Priceonomics

Photo credit: Wikimedia

When it comes to food and drink, nothing boosts a product’s prestige like the perception that it is traditional, hand picked, fresh, or otherwise limited in production. Anheuser-Busch and SABMiller, which essentially own the American beer market, have created beer brands like Blue Moon and Shock Top that mimic America’s craft breweries, which are surging in popularity. As Martin Lindstrom points out in Brandwashed, Whole Foods lists prices for its fruits and vegetables on what appear to be chalkboards to imply that prices change regularly as if responding to local crop conditions. In fact, the chalkboards are fake and the prices printed on -- all part of a marketing strategy meant to “evoke the image of Grapes of Wrath-era laborers piling box after box of fresh fruit into the store.”

But in a world full of marketers manipulating our perceptions, the truffle is the real deal. A type of fungus that grows underground on some tree roots, the truffle stands on the right side of the line between decomposition and decadence. While many are viewed as almost worthless, a few truffle varieties found in France, Spain, and surrounding areas are esteemed as a decadent addition to pasta, steaks, and foie gras that help dishes “jump off the plate” with an aroma that one admiring chef has compared to a locker room. These fickle cousins of mushrooms have proven impossible to mass produce; they are still dug up individually by dogs that track their scent. 

The truffle stands in stark contrast to the convenience-biased trends of the late 20th century that allowed wealthy consumers to buy fruits and vegetables during any season and filled bread with enough preservatives that it lasts weeks. Admirers contend that the truffle begins to lose its flavor as soon as it is pulled from the ground, and fresh truffle season really only lasts a season. The rarity and temporality of truffles have made them -- at €4,400 to €11,000 per pound for Italy’s prized white truffles -- the most expensive food in the world. In 2007, a Macau casino owner set a record by paying $330,000 for a 3.3 pound truffle unearthed in Tuscany.

The combination of these two trends -- the desire for a convenient, ever-ready supply of an ingredient and a hunger for the traditional, the rare, and “real food” -- led to what would seem to be a remarkably successful scam on foodie culture: truffle oil. Despite the name, almost all truffle oil does not contain even trace amounts of truffle; it is olive oil mixed with 2,4-dithiapentane, a compound that makes up part of the smell of truffles and is as artificial and associated with a laboratory as Californian food is associated with local and organic ingredients. Essentially, truffle oil is olive oil plus truffles’ “disconcerting” smell.

In some ways, chefs’ embrace of cheap, artificial truffle oil represents the absurdity of believing that any food is worth thousands of dollars per pound. It also demonstrates that truffles are so amazing -- or at least unusual and prized -- that prestigious chefs fell for the con like sinners buying absolutions from swindler priests.

A Culinary Gem

If today’s ubiquitous food bloggers share a common ancestor, it is Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French politician who survived the French Revolution to invent the self-indulgent food essay. His 1825 book, The Physiology of Taste, is widely cited for calling truffles “the diamond of the kitchen.” Brillat-Savarin also asks a question common among foodies and the non-initiated alike -- namely, why are truffles so popular? 

The truffle “is not only delicious to taste,” Brillat-Savarin writes, “but is also believed to foster powers the exercise whereof is eminently pleasurable.” If it’s unclear, he’s talking about sex. Although Brillat-Savarin could only find one woman who would relate a story of falling under the spell of truffles, he did convene a panel of men of “unimpeachable integrity” who concluded, “The truffle is not a positive aphrodisiac, but it can upon occasion make women tenderer and men more apt to love.”

The other reason for truffles’ popularity, then and now, is rarity. In his account, Brillat-Savarin bemoans that attempts to cultivate the truffle were unsuccessful, although he then concedes, “Perhaps this is no great misfortune… it may be that [truffles] would be held in less esteem were they multiplied and made cheap.” 

On one hand, this is snob appeal, which the French writer compares to a fashionable Parisian lady who would refuse to wear lace if it suddenly became cheap. The cost of truffles from places like China and the United States are more on par with ordinary mushrooms in terms of prices. Critics write that this is because -- to varying degrees -- they are not nearly as good. But it is worth asking whether at least some of the difference is merely that France and Italy enjoy reputations at the top of the cultural and culinary hierarchies.

On the other, it’s the almost inevitable and very understandable psychology of wanting what you can’t have. This author remembers his disappointment when a waitress took his order of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon -- perhaps the most coveted and hard to find whiskey in the world -- without comment. It seemed too easy, too mundane. Only when the waitress returned and said, “Sorry, we’re out. Try back in a couple of months” did the liquor regain its legendary halo.

Although truffles cannot be mass produced, people can engage in “trufficulture” by planting more of the trees on which it tends to grow. (This is less true of Italian white truffles, which makes them more expensive.) In the late 18th and early 19th century, truffles became a widely praised part of French cuisine as hunters and dealers sprang up to dig up truffles and get them to market. In the early 20th century, French trufficulture efforts helped meet growing demand. Since then, however, the cumulative impact two world wars, urbanization and deforestation, and global warming, which reduces the amount of moisture in truffle producing regions below what the fungus needs, have all led the production of black truffles in France to decline from roughly 1,320 tons in 1910 to 32 tons today. 

Given this decline in truffle production, and the huge increase in demand as faster transportation made fresh truffles a global market, it’s no surprise that the price of truffles is so high: Both black French truffles and white Italian truffles cost thousands of dollars per pound, with plenty of variation depending on the quality of the season and the specific variety. And those astronomical prices have led to some very shady behavior.

