France's truffle purists sniff out Chinese 'impostors'
Local devotees of the luxury fungus are on the lookout for an unwelcome Asian rival to their own "black diamond."SARLAT - Sold for a 20th of the price, the Chinese truffle looks so similar to the prized French delicacy, the Perigord black truffle or tuber melanosporum, that only experts can tell them apart.
For truffle purists, the likeness ends there.
"I bought some Chinese truffles once -- it was a disaster. A rubbery lump with no smell or taste," scoffed 60-year-old Martine Nardou, picking up her own supply at the truffle market in Sarlat, deep in southwestern Perigord.
Still, few consumers can spot the difference at a glance, and in recent years unscrupulous vendors have been found slipping Chinese fungi into baskets of black truffles, where they soak up the pungent smell, or serving them on a plate sprayed with artificial truffle scent.
In the Perigord - where truffles can fetch up to 1,000 euros (1,313 dollars) a kilogramme - a dozen markets have brought in tough new controls to stop producers bulking up their harvest with the cut-price Chinese fungus.
Here in Sarlat, an army of inspectors sets to work before dawn, smelling and squeezing each scrubbed tuber, carving off slivers to check the mottled black flesh for frost damage -- and root out impostors.
"The first thing they teach us is how to spot the Chinese ones. That's our biggest concern," said inspector Marie-France Ghouti.
Officials insist the Perigord's markets are free of Chinese intruders, but foul play does happen, according to Claudine Muckensturm, the Paris-based head of the finance ministry's fraud prevention unit.
Using microscopes and DNA tests, fraud inspectors have found Chinese tubers offered as black truffle on menus from the Perigord to Paris, and mixed into around 10 percent of processed foods containing truffle.
Under French law, only the Perigord variety can boast the generic name "truffle" -- and therefore command its astronomical price.
In China, the truffle industry is flourishing
Muckensturm says her team are planning a major anti-fraud operation in the coming months to "clean up the sector".
Truffles grow in the root systems of host trees, where in Europe specially trained pigs or dogs are used to sniff them out.
Over the past century, France's production has collapsed from 1,000 tonnes a year to an average of 25 tonnes, as the traditional habitat gave way to urban sprawl and rural populations migrated to the cities.
Meanwhile in China the industry is flourishing, with an annual harvest of 300 tonnes, of which 15 were exported to France last year.
Tuber indicum, the Chinese truffle's botanical name, grows abundantly in the Sichuan region in the foothills of the Himalayas, where it was used as animal feed -- local lore holds that it helps sows produce more piglets -- until locals were alerted to its commercial potential in the 1990s.
The French truffle-growers' federation says there is no need to put up trade barriers -- simply for strict labelling rules.
"When they are sold clearly as Chinese truffles, it isn't a problem for us. It's an international market," said Patrick Rejou of the federation's regional branch.
"The problem is if people buy a Chinese truffle thinking it is a Perigord one -- and then they are disappointed."
Growers are calling for the European Union to create a special appellation or origin to protect their national treasure.
Afficionados have also been spooked by research suggesting that Chinese truffle spores, if allowed to spread into the countryside, could threaten less hardy European varieties.
An Italian study published last year reported finding the first traces of tuber indicum in the roots of trees in the Piedmont region.
Such concerns sent one French harvester, Eric Maire, travelling from town to town, with a petition to have the Chinese variety "sent back where it came from".
Edouard Aynaud, a fellow grower, also worries that the uninformed or ill-intentioned could use Chinese truffle spores to inoculate tree roots, and inadvertently introduce them into the soil.
"The market is open to everyone. But our fear is that we are bringing in a species that is going to kill off our own."