Another major food substitution scandal has broken out in France and this time it involves the gastronomic equivalent of a $2 Rolex.
Black truffles (tuber melanosporum), the prized underground fungus from France or Italy are worth up to $2500 kg on the Australian market.
But in recent years, the Chinese have put a much cheaper – and inferior for lovers of haute cuisine – species of truffle (tuber indicum) on the market and the French English language newspaper The Local is reporting that some chefs are passing off of the Chinese imposter and the real thing from Perigord.
The price difference between the two products is staggering. The Local says the Perigord “black diamonds”, as truffles are nicknamed, sell for €500 ($767) a kilo, while the Chinese variety from the Himalayan foothills is a bargain at just €30 ($46) a kilo.
France imports around 25 tonnes of Chinese truffles annually, which is 50 per cent of the local production. Tests have found that between 10 and 15 per cent of the local product sold contained Chinese truffles.
Australian chef and Francophile Tony Bilson says some dodgy French market sellers are “watering down” their supplies of the expensive Perigord truffles with the imports.
“The Chinese truffles are exported frozen, and then French farmers rub them in the local mud and mix them in with local truffles. They won’t be picked up at the market because they’re very similar,” Chef Bilson says, adding “but there is no evidence of substitution by the major dealers”.
Other unscrupulous practices include dipping the truffles in water to add weigh in increase the sale price, he said.
While Chinese truffles are banned from Australia to protect the local industry, Chef Bilson says they have their place in the kitchen.
“They’re a good wild mushroom, but should be used honestly. When we did a tasting, everyone picked them as inferior,” he said.
But in France, all sorts of tricks are being used to disguise the fake truffles. Michel Santinelli, from the French Federation of Trufficulteurs put the blame squarely on the restaurant industry.
“We are competing with dishonest chefs who are using Chinese truffles and spraying them with scents without telling their customers,” he told The Local.
Last winter, Australia produced around five tonnes of black truffles.
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