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n Provence, farmers who cultivate black truffles are being targeted by 'diamond' thieves. John Lichfield reports on a criminal epidemic that threatens the most prized of harvests
In the shadow of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain cherished by the painter Paul C?zanne, a diamond miner is at work. She is a small dachshund bitch called Margot. Within 30 minutes, with her scrabbling paws and her twitching nose, Margot has located a score of "diamonds". The biggest is about the size of a billiard ball and looks like a lump of sandy earth.
Raising the lump to my nostrils, I experience an intoxicating kaleidoscope of smells: rich soil, fine wine, ripe cheese, mown lawns, old socks and autumn days. I am holding an increasingly rare object, the Tuber melanosporum - "the black diamond", or "black lady of the underground". To the gastronomic world, the Tuber melanosporum is known as the P?rigord black truffle, one of the most expensive and mysterious of delicacies.
In the secretive truffle markets of half-a-dozen towns and villages in southern France, black diamonds have sold in bulk this winter and spring for up to ?900 per kilo (?280 per lb). And, as the price of truffles soars, so do envy, desperation and greed.
France is the biggest truffle producer in the world. The arid Alpine foothills north of Marseilles produce 80 per cent of all the edible truffles in France. In these hills, a war is now raging. Truffle-rustling, a local sport for centuries, has become a highly organised and highly profitable criminal plague. According to one estimate, 10 per cent of all the truffles harvested in the 2004-5 season, which is now just ending, have been poached by gangs armed with guns, wire-cutters and night-vision goggles, and, of course, chiens truffiers - truffle-hunting dogs like Margot. Some of the raiders even steal the trees beneath which the truffles grow. Others kidnap prize truffle dogs.
Jean-Marie Rocchia, Margot's owner, was raided three weeks ago. His plantation of 100 arbres truffiers, or truffle-promoting trees, is surrounded by a tall, five-strand, electric fence. To no avail. "I heard nothing and I saw nothing, even though my plantation is only 50 metres from the house," he says. "Do you see over there, that hole in the ground? That was an oak tree, five years old. In another 10 years it would have been giving me fine truffles. They took 12 of my young trees and I don't know how many truffles."
On one occasion, Rocchia harvested 17 kilos of truffles from his small plantation in a single day. In a good year, he expects to gather about 13 kilos in one of his fortnightly harvests between November and March. At ?250 to ?900 a kilo (depending on the season), a well-timed raid on even a small plantation like this one could produce a haul of black diamonds worth up to ?15,000.
The thieves operate in small gangs, hitting three or four truffle groves in a night. A van or large car silently drops a man and his dog at each plantation. Two hours later, the car returns and picks up each man-and-dog team and their haul of subterranean fungi. Some truffle producers talk darkly of organised crime. They blame outsiders from the city of Marseilles just across the hills.
Rocchia, 68, who is also one of France's most celebrated writers on truffles, believes that there is a much simpler explanation for the surge in truffle-rustling this winter. "The wild truffle has become virtually extinct," he says. "People used to find wild, or spontaneously produced, truffles, in the garrigue [scrubland]. The best locations were kept secret from one generation to the next. They have been disappearing slowly for years. In the P?rigord, in the south-west, the last ones vanished years ago. Now, alas, in the last two or three years, we in Provence have also lost our wild truffles."
No one knows for sure why this is. Is it the dry weather? Over-exploitation? Chemicals in agriculture? Pollution in the air? Many theories have been put forward. A series of dry summers - and dry winters, too - especially the blazing summer of 2003, has had a devastating effect on cultivated truffles, as well as the wild ones. The legally recorded harvest in France may reach only 20 tonnes this year, compared with 50 tonnes a few years ago (and 1,200 tonnes in the 19th century).
Rocchia points out that it takes some expertise to train and use a truffle dog, and to lift the truffles from the earth. In isolated cases, plantations have been ravaged by people who had no idea what they were doing. More often, he says, stolen truffles are carefully harvested - by experts. "There is no real secret about who these people are. They are local people. They are people from within the truffle world," he says.
