White truffles (also known as Piedmont or Alba truffles) are one of the world’s most prized culinary delicacies: When shaved atop a dish, they add a pleasantly earthy layer along with their unexpectedly fresh texture. Often, their presence — thanks to their famously high price tag — is more a status symbol, a signal of the procurer’s appreciation of the finer things in life, regardless of the cost. And perhaps not surprisingly, as with many other luxury symbols, thieves, saboteurs, and fraudsters operate an underground market that looks to cut corners wherever possible.
In The Truffle Underground, Pacific Standard deputy editor Ryan Jacobs heads to Europe to suss out the secretive under-the-table economies fueling the illegal truffle trade, from the petty thieves literally digging through truffle farms to the sophisticated operations that smuggle inferior truffles across international borders. In the following excerpt, from the book’s “Detectives and Fraudsters” section, Jacobs embeds with members of Italy’s forestry corps and NAS, the Italian carabinieri’s food and health crime division, for an inside look at truffle true crime. — Erin DeJesus
When Roberta Ubaldo, an officer in the State Forestry Corps, reported to the organization’s gated beige compound on the edge of downtown Asti, Italy, in 2012, the memo had already arrived from Rome. The top commanders had ordered an investigation to ensure that sellers at agricultural fairs across Italy were adhering to financial requirements governing the purchase and sale of foraged goods. In Piedmont’s Asti province, officers quickly focused on checking middlemen’s declared purchases against the quantities of truffles they were trying to sell.
Early in the investigation, Diego Grizi, one of Ubaldo’s colleagues, approached several truffle traders in plain clothes at the main truffle fair in Asti, posing as an interested buyer. During the course of his rounds, he noticed one man who had not set out tags listing the origin of the Piedmont white truffles he was selling. Though prepared by the sellers themselves, the origin tags introduce at least some degree of accountability to the process, because they can be checked against dealers’ purchasing paperwork.
Grizi, an athletic man with dark eyes, short-cropped hair, and a stubble beard, asked the trader for some kind of confirmation that the truffles were really from Asti’s foothills. He didn’t have any.
“Who are you?” the trader asked. “What do you want from me?”
Grizi and his partner identified themselves as investigators with the Forestry Corps and asked him for the “self-invoices” he was required to prepare on behalf of the truffle hunters he purchased from. The Italian system makes it the responsibility of the middleman, as the buyer, to document the Latin scientific name of the truffle species, the corresponding Italian name, the location of origin, and the quantity purchased from truffle hunters.
The man fidgeted, covered up his truffles, and hurriedly packed them into a bag. As he was preparing to leave, Grizi asked for the documentation again. The trader shoved one of Grizi’s colleagues out of the way and sprinted down the street. Grizi and other corps officers pursued him on foot through the streets of Asti.
Panting, they ran after him for about a mile. Before they could catch up, he hopped into a car and escaped.
Back at the corps’s offices, what began as a check to ensure adherence to basic administrative rules quickly developed into a full-scale fraud investigation. Officers interviewed witnesses. They tracked paperwork. They examined the activities of at least 100 different companies. Finally, after months of investigation, Ubaldo and the rest of her team found that roughly 75 percent of the white Piedmont truffles moving across the Asti market originated in Italian regions far away from the famed territory, including the central region of Umbria and the southern region of Molise. As soon as the truffles arrived on the tables of the Asti middlemen, though, they “became” truffles from Piedmont. They remained that way, of course, until they reached dining rooms.
Roughly 15 percent of the Piedmont whites in Asti didn’t even originate within Italy’s borders: Traders bought them from hunters working on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula. Altogether, more than 90 percent of the truffles didn’t come from Alba’s famous soil, making wholesale prices among suppliers much cheaper than what hunters working the local hills would have accepted, and the profit margins for dealers much steeper.
Many traders in Asti knew the international value of the Asti, Alba, and Piedmont names, and for years they had capitalized on it by selling the same species from less renowned regions and countries. “Do the math,” Ken Frank, an American chef who runs La Toque in Napa and has been working with truffles since the 1970s, said flatly. “They can’t all buy truffles from Alba.”
