"The Truffle Hunters"

It’s a multimillion-dollar question

The Econ Extra Credit Team Oct 28, 2021
Heard on:

Listener Mike M. had the following to say about our October documentary selection, “The Truffle Hunters,” which explores the cutthroat nature of truffle hunting and the back-alley dealing it begets.

“I found it to be an absolute gem of a cinematic story showcasing the shadowy web that holds key players together in this unique industry. My heart went out to the three older gentlemen who struggled with technological advances and the violent competitors attempting to poison their dogs. Their struggles in obtaining truffles — mucking around in swamps — led me initially to despise the ritualistic parade of suits and reporters, but …

And it’s a meaningful “but” —

“… it was the operatic music behind the judge’s meal of truffle-topped eggs that had me rather enamored with our collective ability to appreciate food, especially since I often opt to wolf down meals during my busy workweek. Maybe I have a thing or two to learn from that judge, after all.” 

The struggles Mike refers to continue to plague those who wish the truffle business was a hell of a lot easier. Despite costly efforts the world over, no one has been able to cultivate the white truffle. U.S. growers are trying their hand at hundreds of truffle farms across the country … so far, in vain.

Rowan Jacobsen, author of the new book “Truffle Hound,” recently joined David to discuss these and other heady cultivation efforts, as well as how the technological advances Mike noticed are changing the truffle trade.

“Technology is entering this very old-school market. So now you’re seeing hunters with their own websites and smartphones finding a truffle, snapping a photo of a truffle and selling it directly to whoever wants to buy from them online,” Jacobsen said. “That’s the ‘cure’ for opaque markets here in this century,” Brancaccio replied, “sharing information digitally.” 

Jacobsen cleared something else up for us: “Don’t expect to be getting a real truffle in your truffle oil or any of the other truffle products that are on the market, like the truffle salts and the jarred truffle products,” he said. “Pretty much what you’re getting there is a synthetic chemical … one of maybe 50 to 100 aromatic compounds that is found in a real truffle. It’s just made in a lab, and so, for a few pennies, you can make your product smell kind of like truffles in a way that people will recognize. But it really is a far cry from the complexity of the scent you get from a real, fresh truffle.”

Which is why dogs and pigs will be scouring the Italian countryside for sometime more. We’ll leave you with the following, from Wikipedia:

Thanks for watching along with us. If you missed David Brancaccio’s response to the movie, here it is. Back next week with our November film selection.

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