Woodland mushroom–picking has become a big business
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Truffle trouble, forest conservation and the mushroom mafia

Mycological mayhem in Epping Forest.

The story has all the makings of a classic crime caper: our ancient woodlands, stripped bare by ruthless fungi rustlers from the east. Dog walkers in the New Forest have reported vans — white, no doubt, and in severe need of a good wash — unloading gangs of mushroom pickers, “often eastern Europeans”, according to the Telegraph, and “armed with carrier bags”. Crikey.

Wherever they’re from, however, the consequence of this polythene army has been dire: the National Trust, which owns much of the land concerned, reports that there are now no edible mushrooms left in the northern part of the forest, and warns that, should such activity continue unchecked, they may never return.

Because the law is unclear, and largely relies on the goodwill of foragers, it’s a difficult one to police effectively; similar concerns have led to a blanket ban on all fungi foraging in Epping Forest, with hefty fines for anyone caught red-handed.

It’s an international problem: last month a German forestry worker was hit by a car after attempting to detain a gang of professional pickers for questioning. But with buyers paying up to £84 a kilo for fresh morels, illegal harvesting clearly seems a risk worth taking.

When it comes to the far rarer and pricier truffle, of course, the problem is mushrooms. There’s a vigorous black market in what the Church once aptly dubbed “the devil’s fruit”, with canny dealers passing off eastern European, or even worthless Chinese truffles as top quality, but increasingly rare French or Italian specimens.

Dog theft, or even worse, poisoning is also sadly common, the truffle hound being the hunter’s best friend in this lonely business; pigs are said to have better noses, but are far more reluctant to hand over their spoils. And it gets worse: three years ago a young southern French truffle grower, Laurent Rambaud, was charged with the murder of a man he found trespassing on his patch, armed with a knife.

Hundreds of supporters marched in support of Rambaud’s right to defend his crop, including many fellow growers, who complained to La Provence newspaper they felt their fields were “like open-air safes ... when times get hard, thieves help themselves.” Those they sell to are frequent victims of muggings and burglaries, and in 2007, a well-known Italian hunter was forced off the road on his way to an auction near Turin, and relieved of his tiny but intensely valuable cargo.

Such is the allure of this aromatic tuber that more than one American chef has confessed to bypassing FDA authorised importers in favour of smuggling truffles into the country themselves, packed in ice, or coffee beans, in order to make it through customs. One, New York’s Frank Prisinzano, confessed the process “always feels like a drug deal” but maintained it was the only way to guarantee he was getting the real deal.

But even if, like me, your pasta’s more likely to be topped with parmesan than a freshly shaved tartufi bianca, you’ve probably still been a victim of the greatest fungi fraud of all: truffle oil. Indeed, some of you have no doubt still got a bottle in the back of the cupboard, left over from the Nineties.

If so, you may be surprised to learn that pungent truffle flavour is probably the distinctly less romantic sounding 2,4- Dithiapentane compound, the product of a laboratory rather than a damp patch of Piedmontese earth. The gulf between it and the real thing has been memorably likened to the difference between sniffing dirty underwear, and actually having sex.

Even Gordon Ramsay, who once described truffle oil as “a bit of a chef’s dream” now decries it as “one of the most ... ridiculous ingredients ever”. If the police want a crime to solve, perhaps Waitrose should be their first stop.

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.