All this investigation of small-time truffle dealers might seem like a lark, but European food fraud is a quickly expanding phenomenon, often linked to the interests of organized crime. NAS, the carabinieri’s food and health crime division, investigates food fraud the way the FBI investigates terrorism. In 38 different offices throughout Italy, with more than a thousand officers, the organization works tirelessly to catch fraudsters and remove counterfeit food from the shelves. They often receive approval for full-scale surveillance operations: They tail suspects with cameras, track trucking routes with GPS devices, plant bugs, and monitor email wiretaps. When they raid warehouses and manufacturing facilities, they carry guns.
The fraudsters they attempt to catch are organized and dangerous. When Sergio Tirrò, a former major on the force with dirty blond hair, a serious stare, and the air of a European cosmopolitan, once arrived at an olive oil factory somewhere in southern Italy, dressed in his black and red military fatigues, he and his three colleagues thought they were prepared for what they would discover once inside. When they breached the doors, they found ten men, all unwilling to surrender. They began to attack. “They do not have any problem in facing the police,” Tirrò, who now works at Europol, told me. Everyone at the warehouse was arrested.
The men were participating in a fraud that had overtaken the world’s olive oil supply. They purchased large batches of cheap sunflower oil and transformed it into something resembling extra virgin olive oil using a mixture of chlorophyll, carotene, and food dye. The resulting product would sell for 12 times its worth.
Organized crime groups have also created fraudulent, mirror supply chains for Italian and French champagnes and wines. They create the beverage; manufacture or broker deals for bottles, foils, and caps; hire designers to manufacture counterfeit labels; build external distribution teams to get it into international grocery stores; and suddenly they’re selling fake bottles of Moët & Chandon, Bocelli Prosecco, Veuve Clicquot, and Brunello di Montalcino, among many others.
The criminal groups have even manufactured a counterfeit ham stamper for Prosciutto di Parma. On one raid in 2012, the carabinieri seized 6,144 legs of ham stamped with the fake imprint. In a few seconds, the syndicate was turning cheap, conventional ham into some of the world’s finest.
Over the last two decades, as Italian food became an ever-more-marketable good in the international marketplace, the Camorra, the ‘Ndrangheta, and the Cosa Nostra Mafias began to see an easy way to produce illicit revenue. As with cocaine and heroin, the prices and demand were high. But unlike cocaine and heroin, the risks of detection were low. The Coldiretti, an Italian association of farmers and other food producers, estimates that each year criminal organizations, or the agromafie, make about $27 billion on counterfeit, mislabeled, or otherwise manipulated food and beverages. Law enforcement officials believe the revenue flows into and out of other illicit activities, including drug and human trafficking.
“We are talking about industries, not just a few people,” Tirrò explained. Some countries don’t view food labeling as seriously as the Italians, he noted. If mislabeling is discovered, national authorities might subject the fraudsters to an administrative penalty and demand label adjustments. But Tirrò doesn’t understand this logic. “You cannot adjust crime,” he said.
Truffle fraud does not require any of the counterfeit labeling required of other food frauds: The truffles normally ride unmarked in plastic bags, satchels, and paper towels and are often sold unlabeled, after inspection and negotiation. There are often no lot codes, dates of harvest, or even paperwork about their origin, until a middleman or company further down the chain prepares an invoice. Unlike famous cheeses, hams, butters, vinegars, wines, and other Italian food products closely associated with specific regional histories and terroir, the truffle is not subject to protected designation of origin controls. Despite its cultural value, the truffle has never been an official good, with an official history and market, and its production isn’t protected by the consortia, rules, and laws that govern products like Brunello wines or Parma ham. The geographic origin and scientific species of a truffle are the origin and species a seller can convince the buyer of. Unless the buyer happens to have a sommelier’s nose, fraud can only be detected with review underneath a microscope or by genetic analysis.
The Camorra could easily move in, but there haven’t been any clear indications of their presence yet. Interpol suspects that organized crime groups are becoming increasingly interested in luxury food fraud because of the ease and low criminal risk of misrepresenting something only a real connoisseur would know was fake. In 2012, along with 30 tons of fake tomato sauce, around 77,000 kilograms of counterfeit cheese, nearly 30,000 counterfeit candy bars, and various other goods, Interpol and Europol’s Operation Opson (“food” in ancient Greek) received reports from various law enforcement agencies about two tons of fake caviar and truffles.