A Culinary Drug

Since truffles grow so inconsistently, companies cannot simply plant orchards of trees that produce the fungus. Even Urbani Truffle, the largest supplier of truffles, which claims to have a 70% share of the market, relies on freelance truffle hunters who scour the countryside. This means that truffle hunting is one of the largest and most profitable treasure hunts, which leads to some dirty play.

The location of trees that often produce truffles is a valuable secret -- a piece of knowledge that some truffle hunters may only reveal to their sons on their deathbed, as related by one member of the truffle industry to The Atlantic -- but everyone still relies on trained dogs to find the exact location of ripe truffles. (Hunters once used pigs, but as the pigs loved truffles as much as humans, truffle hunters were known to lose fingers as they tried to keep pigs from eating the truffles.) This has led competitors to steal other hunters’ dogs or to leave poisoned meatballs near truffle trees to kill dogs and weed out the competition.

Many thieves take a more direct route, simply stealing truffles from suppliers and selling them on a black market. When 60 Minutes investigated in 2010, they found chefs who said the mafia would steal their truffles and others who described more mundane thefts. Businesses have also taken to disguising Chinese truffles, which are regarded as inferior and have long been dug up without regard to ripeness to feed to animals, as the real thing. Some distributors mix a few Chinese truffles in with each shipment, like “cutting flour into cocaine,” as 60 Minutes put it, while a few French businessmen (likely headed for the deepest circle of French Hell) sell boxes of Chinese truffles labelled “French Black Truffles.” 

These types of shady dealings infuriate chefs and gourmands, who worry about truffles’ reputation and the quality of the product they receive. Yet at the same time, chefs have been completely complicit in the use of truffle oil, which is essentially truffle scented olive oil. And it’s a partial, artificially-created scent that led one writer to quip that "Comparing truffle oil to real truffles is like comparing sniffing dirty underwear to having sex."

Trifling Truffles

Beef tenderloin made with truffle oil, which comes from the world's most expensive food. Or does it? Photo credit: Grand Velas

This was not always the case. Historically, there is at least some mention of Italians infusing olive oils with real truffles, and Urbani Truffles sells truffle oil that it says is made from real truffles. In the 1980s, however, as truffles really took off as a luxury item, large companies without any access to actual truffles began to mass produce truffle oil by artificially adding the smell of truffles to olive oil. With the truffle part of the oil coming out of a laboratory rather than the earth, companies mass produced the product and sold it for around $6 a bottle. 

Using science to make a luxury item available at middle America prices is no crime, but truffle oil always traded on the prestige of real truffles. The oil features phrases like “Product of Italy” and “100% Natural” that suggest the use of real truffles. And if you believe the oil’s critics, rather than imparting some of the earthy flavor of truffles at an affordable prices, truffle oil emits a chemical, gasoline scent that ruins dishes. Yet everyone fell for it.

Chefs loved truffle oil and used it liberally. For years, promises of truffle oil on fancy menus have indicated sophistication and high expense (an association this author learned without even knowing what a truffle is), and truffle oil was routinely used in no less prestigious and natural ingredients-focused a restaurant than The French Laundry. 

When chef Daniel Patterson sought to understand why truffle oil continues to thrive, even as its artificial origins have been revealed, he found some pretty cynical answers. The LA Times chief restaurant critic told him, “Chefs use truffle oil because it’s easy to add a gloss of glamour with it -- and because it helps sell dishes.” Another chef explained that he adds the oil to dishes that already contain truffle so that people notice the it -- people expect something big with truffles, and using enough truffle to be sure it’s noticed would be prohibitively expensive.

This author has never tasted truffle, but reading accounts like these make it hard to believe the hype. If truffles are so amazing, why do they need to be “enhanced” with truffle oil’s artificial flavor, and why can they so easily be approximated by a $10 bottle of olive oil?

But as we’ve written about in previous articles, taste is a slippery concept that is susceptible to psychological trickery and difficult to discuss objectively. Many embarrassed gourmands have realized that they were equating true truffles with smelly olive oil, but amateurs and experts alike easily confuse the good stuff and the cheap stuff whether it’s wine, sushi, or chicken picatta. 

Many chefs perpetuated the truffle oil fraud inadvertently, assuming it contained real truffles out of a desire to believe. Chef Patterson concedes to happily using truffle oil for years despite the many warning signs (the oil’s price didn’t fluctuate with real truffle prices; white and black truffle oil cost the same even though white truffles are much more expensive) while he eschewed a natural ingredients philosophy. He also notes that some chefs are still surprised to hear truffle oil contains no truffles, and writes, “Much as I did for years, chefs want to believe. Stories of sightings of natural truffle oil abound, like a gourmand’s answer to the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus.”

Truffles are the world’s most expensive food because they resist all our efforts to control them. They cannot be mass produced or meaningfully eaten out of season. In a world in which we’ve grown increasingly accustomed to the idea that enough money can satisfy any whim, truffles are growing increasingly scarce; the owner of Urbani Truffles tells stories of rich clients throwing tantrums when a bad year of weather means restaurants can’t serve them truffles. Truffle oil promised the allure of truffles with all the convenience and mass production whose absence in the truffle industry makes it rare and exciting. It’s no surprise that we all were taken in.

If you liked this blog post, you'll be amused by our book → Everything Is Bullshit.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.


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