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The truffle industry is built on lies

Whenever an expensive food ingredient becomes a craze, a scam is sure to follow.

All of us know how difficult it is to get genuine basmati race. When we think of basmati, we think of the long grains that are its characteristic feature.


What we do not know is that agricultural scientists have developed other cheaper varieties of rice that have long grains. They don’t have the characteristic aroma or taste of basmati. But if you use them in a spicy biryani, nobody can tell what the aroma and flavour of the rice really are. So, very often, chefs and restaurateurs use cheap rice and pass it off as basmati.


   The basmati scam does not surprise me, it is the sort of thing one would expect. But I never ever thought I would be writing about a truffle scam in India. And yet, that’s what the trade is talking about.


   All scams only succeed when the popularity of an ingredient is matched by ignorance about its flavour and provenance. That makes the truffle a prime candidate for such scams all over the world.


   The first scam dates back to the early part of this century. Italians have always made truffle oil. The normal method is to suspend bits of truffle in good quality olive oil and to seal the bottle. After a little while, the oil takes on the flavour of the truffle. A similar process gives you truffle butter. Sometimes, leftover bits of truffle are chopped up and made into a paste or a salsa.


   Though all of these products are made with the scrapings of truffles rather than the best bits, they do take on the flavours and aromas of truffle. They don’t last long and must be refrigerated and then consumed fairly soon. But they offer a hint of truffle at a fraction of the cost.


   Around two decades ago, when the world went crazy over the aroma of truffles, unscrupulous manufacturers had an idea. Many cheap quality products — orange squash and lemon drinks — are made using lab-generated molecules that mimic the taste of the real thing. So why not do that with truffles?


   The problem is that the scent of truffle is an incredibly complex aroma with too many molecules for any lab to be able to synthetically reproduce it. But there are three or four molecules that create an aroma that smells vaguely like truffle without any of its complexity.


   As most people have never smelled a real truffle and have no idea of how complex the aroma is, the synthetic molecules worked well enough when it came to fooling the general public.


 "It has got to the stage now where, when restaurants ask if I have any allergies, I say ‘truffle oil’ because you never know where it is going to turn up."

   A boom in truffle oil, truffle paste, truffle salsa and the rest — all made with synthetic molecules and no truffle at all — followed.


   When people began suspecting that these were not real truffle products, manufacturers began adding a few shreds of summer truffle (a weaker, not particularly expensive truffle) to the bottle to fool consumers.


   The truffle oil scam is over in the West. So much has been written about it and so many lawsuits filed that most chefs will not touch truffle oil and even those who use it will admit, if asked, that they are using a synthetic ingredient.


   Alas, this is not true of India where ignorant (rather than deceitful) chefs continue to put truffle oil in everything. Even the few who know better say they are merely responding to the needs of the market.


   It is not clear to me why the market wants this disgusting product. Not only does it smell vile, it will leave you burping for hours afterwards.  It has got to the stage now where, when restaurants ask if I have any allergies, I say ‘truffle oil’ because you never know where it is going to turn up. I have even seen it poured over kababs. And sadly, the real oil, made from real truffles, is almost extinct.


   As people have moved on from the truffle oil scam, a new con has taken off in the West. The truth is that the truffle industry is built on lies. It never admits that black truffles are not all ‘wild’, they can be cultivated. And it acts as though there are only two kinds of truffle: The black truffle of Perigord and the white truffle of Alba.


   In fact, there are many different varieties but it suits the industry to keep consumers ignorant because that way buyers think that every white truffle must be from Alba and pay a huge price. Nor does the industry like admitting that most truffles these days do not come from France and Italy. Spain produces more black truffles than France. And the white truffles of Croatia are regularly sent to Italy from where they are exported as ‘Alba truffles’.


   There are many levels to this scam. A decade ago, the Chinese got in on the act, growing black truffles that looked right but had no smell. Dodgy European truffle merchants bought them anyway, sprayed truffle oil on them and sold them to unsuspecting tourists.


   But at its simplest level, the scam consists of taking cheaper European truffles, which do not have the characteristic flavour and scent of the best truffles, and sending them off to Third World countries where nobody knows any better.


   In a sense, this is the truffle industry’s own fault for keeping up the fiction that there are only two kinds of truffle. When I am feeling flush, I buy my truffles from Boscovivo, an Italian truffle company, represented in India by Rohit Singh who hand delivers truffles to your doorstep as soon as he gets a consignment.


   His truffles are legally imported and duty paid, so they are not cheap but they come with a guarantee of quality.


   Now, Rohit says, he is being undercut by people who import (not always legally) inferior varieties of truffle. They sell them to hotels where neither the chefs nor the guests know the difference but just love the idea of eating truffles.


   Rohit has been warning his customers about the inferior truffles in the market (which is how I know about this development) but I am not sure how successful he will be in warding off the competition from the cheap and nasty truffles.


   All food scams operate on the same basis: Appeal to people who want expensive and desirable ingredients but don’t know much about them. And so, whether it is basmati or truffles, the scamsters will always find no shortage of ignorant marks and rich suckers.




  • Kulveen 13 Dec 2022

    We have drifted from Drizzling Ghee and just follow trends blindly. This is an eye opener that expensive ingredients also come with a catch.. something like saffron has to be double checked cause market is overloaded with fake stuff. Desi ghee also comes with essence.. coming to pizzas & spaghetti, we pay more for the dough than vegetables, unlike in Indian food bread has a lower price tag attached to it. In the end we all must understand, marketing hype create a psychologically driven interests

Posted On: 13 Dec 2022 08:00 PM
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