Over the years, various proposals from truffle-hunting associations about enforcing a more formal system of traceability, perhaps using hunters’ license numbers — which correspond to the region they’re permitted to hunt in — have been floated to the Italian Parliament with little result. This would make passing off foreign truffles more difficult, but like most other suggested solutions to criminal problems in this business, the industry power brokers have little interest in seeing it happen.
Just as Ubaldo began working through her paperwork in 2012, one of Tirrò’s NAS subordinates was beginning his own investigation 175 miles to the east, in the sleepy suburbs of Bologna. Some discerning truffle eaters had tipped the NAS unit off about a few restaurants in the area that were serving bianchetto truffles (smaller, more affordable white truffles) that didn’t taste like the real thing. The commander of the unit assigned Paolo Fasciani to the case.
Fasciani, a portly, cheery fellow, smiles often and often for no particular reason but to signal his enjoyment of life. He can often be found in the back of the most traditional of Italy’s restaurants, sampling the chef ’s pasta, forking over the extra money for the pleasure of fresh truffles shaved atop.
After college, Fasciani decided to join the academy at the carabinieri, with the intention of working either in the force’s crime scene investigations unit or at NAS, where he could indulge one of his greatest passions: food. Before he could work on complex food investigations, though, he had to spend seven years as an officer doing mundane street work. When a spot in the course to become an investigative inspector for NAS opened up, he enrolled, and once he passed, he was assigned to the office in Bologna, where he began his first round of food fraud investigations.
He spoke with criminals, restaurateurs, diners, and food suppliers, always searching for the next big tip. Sometimes they came in anonymous emails or phone calls; occasionally, people walked right into the office. Fasciani wouldn’t tell me where the tip about the truffles came from, but recently, he said, after a few high-profile frauds — with products as prominent as Prosecco — Italian diners had become surprisingly savvy.
Fasciani paid a visit to the restaurant, in a small village in the province of Bologna, and asked the manager to see the truffles they were serving. When Fasciani looked inside the bag, a whiff of the bianchetto’s earthy perfume rose into his nostrils. But when he took one of the truffles out and allowed it to sit for a few minutes, the aroma evaporated. The restaurant was unable to identify the region that the truffles had come from with a set of required self-invoices.
All the restaurant owner could tell Fasciani was the name of the company, based in the province of Pistoia, that had sold him the product. Without being able to look at any paperwork, Fasciani and his comrades were forced to seize all of the restaurant’s truffle product.
Fasciani and his team drove to another restaurant, this one closer to the heart of Bologna’s city center, and found the same product in the kitchen. The product had come from the same source, a company in Tuscany, and both restaurants told Fasciani that they had paid the market price for bianchetto, anywhere from €100 to €500 per kilo. When the company representative brokered the deal, he asked the kitchens that they not prepare self-invoices recording the sale. Often, the company man would reduce prices and throw in other products, including other wild mushrooms or olive oil, to sweeten the deal.
After bringing the truffles back to the office as evidence, Fasciani contacted Alessandra Zambonelli, a mycology professor at the University of Bologna who is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading experts on truffles, and told her that he needed help in identifying what these curious-looking truffles were. She conducted a genetic analysis.
The results proved the tipsters’ hunch. They were not Italian bianchetti (Tuber borchii), as advertised on the menu, but belonged instead to the genetic species Tuber oligospermum, a type of desert truffle that thrives in the sands of the drier regions of the Mediterranean. In Tunisia, buyers can find one kilo for as little as 10 cents. In Italy, they are not considered of any culinary value and are therefore banned from sale.
After further chemical analysis, Fasciani was notified that the scent he had taken in when he initially examined the bags was derived from a petroleum-based essence, likely bis(methylthio)methane, a product harmful to human health.
In coordination with another office of NAS, Fasciani secured a warrant to travel to Tuscany to perform a search of the small Tuscan company the restaurants had bought the truffles from. The team recovered one kilo of what appeared to be the same product they’d found back in Bologna and paperwork that indicated the product had come from Tunisia.
The company told Fasciani and the other NAS officials that it was not the only enterprise in the area hawking the Tunisian product. Many restaurants, even sophisticated ones with unblemished reputations, the owner said, were serving the Tunisian fungus. He knew because he had negotiated with the Tunisian smugglers who agreed to travel there, buy the product, and exchange it with him near the Italian border. During these meetings and subsequent dealings with others in the industry, he had become familiar with other movers in the illicit trade. He agreed to Fasciani’s offer to become an informant. “Sometimes the small fish feels trapped,” Fasciani said, “and then he starts speaking.”
