Murder. Fraud. Poison. These are words typically associated with a suspenseful mystery novel, not an edible fungus. But in his riveting debut, The Truffle Underground, Pacific Standard deputy editor Ryan Jacobs weaves the fascinating scientific and historical backstory of the elusive culinary delicacy known as truffles with the stealthy feel of a diamond heist or spy operation.
Truffles are one of the most revered wonders of the gastronomic world. Although they’re found all over the globe, it’s the black winter variety, also known as black diamond or black pearl, that is especially rare, lusted after by thieves as much as valuable jewelry. The French countryside is one of their richest places of origin, nestled within the roots of oak and hazelnut trees in the Périgord region. Jacobs’ years covering international crime as an investigative reporter translate perfectly, as he drills down into the inner workings of the truffle underground.
Jacobs follows the truffle from spore to plate, a journey “fraught with so much biological uncertainty, human competition, and logistical headaches that a single shaving could be understood as a testament to the wonder of human civilization.” His in-depth research not only focuses on the present day but also covers how truffle farming came to be so secretive, exclusive and competitive. It’s an uncertain process that requires specific conditions and timing, made all the more difficult by today’s changing climate. And when truffles do form, their appearance is random, unearthed by specially trained dogs with the keenest of scent glands.
Truffle thieves are aware of all these factors and run their operations accordingly. Jacobs discusses the intricate details of this corruption, from the young recruits, middlemen and fraudsters to the detectives, law enforcement officials and restaurant owners who badly need this gastronomic gold to stay competitive. The Truffle Underground is an eye-opening tale that brings to light the fact that food items can be just as valuable as any other goods, especially when harvests are uncertain. As fittingly noted by Jacobs, “It’s a medieval undertaking in a smartphone world.”