French Truffle Kerfuffle

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
March 4, 2014

Photo credit: StockFood

The trufficulteurs (truffle sellers) of France are “up in arms,” as Agence France-Press reports, about the incursion of less-expensive Chinese truffles onto their turf. Apparently “some eateries spray scents and chemical additives on the Asian variety and pass them off as Périgord truffles to an unsuspecting clientele.” Sacre bleu!

Black French truffles, tuber melanosporum, tend to sell in the vicinity of $300 per pound, so we can see why vendors would be upset about Chinese truffles, which sell for a fraction of the price, diluting their revenue stream. AFP quotes Michel Santinelli, from the French Federation of Trufficulteurs (FTT) as saying, ”Dishonest chefs [are] using Chinese truffles and spraying them with scents without telling their customers.”

Is it really so easy to put one over on a truffle-lover? We spoke to John Magazino, truffle expert at Chef’s Warehouse (and owner of the excellent Twitter handle @truffledawg), who routinely sells to four-star restaurants such as seafood palace Le Bernardin. He told us, essentially, “yes.” 

"Usually the Chinese truffle looks almost identical to the French truffle," even though it has a "completely different" flavor profile, said Magazino. "I don’t find them offensive; I just find them flavorless. Chinese truffles typically come canned, and although they have "nice color, they have little or no flavor." What’s difficult is that if you mix the true [French] winter truffle in a basket with Chinese truffles, the aroma of the French truffle is enough to permeate the Chinese truffle temporarily." 

Magazino doesn’t think it’s a common problem, guesstimating that only one percent of restaurants in the states encounter this issue. “Chinese truffle is a four-letter word,” he laughs, but he thinks that as long as customers “go to a restaurant that’s highly reputable” they won’t have a problem. (Magazino avoids the controversy entirely by refusing to import Chinese truffles: “I don’t want chefs to accuse me!”)

What can the average big-spending, truffle-loving diner do? Magazino suggests doing the obvious and following your nose. “[If] you buy a dish and you have fresh truffles shaved on to it, and it has exactly no aroma or flavor, there’s a possibility you’ve gotten something else.” 

The moral: Don’t live in fear. But do use your nose

[Agence France-Presse via Eater]