds wove quietly through columns of stalky trees, snouts working chalky soils for a scent of the quarry. When the hounds’ paws scratched, the men darted toward patches of burnt earth and shoveled shallow holes with precision and speed. When their bags bulged, they screeched past moonlit vineyards onto country roads, into darkness. And they did all this not for cash, or for jewelry, or for art. It was for les truffes, the truffles.

By the time the winter sun rose each morning over the dusty peak of Mont Ventoux in 2005, large quantities of Provence’s finest black winter truffle—worth €500, €600, or even €1,000 per kilo on the commercial market—had vanished from company storage rooms, middlemen’s refrigerators, and, most frequently, the soils where hopeful farmers in the region of Vaucluse had once planted oak saplings inoculated with fungal spores. Victims reported the losses to the local gendarmerie, France’s military police, but the heists—occurring randomly across large stretches of agricultural land—proved difficult to solve and to marshal serious resources for. The village authorities occasionally recovered abandoned trucks and stolen rope but rarely located the product or witnesses with useful leads. Though American eaters typically think of truffles as foraged foods, found in misty stands of wild forest, the majority of the French supply of black winter truffles comes from the small and inconsistent yields of cultivated oak groves on the outskirts of several rural villages in the southeastern section of the country; farmers still have to search for the truffles, but at least they have some sense of where to look, as do the thieves.

On the narrow streets of Carpentras and Richerenches, the villages where the region’s two main truffle markets are held, farmers swapped intelligence on the latest trespasses and nervously wondered if they would be targeted next. The thousands or even tens of thousands in lost sales would slow and harden the passage of winter, when there were few other things to nurture or sell. And the poachers’ careless digging would disrupt the delicate symbiosis the truffle spores had found with their host tree’s roots, cutting into a lifetime of potential earnings and violating the sanctity of a years- and sometimes generations-long relationship between a man and his capricious grove. Only farmers who had planted, irrigated, pruned, and worried over their trees had the right to dig for their buried fruit; only they understood the improbability of their enterprise and the importance of scraping damp soil back over the holes.

Eventually, rumors devolved into paranoia and fear. Farmers suspected jealous neighbors and business rivals, and began patrolling their groves late on cold winter nights, clutching their hunting rifles.

Out of caution, some took out insurance policies on their product. The victims who already had them filed claims. One targeted trader was reimbursed with €76,000, on the condition that he improve his security system. The way the insurance brokers spoke about the necessity of the improvements, it was as if the countrymen had suddenly developed a weakness for exhibiting rare pieces of Chagall or wearing custom designs from Cartier.

But these missing black winter truffles were not unlike stolen jewels. The species Tuber melanosporum, known by the French as the black diamond or black pearl, is revered as one of the finest, scarcest, and most valuable ingredients in fine dining.

Even without criminal interference, a truffle’s journey from spore to plate is so fraught with biological uncertainty, economic competition, and logistical headaches that a single shaving could be understood as a testament to the wonder of human civilization. After farmers plant inoculated saplings in suitable soil, the fruiting bodies of the fungi can take a decade before materializing below host trees, and even then, a hot summer, a pruning mishap, or an unexplained stroke of fate can rip them away. After decades of study, scientists still don’t fully understand the mechanics of their growth. Yields in France have fallen dramatically for more than a century, first because of disruptions to and closures of truffle orchards during the world wars and later from rural development, declining precipitation, and higher temperatures. Or at least that’s what most truffle scientists theorize. No one seems to truly understand why farmers have had such trouble returning to the gilded yields of the twentieth century’s turn.

And when truffles do form, a farmer doesn’t harvest as much as he hunts. Unlike most crops, they don’t all come in at once. Over a few months, they appear in fits and spurts, in different places throughout the grove, and with little to no external clues about where they are. A farmer dawdles through his rows with an expensive and expertly trained dog, until the pet locates the scent of a black bulb buried in mud. Mark by mark, the farmer digs upon his canine’s indication, often with no results. 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.

Once sold, the truffle makes its way, occasionally through secretive back channels, from a middleman’s hand to a restaurant’s kitchen, usually in less than thirty-six hours. The truffle is as fleeting as a cloud: With each passing minute, the fungus shrinks in size, dissipates in aroma and flavor, and edges closer to rot. No serious restaurant will buy a truffle that is more than ten days old.

Each winter, the world’s fine-dining chefs compete—sometimes hysterically—over a limited global supply, personally inspect them for flaws the instant they arrive in the kitchen, and prepare the dishes they’re featured on with the precision and concern a master gemologist takes to the polish of a final setting. The gnarled and pebbled black lumps are finally shaved—often at the table—over buttered tagliatelle noodles, farm-raised eggs, or foie gras, at a cost of more than a hundred dollars per serving. The thin slivers reveal brilliant white veins that snake through the dark center of the fungus. But by themselves, whole truffles look a bit like the strange, mangled droppings of a forest troll.

Truffles can make the people who eat them behave in strange ways. Puff Daddy once indelicately requested that the French celebrity chef Daniel Boulud (of Daniel in Manhattan) “shave that bitch” over his plate. Oprah refuses to travel without ensuring that she, her assistant, and her security detail have packed surplus truffle salt. In 2010, at an international auction benefitting charity, the Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho placed a winning bid of $330,000 for two large pieces of white truffle, or Tuber magnatum pico—a rarer, smoother-surfaced, and more expensive species (a kilo routinely wholesales for more than $7,000) with a pale yellow-brown complexion that cannot be cultivated and can only be found in a few places on earth. The anonymously wealthy ask their pilots to fly their helicopters directly from Monte Carlo to northern Italy for the express purpose of eating large, fresh white truffles at lunch, complete with €1,500 tips for the waitstaff. Others jet from Florida mansions to New York warehouses just to inspect their truffles before they purchase them.

But the task of cogently explicating the allure of truffles can transform even the fiercest food critics into hopeless, salivating romantics. The late Time magazine columnist Josh Ozersky once mused that the white truffle’s scent recalled “the pungent memory of lost youth and old love affairs.” Truffles, he wrote, gave him “something to aspire to, to talk about, to dream of and to save up for. In a world where essentially everything is available to everybody at all times, give or take a few seasonal vegetables, [their] rarity is luminous and riveting.”

Asking even seasoned chefs and truffle industry insiders to describe what the fungus tastes or smells like is a bit like asking a priest why he believes in God. There are words and descriptors, sure, but they are only symbols of an experience. The truffle smells of cold mountain air, of forest and leaf litter, of wet earth. Its taste corresponds to these wild smells, but it also transcends them: It is one of the few foods that can take a mind to its source, even if the person that mind belongs to has never traveled there before. You are eating years of nature’s labor, many mornings of a truffle dog’s sniffing search, and a moment of exhilarating discovery. You are eating secrets, mystery, and danger too.

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