Truffle trouble, forest conservation and the mushroom mafia

Mycological mayhem in Epping Forest.

Woodland mushroom–picking has become a big business
Woodland mushroom–picking has become a big business

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.

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