Few things in life are as intoxicating as the shavings of the rare subterranean fungus that is the truffle — just ask Santa Barbara author Ryan Jacobs.
“It is like traveling into another plane of existence and I know that sounds ridiculous, but the best analogy I can think of for eating freshly harvested truffles is that it’s like drugs or sex,” Mr. Jacobs recently told the News-Press.
It’s not just the culinary exhilaration of the truffle that Mr. Jacobs finds enthralling — so too is the backstory behind the treasured ascomycetes.
Mr. Jacobs is the author of the recently published “The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus” (Clarkson Potter, $16). The 288-page paperback delves into the underworld behind bringing the world’s most expensive fungus to the plate. He will sign copies of the book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Municipal Winemakers, 22 Anacapa St.
With prices for the non-cultivable fungus reaching in excess of $3,500 per pound, Mr. Jacobs found their rarity and exceeding short and climatically precarious season combined with the antiquated industry behind their collection and trade make the truffle ripe for exploitation.
“It’s a medieval undertaking in a smartphone world,” Mr. Jacobs said. “The world in which these foragers work is like walking into a medieval village. These guys are searching the forest with dogs trying to find something that is the most expensive agricultural and/or foraged commodity in the world.”
It was while writing about international crime and foreign affairs for The Atlantic in Washington, D.C., that the investigative journalist was given his initial tip about a potential story on the truffle industry.
“Every morning, I would scan the international headlines and on this one day, there was a headline in an English-language German newspaper that said something to the effect of ‘Porcini Foragers at Large in German Forest,'” said Mr. Jacobs, now deputy editor of Pacific Standard, who leads the magazine’s investigations desk. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s rather strange — how does one become a porcini forager who is at large?'”
The article told the story of a collective of German foragers who, while rummaging through protected parts of forest in search of porcini, ran over a forestry officer. Curious about the wider crime implications within the porcini trade, Mr. Jacobs tracked down a U.K.-based porcini expert who, in the process of putting his mind at ease about illicit activity within the porcini business, enlightened the writer about the potential for an investigative story on truffles.
Having authored numerous esoteric stories, including one on Icelanders being up in arms about a new road “disturbing fairies” and an investigation into the world’s lowest-hanging fruit, Mr. Jacobs was eager to delve into a story on the cloaked world of truffles.
“I’m a strange guy,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t mean that in a pedantic way, but I’m always drawn to the most eccentric and esoteric subjects. I don’t know why that is, but I use the conventional tactics of an investigative journalist. When you take a trivial or unimportant story at face value and you investigate the hell out of it, you can usually find something rich and meaningful.”
Mr. Jacobs quickly found a web of intrigue befitting any film noir script.
Beneath the gloss of star chefs and crystal-laden tables, the truffle supply chain is touched by theft, secrecy, sabotage and fraud. Farmers patrol their fields with rifles and fear losing trade secrets to spies. Naive buyers and knowledgeable experts alike are duped by liars and counterfeits, as the book explains.
“Because artisan truffles are held in such high esteem, it’s painted as something full of integrity. But when you dig beneath the surface, you find all this horrific and crazy stuff,” Mr. Jacobs said. “The truffle hunters are fiercely territorial and there are guys who are poisoning rival truffle hunters’ dogs with strychnine, a colorless, odorless toxin that they put in meatballs.
“They sell the truffles to some random person who takes them to someone else that sells them to a company. By the time a truffle reaches your plate at a restaurant, you just don’t know how many pairs of hands it’s gone through or what’s happened to it. There are the Chinese fakes that look almost identical to the prized black winter truffle that get mixed into batches and also desert truffles from Tunisia that are very cheap and used to cut batches of white truffles.
“You just don’t know what you’re getting.”
As for how all that plays out on the plate, Mr. Jacobs hopes the take-home message from “The Truffle Underground” for diners is one of buyer beware.
“I think people get so wrapped up in the intoxication, sensual pleasure and culinary dream of the truffle experience that they forget to consider what they’re eating,” Mr. Jacobs said. “I’m not saying every truffle has been touched by this stuff, and there are lots of truffles that haven’t experienced any kind of double dealing or violence, but I think it’s important to keep in mind those things are happening.
“The best advice I could give to people is to go to restaurants you trust and where you know the chef is employing some level of scrutiny. Ask questions like where it came from and when was it foraged. Consumer choice has an impact and, in the case of the truffle industry, there are tons of good guys who work hard to bring these things to the plate, so it’s important to support them.”
Ryan Jacobs, author of “The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus” (Clarkson Potter, $16), will sign copies of his book during a launch party at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Municipal Winemakers, 22 Anacapa St. The event is hosted by the winery and Chaucer’s Books. For more information about Mr. Jacobs, visit www.rjacobs.net.