In one incident - which has its comical side but may warn of worse violence to come - a truffle-rustler was shot in the buttocks by an angry, shotgun-wielding trufficulteur (truffle grower). "The poacher claimed that he was just strolling through the plantation," Rocchia says. "If so, why was he doing so at night? And why was he kneeling with his head to the ground and his bottom in the air when he was shot? Do you know who he turned out to be? The president of the truffle association of a neighbouring d?partement [county]" The two men - aggrieved truffle-grower and wounded truffle-rustler - screamed at each other publicly at the next truffle market. No further action was taken by either of them.
Truffle-growing and truffle-hunting are part of a secretive world, where knowledge is closely guarded and all transactions take place in cash. Even when people have nothing to hide, they prefer not to speak to the authorities. But this is now changing. The truffle wars have grown so damaging that truffle producers have begun to band together and - a true sign of desperation - to appeal for help from the gendarmerie.
In the Alpes de Haute-Provence d?partement, north of the Riviera coast, there have been so many raids this winter that the growers with the largest plantations have formed armed vigilante patrols. They pay people to sleep in their truffle groves at night. They have installed infrared cameras in the trees. The local gendarmerie brigade has been given a map of the principal truffle plantations, and patrols with night-vision binoculars.
In the Gard d?partement to the west, Michel Tournayre, a prominent truffle-grower and president of the local truffle association, has organised a system of patrols and listening devices in the truffle groves. Tournayre's champion truffle-dog, Julie (worth ?3,000), was stolen three years ago. He has never seen her again. "Here, we seem, with a little organisation, to have brought the problem under control," he says. "But the lesson is that mentalities have to change. The old code of secrecy in our industry was helping the thieves."
The Haute-Provence truffle producers are also experimenting with a hi-tech solution. With the cooperation of the gendarmerie, tiny electronic tracking devices have been implanted in truffles and the fungi returned to the ground. The hope is that, once stolen, a bugged truffle will lead the police to the thieves and the unscrupulous restaurant owners who buy contraband truffles. No luck so far.
Truffles are underground mushrooms formed by a kind of fungal infection on the root endings of certain trees. In Provence, they mostly attach themselves to the pubescent oak (Quercus pubescens) and holm oak (Quercus ilex). The infections create a two-way street of benefits, feeding sugar from the tree into the truffle and channelling minerals through the truffle into the tree.
Traditionally, truffle producers were small hill farmers, who gathered truffles in the wild and relied on the extra income to survive. In the last 20 or so years, however, the cultivation of truffles has made great progress. But even cultivated truffles are, in a sense, wild. You can't plant truffle seeds in the ground and wait for them to grow. All you can do is plant the right kind of trees, with roots infected in the right kind of way, in the sort of chalky, sandy ground that truffles adore. Then you wait for 15 years. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.
There is an increasing interest in truffle growing in the south of France, as prices and subsidies fall for the more traditional farm products, from fruit to wine. However, not all farmers are prepared to wait 15 years to harvest their first crop. The spate of truffle thefts is driving some people out of the business. Other rich truffle groves are being covered in concrete as the population of the French sun belt explodes. The wild truffle is gone and may never return.
In other words, everything points to a growing scarcity for the Tuber melanosporum. Scarcity will mean still higher prices; higher prices will attract more thieves. The war has only just begun.
But why are people prepared to pay ?900 a kilo for mushrooms in the first place? Is it only a question of snob value? Is there something uniquely sublime in the taste of an underground fungus, which looks, when washed, like a giant sheep's turd?
While I was visiting Rocchia's truffle groves, he insisted that we should, in the spirit of journalistic inquiry, find out for ourselves. He telephoned the Relais Sainte-Victoire, a restaurant run by one of Provence's most celebrated chefs, Ren? Berg?s, and handed us the truffles found by Margot that morning. He would not come with us - he did not want Margot or his other dogs to be stolen by the truffle-dog thieves.
Berg?s made them into three separate dishes, just for us. He didn't charge us a centime. I had never eaten truffles before, and they are as different from white button mushrooms as a bottle of ?1 plonk is from a vintage claret. Even during a truffle war, wonderful things can happen.