This is un désastre! This is une tragédie! The world is surely coming to an end. There is a truffle shortage in France! The situation is so dire that they have officials scouring the countryside looking for counterfeit truffles! Pigs are out of work and prices are skyrocketing.
In the truffle markets of Provence, conditions couldn't be riper for truffle fraud: Worldwide demand for the homely delicacy — a rare fungus that retails for $1,200 a pound in upscale Parisian gourmet shops — is rocketing at the same time that truffle production is plummeting because of the worst droughts in modern European history.
Roudiere prowls markets and peruses restaurant menus in his Provencal district in search of cheap Chinese imports — a different biological variety — masquerading as French black truffles, or of French rejects being peddled as premium "black diamonds."
"It's hard to tell the quality of something full of mud, even for people who know what to look for," said Roudiere, one of the top truffle specialists at the department of competition, consumption and fraud prevention, a wing of the finance ministry. "Since it's difficult to identify, it's easy to counterfeit."
Richerenches, a village of 300 inhabitants about an hour's drive north of Avignon, has the largest fresh truffle market in France. Wholesale prices typically triple at year's end as the holiday season brings increased demand. This year, dirt-encrusted French black truffles are selling to wholesalers for up to $600 a pound, half of what they'll fetch when they're resold retail. A pound of Chinese truffles wholesale costs about $60.
Shrinking supply is also driving up prices. Over the past four seasons, truffle production in Provence has plummeted 70 percent, from 33,000 pounds harvested in the winter of 2002 to 9,680 pounds last year, according to ministry records. Truffle production nationwide last year was about 74,000 pounds, half the yields of a decade ago. Neighboring Italy and Spain also report diminished truffle yields because of dry weather.
Farmers have abandoned using the traditional method of truffle hunting and now use dogs instead of pigs to find the mud-filled treats. But who knew the Chinese could counterfeit even truffles? What's the world coming to? Now we finally understand why the French are withdrawing their special forces from Afghanistan. They must guard that which defines France itself! One has to have one's priorities, after all.