Very Fancy Fungus Goes High Tech

December 5, 2008

Horreur!  The French are starting to make clones of the precious black Périgord truffle!  The Financial Times reported that with the annual harvest of these very pricey fungi down to 40-50 tonnes a year (from 1,000 tons one hundred years ago), the industry is inventing around the problem to try and produce test tube truffles.

With a price tag of up to €1,000 per kilo, it’s strange that the market has not responded sooner with greater provision.   The “truffle king” quoted in the FT article says that young people are not interested in the trade, but if the market works, its hard to believe that something which fetches such exceptional returns does not pull people into the trade.  Especially as the costs of entry are relatively low: if you want to get into this very profitable business all you need is a short introduction to truffles, some woods, and a four-legged friend.  Here you have two options.  As truffles emit a scent similar to that of the hormones of a male pig, you can get yourself a nice (but undoubtedly frustrated) sow to hunt out truffles for you.  Or, if you would prefer to minimise the chances that your helper accidentally eats the truffles, or if you lack suitable pig transport and storage, you can train a dog to do the pig’s work.

The article more generally attributes the lagging production to a decline in French agriculture (no one tell the agricultural lobbyists), and to less suitable growing conditions.  A decline in growth of truffles due to climate change or habitat encroachment seems to me to be a more sensible explination of why the supply is declining than lack of interest, given my faith in economic principles such as competition.  Producing truffles in test tubes might be the only way around this problem.

Of course, you wouldn’t want the test tube truffles to be too successful, otherwise prices will drop dramatically.   Though I suspect that the French, who are experts at applying EU laws enabling geographic indicators of origin (think for example of champagne which by law can only come from Champagne) will find a marketing technique to make sure that the  truffle-sniffing snouts of all connoisseurs are turned up at TTTs (test tube truffles) and favour only organic, wild, and swine-sourced truffles.

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