The Truffle Tragedy

French Périgord truffles prepared on top of toasted bread slices

Traditional gastronomic presentation of French Périgord truffles

Another French product is in jeopardy – and this time, Americanization is not to blame. French truffles are in serious danger of being out-competed by cheap Chinese versions in an apparent “black market” truffle trade.

French truffles are among the most expensive foods in the world by weight. Going for around €500 per kilogram, black French truffles from the Périgord region in the Southwest, are considered one of the most luxurious symbols of high French cuisine and gastronomic heritage. Along with geographically benevolent vineyard soil, French truffles are considered one of France’s most prized natural culinary possessions. As such, they command an extremely high price. The financial benefits are attractive not only to French truffle growers, but to imitators, specifically those in China who can produce a close imposter for a much lower price. Chinese truffles go for around €30 per kilogram, so when marketed as the authentic French variety, they see an insane profit margin. Ultimately it is France’s own chefs, struggling in the face of changing consumer habits (as examined in an earlier post), who turn to cheap ingredient substitutes in an attempt to cut costs. According to the Telegraph, French chefs are buying Chinese fakes and spraying them with the scent of authentic Périgord truffles. While the Périgord has been genetically mapped and scientists are able to tell the difference through a smell test, the Telegraph also reports that France’s national consumer fraud body estimated that in 2012, 10-15% of samples tested were actually Chinese counterfeit truffles.

French Périgord Truffle

French Périgord Truffle

So is there just an economic incentive here, and if so, how is it really worth it to import truffles all the way from China? Ultimately the truffle scandal is another effect of globalization. A combination of heightened demand, population growth, and environmental factors has driven French Périgord production down from 800 tons to 50 tons in the last century. As with the ortolan, the increased popularity and French population combined with shrinking resources means that delicacies suddenly become more delicate, in every sense of the word. The increasing rarity of truffles drives the price up even further, and combined with their status as an essential part of French gastronomic history, producing fakes seems like an obvious financial move. In this case, the exploitation of French culture is not a sales tactic but a blatant attempt at fraud. The fake Chinese truffles can be mixed in by chefs and buried in a dish served to an unsuspecting customer, or even worse, mixed in with other truffles at one of France’s traditional markets.

Delicacies suddenly become more delicate, in every sense of the word.

Chinese truffles: steamed dumplings with a truffle garnish

Chinese truffles: steamed dumplings with a truffle garnish

But there is hope. Not all of France’s national culinary treasures are being devastated, and those that are in danger have a strict sense of culinary heritage and protection that translates into law quite easily. While this strong penchant for tradition might mean an unwillingness to change culinary habits or to let go of an ingredient that is no longer viable, it also means that France is willing to take legislative measures to protect its prized traditions. French truffle growers are calling for the Périgord truffle to be awarde its own appellation, a marker of French culinary heritage specific to the region a product comes from and, when applicable, the way it is prepared. Ultimately the French government has agreed to invest an additional €200,000 euros annually over a seven-year agreement to revitalize the French truffle industry, a clear statement of where French priorities are. Unfortunately the trees that produce truffles (lime, oak, and hazel trees) take about a decade to do so, so the issue may persist in the meantime.

Truffles may be threatened by Chinese fakes, but France’s rich culinary tradition and history of gastronomic excellence gives them the solid groundwork to combat the threat and retain the high quality of French ingredients. Unfortunately, in saving the Périgord truffle, it appears that the price might be driven up even further, until the prized mushroom is simply a remnant of expensive nostalgia for many of France’s elite.

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