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 is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

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

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump