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The Truffle Oil Shuffle

Stashed in: Good Eats!, Awesome, Luxury, Plants!, Yum, Freakonomics, Truffles

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The truffle stands in stark contrast to the convenience-biased trends of the late 20th century that allowed wealthy consumers to buy fruits and vegetables during any season and filled bread with enough preservatives that it lasts weeks. Admirers contend that the truffle begins to lose its flavor as soon as it is pulled from the ground, and fresh truffle season really only lasts a season. The rarity and temporality of truffles have made them -- at €4,400 to €11,000 per pound for Italy’s prized white truffles -- the most expensive food in the world. In 2007, a Macau casino owner set a record by paying $330,000 for a 3.3 pound truffle unearthed in Tuscany.

The combination of these two trends -- the desire for a convenient, ever-ready supply of an ingredient and a hunger for the traditional, the rare, and “real food” -- led to what would seem to be a remarkably successful scam on foodie culture: truffle oil. Despite the name, almost all truffle oil does not contain even trace amounts of truffle; it is olive oil mixed with 2,4-dithiapentane, a compound that makes up part of the smell of truffles and is as artificial and associated with a laboratory as Californian food is associated with local and organic ingredients. Essentially, truffle oil is olive oil plus truffles’ “disconcerting” smell.

In some ways, chefs’ embrace of cheap, artificial truffle oil represents the absurdity of believing that any food is worth thousands of dollars per pound. It also demonstrates that truffles are so amazing -- or at least unusual and prized -- that prestigious chefs fell for the con like sinners buying absolutions from swindler priests.

I had no idea truffle oil is fake. Damn it. 

A Culinary Drug

Since truffles grow so inconsistently, companies cannot simply plant orchards of trees that produce the fungus. Even Urbani Truffle, the largest supplier of truffles, which claims to have a 70% share of the market, relies on freelance truffle hunters who scour the countryside. This means that truffle hunting is one of the largest and most profitable treasure hunts, which leads to some dirty play.

The location of trees that often produce truffles is a valuable secret -- a piece of knowledge that some truffle hunters may only reveal to their sons on their deathbed, as related by one member of the truffle industry to The Atlantic -- but everyone still relies on trained dogs to find the exact location of ripe truffles. (Hunters once used pigs, but as the pigs loved truffles as much as humans, truffle hunters were known to lose fingers as they tried to keep pigs from eating the truffles.) This has led competitors to steal other hunters’ dogs or to leave poisoned meatballs near truffle trees to kill dogs and weed out the competition.

Many thieves take a more direct route, simply stealing truffles from suppliers and selling them on a black market. When 60 Minutes investigated in 2010, they found chefs who said the mafia would steal their truffles and others who described more mundane thefts. Businesses have also taken to disguising Chinese truffles, which are regarded as inferior and have long been dug up without regard to ripeness to feed to animals, as the real thing. Some distributors mix a few Chinese truffles in with each shipment, like “cutting flour into cocaine,” as 60 Minutes put it, while a few French businessmen (likely headed for the deepest circle of French Hell) sell boxes of Chinese truffles labelled “French Black Truffles.” 

Today I learned that truffle pigs like to eat the truffles they find so now truffle hunters use dogs. 

Double dammit!  Truffle oil is fake... oh man, geez.  Wait a minute...let me check!

Hmmm, at least I've got some truffle in this one... even if it comes along with the smoke and mirrors:


...and the NYT confirms the farce too...

Prestigious chefs fell for the con like sinners buying absolutions from swindler priests.

We all are susceptible to falling for this one. 

Hmmm, I dunno if it's falling for a swindle or not.  Lots of people like Doritos and Taco Bell, but that doesn't mean they're falling for anything – their eyes are open it's tasty crap and so it's ok for them to like it.

When I went and ate at Wylie Dufresne's WD 50 in NYC years ago he liked the way I ordered and invited us into the kitchen (my friends knew him well) and he gave us a tour.  There was A LOT of non-organic food chemicals and unnatural ingredients on the shelves that he used to make his own culinary creations...Wylie never postured to be all about serving organic, he was just all about serving tasty and incredibly creative food.

I'd say the same thing for majority of truffle oil that chefs use and their intentions: it's mostly used to make good food even tastier and more creative. 

I've never seen truffle flavored food advertised as healthy, organic, pure and natural – it's always been offered as an indulgence in comfort food (e.g. mac and cheese, fries, etc.) or as a purely fresh offering shaved onto a dish that's now too damn expensive to abuse on a regular basis ...and that's ok too.

You make good points. 

Although now I wonder if there's a market for healthy, organic, pure natural truffles. 

Oh yes, there's always been one of those – it's the one we can't afford...

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