Chefs in France are going on the offensive, pushing for truffle growers in the country to widen their scope and scoop up not just the most expensive Périgord truffle, but also the lesser-known Burgandy truffle in an effort to fight back against cheap Chinese imports.
The New York Times first wrote about the cheap-truffle problem in 1995, when famous restaurants in Manhattan started noticing that truffles of lesser quality were being passed off as French truffles. That was the first year that Chinese truffles started showing up in the United States.
Though some connoisseurs turn up their nose at the Chinese truffles, others have embraced the fungi as a way of getting the truffle flavor without the exorbitant price. The French Périgord can cost as much as $1,200 per pound, while the Burgandy truffle costs about half that.
Why the high price? A truffle lover will expound on the flavor and smell. Discussions and even descriptions of truffles can get somewhat…heated.
From the New York Times:
But then there’s the aroma, a major reason the Burgundy has been dismissed as the Périgord’s pale copy. The classic black truffle smells of lust: soil, mold, garlic, sweat, ripe mushrooms, hazelnuts, sweet onions, an animal in heat. The smell is made up of chemicals that evoke the reproductive pheromones of mammals. That explains why sniffing a perfect luxury truffle, deeply, from a brown burlap sack can make you feel dizzy enough to want to follow its handler just about anywhere. (Play it safe and stick to the kitchen.)
Not everyone's convinced. For years, people in China used truffles as pig feed. (Pigs have a keen nose for truffles, but aren’t often used in truffle hunting, as they are likely to eat the prize.) But, with rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns threatening the truffle supplies of France and Italy (where truffles can also fetch thousands of dollars per pound), it's now worth much more to sell them.
About 30 or 40 tons [of truffles] are imported from China to France each year, Le Tacon estimates....The two types of truffles are almost indistinguishable, even for experts. “Really, I cannot make the distinction between Chinese black truffles and Périgord black truffles,” Le Tacon explained. “To recognize them, we have to use molecular tools.” He added that the flavor is also nearly identical, but that’s only if the truffles are eaten fresh. “Maybe the intensity of the flavor is less with the Chinese truffle, but [it is] really difficult to [tell] the difference,” he said.
France would claim otherwise. The French government has committed $280,000 annually for the next seven years to the truffle industry, and is having scientists look into whether European truffles can be distinguished from imports by smell.
One of the main problems with Chinese truffles, the Atlantic reports, is that the travel time from farm to plate can simply be too much for this highly perishable foodstuff. If you really want fresh truffles, the best way to do that is to go to the source, and there are tours all over the world that offer you the chance to hunt down the fungi by yourself—in France or in China.