China Is Near

After all the hullabaloo about the sticky question of the European Union’s decision to forbid the importation of Chinese shrimp (as well as other products such as rabbit meat and honey), our attention turns once again to China.
On Saturday February 16 and Sunday February 17, Montefortino, in the Marche region of Italy, will host the Festival of the Tartufo Nero dei Monti Sibillini,the local black truffle. What better occasion to pay homage to the Melanosporum Vittadini tuber, the precious black truffle that is an important part of the mountain economy of this central Italian region. The truffle is recognizable by its rough, warty black crust and its gray, violet-tinged flesh ribbed with subtle white veins. The dimensions of the black truffle vary from the size of a hazelnut to the size of an orange, and the aroma of the tuber is light and pleasant. The black truffle can be collected near oak, birch, hazelnut and evergreen trees from the start of December through mid-March. Its primary market is Norcia, but it is sold all over the eastern side of the Apennines.
So what has China got to do with all this? To find out, ask the member of the Marche Regional Council who demanded ‘education about the truffle and compensation for damages incurred by Chinese black truffles being brought in by an Italian import/export company’. The truffle season has already been jeopardized in this mountainous area: dry summers and icy winters damage the fungi and make them hard to collect. Now, in addition to their other worries, the truffle hunters and vendors of Norcia are having to come to terms with the invasion of Chinese truffles, the notorious Tuber indicum and Tuber Himalayensis varieties. Physically, these truffles are very similar to the Italian species, but their taste and sensory quality is much lower. An Italian company that has been operating in China for seven years has announced its control of the distribution in Italy after selling nine tons of Chinese truffles, the equivalent of 40% of the entire production of the Marche region.
These truffles are bought in China for ¤3 per kilo, then imported and treated with artificial colorants and aromas to give them an appearance and smell similar to those of the native Italian species. They are then resold on our local markets at prices that can reach ¤500 per kilo. This trade can have truly devastating effects on the economy of the Monti Sibillini, and also – it appears – on the environment, since the Chinese truffles reproduce easily and their spores might also invade the territory of the valuable Tuber Melanosporum Vittadini.
This hopefully explains why I am here again railing against the Chinese. But, as in the case of the shrimp, before getting too angry with them, let’s remember that it’s an Italian company that is at fault in the importation these truffles. What is more important is to consider what could happen next, given that China has accepted the WTO accords. These are the first skirmishes in a natural invasion by a market where products cost much less and product security, control and suchlike aren’t even an issue. In China, ‘product traceability’ is virtually unknown; the place is an ideal territory for the free outpourings of advocates of mass, high-yield agriculture and for sellers hawking GM foods – blocked by a rising tide of public outrage here in Europe.
Let’s hope for the best, but let’s be prepared for the worse. Above all, let’s not continue to accept the status quo, in which it’s the people with the most avaricious greed who come out on top. The losers in all this are the consumers and the producers – a situation that will eventually cause irreversible damage both to the producers and to the environment in the Marche region. Having said that, we are just at the beginning, and we still have the time and means to defend the production of high-quality Italian black truffles.

First published in Agricoltura – La Stampa 10/02/02

(Adapted by Anya Fernald)

Carlo Petrini

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