Buyer beware: Truffle market full of fakes

4th January 2006, Comments 0 comments

They're not called 'black diamonds' because they're pretty. But truffles count among the most expensive delicacies in the world. Guy Clavel asks: when you order that high-priced dish at that high-browed restaurant, is that a real truffle on your plate or a very clever fake?

As is true for all diamonds, buyers of 'black diamonds', a.k.a truffles, are being cautioned to beware of fakes.

Sometimes only experts with microscopes can tell the real thing

To the naked eye, most truffles -- there are more than a dozen common varieties -- look more or less the same: "a fleshy, plump tuber covered with a hard, pock-marked crust over its entire surface," to cite a definition published in 1711.

As the most prized species among them, 'tuber melanosporum' grows to the size and shape of a golf ball, the interior fills with spores and "the mushroom develops its characteristic aromas and brownish-black pigmentation," explains a researcher from France's National Institute for Agronomic Research.

*quote2*But a determined counterfeiter with a bit of dye and a lot of chutzpah can fool even seasoned truffle lovers, amateur and professional.

How to fake a truffle

One time-tested technique is to use the blackened juice from crushed walnut husks to dye immature black truffles, which are less flavorful and off-white or gray.

Another "classic ploy," says Claudine Mouckensturn of France's anti-fraud and anti-corruption office, is to substitute lesser, and generally tasteless, varieties.

Sometimes it's bait-and-switch: crooks offer a real sample to seal the deal, and then deliver a bill of goods.

The most notorious among ersatz species is 'tuber indicum', from China. 'Tuber brumale', a European variety with a bitter and musty taste, is also a common impersonator.

"For the uninitiated, it is very difficult to tell the difference between the indicum and the melanosporum," says Mouckensturn. Even her scientific colleagues at the anti-fraud bureau need to whip out their microscopes and examine the spores in a truffle cross-section to be sure.

Truffles go for about EUR 1000 a kilo. How much would you pay for this haul?

And sometimes even that is not enough. If the fungal suspect is of the Chinese variety, whose spores are almost identical to the real thing, a sampling is sent to a state-run laboratory where DNA experts conduct molecular-level tests.

The 'black diamond' market

Why would anyone go to such lengths to ferret out fake mushrooms? The main reason, no doubt, is that prime specimens of the wart-like delicacy sell for upward of EUR 1000 euros a kilo.

*quote1*Reputable vendors of truffles are easier to find, but restaurant goers have little choice but to trust in the integrity of the chef.

In one recent inspection, the anti-fraud bureau exposed a pricey establishment in Paris offering 'regiona' cuisine 'a la truffe' which was, in fact, dishing out the Chinese pretender.

Another investigation revealed that an expensive comestible preserved in 'truffle juice' was floating in pure salt-water.

*sidebar1*But die-hard truffle lover are not easily discouraged by such risks.

"Gourmands from every epoch have always tipped their hat in respect upon uttering the word 'truffle'," noted the notorious gastronome Alexandre Dumas, the 19th-century author of 'The Three Musketeers' and 'The Count of Monte Cristo'

January 2006

Copyright AFP

Subject: Living in France

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