On the Prowl in Provence With the Truffle Enforcer
Monday, December 18, 2006
RICHERENCHES, France -- Truffle inspector Rene Roudiere walks his beat armed with a razor-sharp penknife and clear plastic baggies.
In a warehouse, he plucks a lumpy black truffle from a tray and shaves off a moon-shaped slice. Too many white veins, not yet ripe. Next one: Caterpillars have burrowed deep into its insides, turning them spongy. Next: a perfect specimen, firm, charcoal black, with only a hint of white veining.
In the truffle markets of Provence, conditions couldn't be riper for truffle fraud: Worldwide demand for the homely delicacy -- a rare fungus that retails for $1,200 a pound in upscale Parisian gourmet shops -- is rocketing at the same time that truffle production is plummeting because of the worst droughts in modern European history.
Roudiere prowls markets and peruses restaurant menus in his Provencal district in search of cheap Chinese imports -- a different biological variety -- masquerading as French black truffles, or of French rejects being peddled as premium "black diamonds."
"It's hard to tell the quality of something full of mud, even for people who know what to look for," said Roudiere, one of the top truffle specialists at the department of competition, consumption and fraud prevention, a wing of the finance ministry. "Since it's difficult to identify, it's easy to counterfeit."
Richerenches, a village of 300 inhabitants about an hour's drive north of Avignon, has the largest fresh truffle market in France. Wholesale prices typically triple at year's end as the holiday season brings increased demand. This year, dirt-encrusted French black truffles are selling to wholesalers for up to $600 a pound, half of what they'll fetch when they're resold retail. A pound of Chinese truffles wholesale costs about $60.
Shrinking supply is also driving up prices. Over the past four seasons, truffle production in Provence has plummeted 70 percent, from 33,000 pounds harvested in the winter of 2002 to 9,680 pounds last year, according to ministry records. Truffle production nationwide last year was about 74,000 pounds, half the yields of a decade ago. Neighboring Italy and Spain also report diminished truffle yields because of dry weather.
"The harvests are decreasing dramatically," said Michel Courvoisier, who heads the French Federation of Truffle Producers.
"It's mostly due to climate changes. We've had recurring droughts in the past five years, which had a terrible effect on truffles."
Truffles grow among the roots of small scrub oaks and chestnut trees and require plentiful spring and summer rains to reach full maturity in the months from November to February, when they are harvested. The potato-shaped fungus is cultivated by farmers or dug up in the wild.
They've become so valuable that many truffle hunters in this region have stopped locating them with pigs, which often gobble the truffles as quickly as they find them. Better to use dogs, which leave the buried treasure alone, preferring meat treats over the woodsy flavor of something that looks like a dirt clod.
Pierre Andre Valayer, 43, a fourth-generation Richerenches truffle broker who buys from local growers, or trufficulteurs, and resells to large canneries or restaurants, said he fears his trade will not survive a fifth generation because of declining production.