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Truffles are still rare and expensive

If you want an example of how the food boom has changed the tastes of the Indian middle class, you need look no further than our experience with truffles.

When I first wrote about them here nearly two decades ago, very few people had any idea what they were. Many people confused them with chocolate truffles. And even chefs, who had only read about truffles, knew very little about them.


I remember taking a white truffle to Travertino, the much-missed Italian restaurant at the Oberoi, New Delhi. The main chef and the manager were Italian, so they knew what to do with my truffle. But other chefs had no idea what a truffle looked or smelled like, so a crowd of chefs from all the kitchens in the hotel gathered at Travertino to examine this fabled object.


   Because all scents are hard to put into words, I fell back, in my column, on the standard descriptions of truffles: they smelt of old socks, or even that they exuded what seemed to be the bodily aromas we associate with sex.  This caused an uproar. Angry letters to the editor, denouncing me as a dirty pervert flooded in. (There was no Twitter then, thank God!)


   Fast forward to today. Most people who go to restaurants have some idea of what a truffle is. Many upmarket Italian restaurants in the big cities follow the lead of Ritu Dalmia of Diva (India’s truffle pioneer) and organise truffle festivals during the season (autumn to winter).


   And those who don’t want to bother with real truffles, use truffle oil. So, everything has truffles these days; truffle chips, truffle popcorn, truffle cheese, truffle pasta, truffle pizza and even truffle dim sum and truffle sushi.


   I wrote, in my original article, about how expensive truffles are—ounce for ounce, they are most expensive food in the world, more expensive even than caviar. Plus, I added, white truffles could only be found for a few months of the year—October to February. White truffles came from Alba in the north of Italy and grew wild, so supply was severely limited. Black truffles grew in the Perigord region of France and also had a season.


   So how, I wondered, were there suddenly enough truffles to go around? Twenty years ago I had written about the scarcity value of truffles. And yet, here they were now, turning up on speciality truffle menus all over the world.


   The truffle dim sum, truffle French fries etc., conundrum was easy to solve.  They were not made with truffles at all but with truffle oil. And truffle oil has as little in common with real truffles as, say, Yogi Adityanath has with Rahul Gandhi.


   By now, everyone with an interest in food (except Indian chefs, apparently), knows that truffle oil is usually a cheap oil (sometimes olive oil, sometimes rapeseed) flavoured with a synthetic chemical known as 2,4-dithiapentane.


   A truffle owes its scent to hundreds of aromatic molecules. One of them is dithiapentane. On its own, it gives out a strong smell, which is moderated in real truffles by all the other aromatic compounds. But truffle oil is only synthetic dithiapentane.


  Nobody who has smelled a real truffle will ever believe that synthetic truffle oil with its harsh cheap smell is the real thing. But let’s face it: most people have not smelt a truffle. And because of the ubiquity of truffle oil, in the minds of most people its nasty stink has become what they believe truffles smell like.


"But even if truffle oil is a con-job, how are there so many real truffles available at restaurants all over the world?"

   Over the last five years, truffle oil has been the subject of huge controversies. In America, there were law suits intended to stop manufacturers from calling their product ‘truffle oil’ given that it had never been near a truffle. This sounds reasonable, but the cases were thrown out.


   Judges said that as long as the manufacturers made it clear that this oil was not made with real truffles, there was no fraud. Customers could make up their own minds.


   I thought the judgement was bizarre. Nobody mentions dithiapentane on the label. Nowhere does it say that the oil is synthetic. So, how do customers make up their own minds?


   The synthetics industry has various code-phrases on the labels to indicate that there are no truffles in the oil. But customers are not aware that ‘aroma’, ‘flavour’, ‘essence’ or ‘even natural truffle flavour’ (which may be the most misleading of them all; if the dithiapentane is extracted from a plant, say corn, before it gets to the lab, it counts as being ‘natural’) all mean that this is synthetic flavour. I used to advise people to look closely at the list of ingredients on the label before buying truffle oil. Now I don’t bother. It is nearly all fake anyway: truffle oil, truffle cream, truffle butter, truffle salt.


   Sometimes bottles of fake truffle oil will contain little specks of truffle in an effort to con you into believing that this is the real thing. These truffle bits are from summer truffles, a largely scentless cheap truffle that is the backbone of the packaged truffle industry. If you buy a bottle of black truffles, you are buying summer truffles which have no smell or flavour. Synthetic aroma may have been added.


   But even if truffle oil is a con-job, how are there so many real truffles available at restaurants all over the world?


   One answer is: fraud. The Chinese grow a black truffle that looks right but has no scent. Unscrupulous European manufacturers mix these Chinese truffles with real truffles. In the 1998, Urbani, the Italian company that is the De Beers of the truffle world, was caught mixing cheap Chinese truffles with the real thing. All of France produces 30 tonnes of black truffles a year. But the Italian police found as much as 47 tonnes of Chinese black truffles in the Urbani warehouse in Umbria. (The Urbanis were convicted and sentenced.)


   But the ubiquity of truffles is not just due to fraud. The truth is that the mythology of truffles obscures a few facts. The white truffle is said to grow only in Alba. In fact, it can be more plentiful in other parts of Italy, so the supply is greater than generally believed. Moreover, and the truffle industry keeps very  quiet about this, the majority of the world’s white truffles now come from Eastern Europe. Countries like Croatia and Hungary have become centres of the truffle trade. These are good quality truffles, so the Italians buy them and pass them off as Alba truffles.


   With black truffles (cheaper than white) the situation is more complicated. They grow all over France, not just in Perigord as the legend goes. And though the industry does not like admitting this, they can be cultivated. There are truffle plantations in France but the big breakthroughs have come from Spain in the last decade where black truffles are now so successfully cultivated that Spain has become the largest producer of black truffles in the world. So foolproof are the new cultivation techniques that you can grow truffles nearly everywhere (America, Australia, Sweden etc.). Heston Blumenthal’s three-star The Fat Duck uses local English truffles, for instance.


   So yes, truffles are still rare and expensive. But they are not as scarce as they want us to believe. Each year, production shoots up as new black truffle plantations come on line.


   Are we approaching a situation where truffles will not be such expensive delicacies? My guess is that we are. As production of cultivated truffles increases (and most of the world is content with synthetic truffle products), the real thing will become more easily available.


   Which, I reckon, is a good thing. Because who cannot love a mushroom that smells of sex? (Oh dear, here I go again!).



Posted On: 08 Jan 2022 11:26 AM
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