Q&A with Ryan Jacobs, author of ‘The Truffle Underground’

What exactly is a truffle crime? Author Ryan Jacobs discusses his investigation of the alluring fungus and his new book ‘The Truffle Underground.’

Courtesy of Ryan Jacobs

Truffles aren’t just an obsession for wealthy gourmands and hungry pigs. In Europe, truffles have spawned thefts and violence, as journalist Ryan Jacobs recounts in his fascinating book, “The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus.” He spoke recently with Monitor correspondent Randy Dotinga.

Q: What is a truffle?

By the simplest definition, a truffle is an edible fungus that grows in symbiosis with the roots of trees. It allows the roots to grab nutrients from the soil that it needs to live. 

Some scientists think we wouldn’t have forests without these kinds of fungus. 

The only way to disperse its spores is to be eaten, and pigs and other forest animals need stuff to eat. That’s why we think the scent is so strong. 

Q: What do truffles smell and taste like?

The musk, the aroma of the truffle, is unlike anything else. It’s a quality that can’t be described, although some people have compared it to old socks and funky cheese.

Q: Why have truffles produced a criminal underworld?

It’s been a shadowy business with an element of spycraft from the start. There are apocryphal stories of a French truffle grower in the early 1800s whose cousin spied on him and stole the secret when he discovered the connection between oak trees, acorns, and growing truffles. 

Now, you have people who are competing in a pretty small marketplace for a lot of money. Fierce economic competition produces greed, which leads to corruption.

And the thing about the truffle trade is that there’s no rules, no regulations. They’re basically sold in unmarked plastic bags. 

Q: Will authorities ever get a handle on truffle crime?

When you have a crime that seems trivial or petty on its face, it’s hard to get a law enforcement officer to spend much time on it. 

But I hope that the book forces the trade to tangle with stricter regulations and rules. 

The reason to have some hope is that there are really good detectives in both France and Italy who care passionately about catching these criminals. 

Q: Truffle oil seems to be in everything these days, from french fries to pizza. Should we feel guilty about eating it?

Not at all. Truffle oil is mostly a synthetic chemical that’s a petroleum derivative. It smells sort of like truffles, but chefs shake their heads since it’s so overpowering that it ruins the beautiful subtlety of the aroma.

Q: What about eating truffles themselves? Should we worry about supporting a criminal enterprise?

As long as you ask hard questions and are careful about the provenance of your truffles, you can support the truffle trade. There are tons of good people in the business.

Q: What’s your advice about eating truffles?

Not to be super snobby, but if you’re going to go ahead and splurge, you want to do it at a fancy restaurant. Have them shave them at the table. The classical French preparation is to do them over scrambled eggs, which allows the truffle flavor to really come out. 

And if you’re going to eat Italian white truffles, have them shaved at your table over your tagliolini noodles, hopefully served in butter and meat broth sauce. That dish just blew me away.

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