The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World's Most Expensive Fungus

Image of The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World's Most Expensive Fungus
Release Date: 
June 4, 2019
Clarkson Potter
Reviewed by: 

“This well-researched, well-written book is a thoroughly enjoyable read . . .”

Demand and limited supply make truffles the world’s most expensive mushroom. With the European truffle market estimated at a value of €300 million, you might expect some skullduggery, however nothing to the extent that investigative journalist Ryan Jacobs discovers. In The Truffle Underground, Jacobs looks behind the myth and the glamor of the fungus that makes gourmets swoon, and pulls back the curtain to unmask a tawdry world of theft, intrigue, and betrayal.

Truffles pass through many hands before being shaved over our plate of pasta, and each stage is rife with double dealing. Jacobs brilliantly illustrates what goes on in this world with real life vignettes. There are the foragers who add stones and dirt to increase the weight of their truffles, yet they are victims, too. We feel sympathy for a truffle hunter whose dogs are poisoned with strychnine, and another whose car is torched. And there is even a murder.

Middlemen, who move the mushrooms on to restaurants and larger companies, are also targets. They are threatened and physically beaten. Organized gangs of thieves, wearing night vision goggles, break into warehouses to steal their stash of edible diamonds from locked refrigerators. As supply never meets demand, and large sums of cash change hands for this untraceable product, fraud and robbery are rampant.

Celebrities like Madonna and Oprah have popularized truffles and the ubiquitous truffle oil that coats everything including French fries and popcorn has democratized this luxury ingredient. The market for truffles has expanded with everyone keen to cash in.

Jacobs shows that the big-name truffle companies have dirty hands as well. They mislabel their products, passing off truffles from China or Romania as Italian and French. They produce truffle oil that contains no truffle, its flavor derived from a synthetic chemical. We are easily fooled because we have little or no experience with the real McCoy, but we all want to enjoy a little truffle luxury.

While deftly revealing this murky, criminal world of the truffle, Jacobs also educates us. We learn that black truffles can be cultivated, while white must be foraged. There are summer and winter truffles and many species with varying culinary value. Truffles can come from China, Oregon, Croatia, Eastern Europe, or the Moroccan desert. Jacobs digs into the history of truffles, their importance to the economic survival of small farmers, and how scientists still cannot solve the puzzle of how they grow.

This book is part crime novel, part history and agricultural lesson, and an explanation of the culture that has grown up around this high-priced, sought-after mushroom. Jacobs’ writing is engaging, so if you’ve never eaten a truffle, you’ll want to have that experience. If you have, he will leave you wondering just how it made it onto your plate. He will also convince you to ban ersatz truffle products from your life.

Despite exposing the ugly criminal world of the truffle, Jacobs is still seduced by the fungus, its demi-monde, and the magic of eating something so unique and expensive. He recounts how this fruit of the forest with its powerful, hypnotic perfume draws him in to “a place where flavor mattered more than truth or virtue.”

This well-researched, well-written book is a thoroughly enjoyable read; there are footnotes. It is a shame that its publisher didn’t spend more money on this book, it deserved a better quality production.