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The Mushroom Capers Poachers are devastating France's beloved truffle fields. Feb. 14 issue Newsweek
It looks like a lump of coal. But it is the king of French delicacies, a reputed aphrodisiac that lends an eyelid-fluttering taste to everything from butter to pasta. The treat is the truffle, and French farmers are struggling to protect this season's 30,000-kilogram bumper crop, the largest in the world, from thieves. A kilo of truffles fetches about 700 euros on the wholesale market. This season poachers have made off with an estimated 10 percent of French truffles, worth 2.1 million euros, almost a third more than last year, according to the French Federation of Truffle Growers. "It's a war," says Jean-Pierre Ducret, who regularly patrols his truffle fields at night near Ampus with a shotgun during harvest season, which stretches from November to March.
The truffle, at once a fungus and a tuber, grows a few centimeters underground in symbiosis with the roots of trees naturally inoculated with the spore Tubermelanosporum. Traditionally growers gather truffles every week or so, using dogs trained to sniff out ripe truffles. Thieves operate in small, semi-organized gangs, often driving hundreds of kilometers to hit fertile fields by cover of night, wearing infrared or light-intensifying goggles and ski masks, and using their own dogs. (Pigs can smell ripe truffles, too, but it's harder to flee with a waddling swine.) Muzzles keep the dogs from eating poisoned bait set out by farmers.
Farmers are fighting back. Like many of his colleagues, Armand Fabre of Montagnac, in southeastern France, now searches for truffles daily, "so when thieves arrive they don't get too much." Michel Tournayre, president of an as-sociation of some 200 truffle growers in southeast France, says some farmers plant microphones throughout their fields and then listen for the telltale crunch of leaves. Tournayre began paying a guard 80 euros a night to watch over his fields near Uzes after a recent encounter with intruders "got nasty." Two years ago thieves made off with one of his truffle hounds, which sell for around 2,000 euros. Grower Ayme Pierre, who carries a shotgun and spotlight on patrols and periodically sleeps in his field, heads a campaign urging the French Federation of Truffle Growers to issue sales permits to bona fide trufficulteurs to make it harder for thieves to sell purloined truffles.
The gendarmerie, France's militarized national police force, is cracking down, too. Lt. Xavier Leonetti has given 30 of his 65 men the primary mission of fighting the "significant, recurring theft" of truffles in his jurisdiction of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. The gendarmes, equipped with light-intensifying goggles, hold night stakeouts in truffle fields and set up roadblocks in sensitive areas. In nearby Riez, Gendarmerie Brigade Commander Gilles Cholin meets with truffle producers at the start of each season to update maps of the fields and decide which farms need extra monitoring—often irrigated fields with high yields. At a recent meeting, as angry farmers complained of the unfolding "disaster," Cholin had to remind them to defend their crops in lawful ways.
In December, Cholin proposed embedding a microchip in truffles to track stolen ones using Global Positioning System satellites. The idea was discussed at a meeting of the French Federation of Truffle Growers, but didn't go far. One drawback: police would have no way of distinguishing fleeing thieves from roaming boars, who also fancy truffles. Another: the tracking technology is similar to the radio transmitters naturalists use to follow birds, but it won't be small enough to go unnoticed in truffles for another decade, according to Franck Pantaleo, head radio-communications researcher at Saphelec, a firm in Marseilles.
The technology is, however, compact enough to hide in cigarette-size beacons at the bottom of truffle crates, for a cost of less than 500 euros. "The truffle market is taking off right now," says Marc Le Floch, head of sales at Cadden, a Nantes-based seller of the beacons. Ludovic Blanc is one broker who probably wishes he had a tracker: after he left a truffle market in Aups two weeks ago, bandits brandishing firearms sideswiped Blanc's car and forced him to stop, then relieved him of some 40 kilos of truffles.
Jean-Marie Rocchia, a producer from Beaureceuil, thinks he has a better idea. Rocchia drills holes in selected tubers still in the ground and inserts tiny rolled notes in each. Truffles harvested by hands other than his hold a warning for chefs: their black diamond is stolen, and the seller should be reported to the police.
-------------------- "The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber, and after two thousand years of argument and discussion their answer is the same as it was on the first day: we do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord." - Alexandre Dumas(1802-1870)