Fasciani followed the new intelligence to another restaurant in Bologna that the company said was selling the same smuggled product. There, the team discovered two jars filled with preserved, presliced bianchetto. As soon as Fasciani looked at it under good light, he suspected that the raw product had come from the North African desert. Uncapped, the jars had the same overpowering synthetic scent Fasciani had breathed in at the first restaurant; it was a clear tell. They seized the jars and provided them to Zambonelli, who confirmed the pieces had been sliced from a desert truffle.
People at the restaurant provided Fasciani with invoices to a company with an address in Bologna. It did not exist. The shuttered company, they later realized, had changed its location and name. When they finally tracked it down, the proprietor provided them with the first real lead to the big fish. The jars of sliced truffle were produced by a much larger truffle company, based not in Bologna or Tuscany but on the Adriatic coast in the city of Fano, in the northeastern region of Marche.
Fasciani and his commander wouldn’t reveal the identities of any of the companies, citing European privacy laws (the cases were proceeding through the courts when we spoke), but, they assured me, the one in Fano was “very well known.”
When the NAS investigators arrived, they uncovered 300 kilos of jars filled with sliced Tunisian truffles. The company was preparing to load the packages, filled with roughly €150,000 worth of mislabeled product, for an international shipment to Brazil. Officials at the company in Fano told NAS that there was still another company, based back in Bologna, that helped them import and export the Tunisian product.
How the larger company was able to smuggle the truffles through customs was more difficult to pin down. It likely employed multiple smugglers, and the product likely came concealed in larger shipping containers filled with other miscellaneous goods. Border officials in Italy are trained to spot weapons and narcotics, not odorless desert truffles. It took Fasciani months of working with Zambonelli before he was able to grasp the subtleties of the industry or the differences between Tuber borchii and Tuber oligospermum. Only a small percentage of the containers receive any degree of serious scrutiny anyway. And even so, technically, as long as they are not mislabeled as bianchetti or white truffles upon their entrance, the import of desert truffles is not prohibited.
NAS froze the transport and sale of the Tunisian tubers at all four companies.
Once seizures are made and a fraud is made public, other companies actively participating in the same fraud tend to back off. Perhaps they give up the game all together, or they prospect for another con in the business. After a series of seizures of desert truffles, companies and restaurants, for the most part, stopped trying to pass them off.
The risks of operating a criminal enterprise in the truffle industry remain low, though. Very few law enforcement officers make it their business to pursue truffle frauds. And without formal third-party oversight, a motivated fraudster can declare that he purchased his truffles from an anonymous Italian hunter and not from a Tunisian courier. In 2017, a new Italian tax law called for hunters to start providing receipts listing the origin of their truffles upon the initial sale to a middleman, to introduce a higher degree of traceability to the trade. However, hunters who earn less than €7,000 a year are not required to adhere to the new rules. And given a long legacy of anonymity, it’s still too early to determine how many hunters who earn more than the threshold will volunteer to subject themselves to both paperwork and a tax burden. In either case, a middleman could still modify the truffles’ origin on the forms.
A company could invest very little and have huge returns, as long as it chose its collaborators wisely and weeded out snitches. “What other kind of product can cost €5,000 per kilo and that you find under a tree?” Fasciani asked.
Fasciani told me he was actively developing another truffle investigation, speaking with informants and working in consultation with Zambonelli. The companies Fasciani had already caught weren’t the only ones buying Tunisian product. He couldn’t reveal specifics, but he claimed his leads were promising.
The truffle frauds haven’t slowed down. Across Italy, vans and trucks are regularly pulled over, carrying loads of undeclared eastern European truffles. In 2017, the Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s financial police, discovered a €66 million tax fraud among truffle producers, including some of the country’s largest. In 2018, an Italian citizen was arrested in Turkey and held on more than €100,000 bail for attempting to smuggle 26 kilos of Tuber borchii out of the country and into Bulgaria. The truffle fraudsters operate boldly, as if they know people like Fasciani and Ubaldo have other investigations to pursue.
They also understand who their target market is: Diners looking to buy truffles for what they represent — class, wealth, refinement — rather than for what they really are.
Reprinted from THE TRUFFLE UNDERGROUND: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus. Copyright © 2019 by Ryan Jocobs. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.