The stunningly scenic mountain village of Montefortino in the Sibillini Mountains Central Italy, held its 16th annual Festival of Real Truffles, 'Festival del Tartufo Vero dei Monti Sibillini', often amidst thunder and lightening. While the stormy weather was not ideal it was symbolic as the Romans believed that truffles were created when the god Jove hit an oak tree with a thunderbolt. Doctor Fioravanti the president of the truffle association, A.T.T., spoke about the cultural history of truffles prized from Greek civilization onwards and associated with myths concerning their powers, such as being an aphrodisiac or the food of witches. In the past the 'real' truffle needed to be distinguished from legends. Today the 'real' truffle needs to be protected from the counterfeit.
The first and worst culprit is the truffle sauce, which may be what you are eating in a restaurant when you order a dish with truffles. Generally these sauces have about 3% truffles in them yet the taste is strong. The pungent perfume lasts even when the sauce is left open for days on end. This is because an aroma of truffle has been created which is impossible for your nose and taste buds to distinguish from the real thing. When you eat food with this sauce you are eating a laboratory compound of chemicals giving you a truffle 'hit'. These chemicals, also in truffle oils which were previously popular with North American cooks, came to public notice but they still are used in one form or another. They keep the cost low.
Truffles should only be eaten fresh (or possibly kept under oil) and ideally they should be sliced, raw at the table for you to see evidence of them. Yet, without years of experience who can tell what's a truffle? Especially after a few glasses of wine, in a dimly lit restaurant. Recently a kind of desert potato from Morocco was intercepted in Central Italy. These potatoes had been injected with the 'famous' aroma of truffle and you could easily be forgiven for thinking you were having a priceless white truffle sliced upon your dish. Luckily they were confiscated.
In the same way dogs are trained to dig for truffles, Doctor Baiocchi, the Comandante of Stazione di Comunanza Corpo Forestale dello Stato, has trained dogs to detect truffle aroma in packages. With zealous diligence his team go to airports and places where packages arrive and investigate the contents. In this way they have successfully stopped fake truffles from entering the food chain.
A recent problem is attempts to invade the market with what are likely genetically modified Chinese truffles. These truffles have rampant spores and would overwhelm local Italian truffles, posing a threat to biodiversity. As Doctor Baiocchi explained, possibly only washing these Chinese truffles and then pouring the water on the ground would be enough to start the contamination. Generally Chinese truffles enter Europe through Romania - this recent addition to the European Union has yet to integrate all its procedures with European standards. Once Chinese truffles are inside Europe they pose as Romanian truffles and move freely within the E.U. Unless they are discovered by Doctor Baiocchi's team with the truffle dogs.
So what hope can a consumer have? Actually a lot of hope. Truffles - local, 'real' ones have been celebrated here for more centuries than Christianity has existed. The Italians have a loyalty and commitment for their native truffles similar to a beloved family member. Those at the Sibillini 'Festival del Tartufo Vero' evidenced an outstanding dedication and passion, far exceeding the call of duty. Mountains around the world benefit from high quality, niche label products for their economic survival. Every year new and tighter controls are being introduced for Sibillini truffle producers to be able to maintain the purity of the product. It is vital to protect the standard of this niche product as it represents an economic future for these mountains, especially now when industry and industrial agriculture are increasingly unprofitable.
As Doctor Fioravanti president of the A.T.T. , the local truffle association explained truffles are the most ecologically friendly 'farming'. They are highly sensitive to chemicals and will only grow on truly organic earth. They can only be watered with rainwater, as chlorine is detrimental for them so they don't consume drinking water. Once the oaks are planted the land is never ploughed so the topsoil is not washed away in extreme weather and the trees help stop erosion. Since no herbicides or pesticides can be used the natural flora and fauna continue undisturbed. The trees help the world in carbon counting terms.
Real truffles grown in their natural environment are one of the few happy marriages between man and nature. No chemicals can mimic this. Long may it last.