Phantom Flavors

Four years ago I began to write – and fight – against those phony products which use pernicious and loathsome synthetic flavorings in all manner of products: oils, pasta, butter and various cheeses

It’s not that I want to keep getting worked up about the food industry, but have you noticed how many of their mass-produced products say one thing on the label but are really something else? What a strange contradiction, what an odd way of making food! We find that olive oil becomes Olive Oil even though some of the oil isn’t olive at all; chocolate becomes Chocolate with significant amounts of unclearly identified vegetable fats among its ingredients; milk (and I don’t want to make cheap shots) is fresh even when it is eight days old; a product contains truffles even though it contains only minute traces of the precious substance. I wonder what sense there is in continuing to trick people who are not well enough informed and in good faith continue to buy “phantom” products whose true taste has vanished.

The occasional piece of legislation may have tried to remedy matters, but the situation has not improved much. But you have to recognize when there is good news, and it is good to pass it on. Four years ago I began to write – and fight – against those phony products which use pernicious and loathsome synthetic flavorings in all manner of products: oils, pasta, butter and various cheeses. It was triggered by a visit to a large manufacturer of rice and risotto products who introduced me to the inevitable truffled risotto without truffle. Since then I keep coming across excellent pasta factories featuring truffled pasta in their product range. Or wonderful delicatessen and wine shops offering food products which just couldn’t manage without fake truffle. I even visited a large American store selling completely ethical organic food which proudly displayed its artificial truffle-flavored oil. It is disgraceful: apart from the label misleading the consumer with the – permitted – wording “with truffles”, these products are truly revolting.

The nauseating flavor persists after you have eaten the basic food – whether it is oil, pasta, or cheese, it is certainly not top quality if its original organoleptic properties have to be so sadly subjected to such an intrusive flavor. Four years have passed and nothing seemed to be happening, at least until last December, when finally a bill on the collection and sale of truffles attempted to place some controls on the flavors. The good news is that not only was the bill passed by the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies but the Chamber of Deputies wisely decided to make the legislation tougher. Well done. The initial bill wanted to require products with the wording “with truffle” or “truffled” to contain at least three percent of real truffle based on the product’s total weight. And this would apply where there was additional artificial flavor present. Another trick then, but the Chamber saw through it. Their alternative proposal was: no use of the word “truffle” on products even containing a minute amount of artificial flavor. A categorical no, which in the food area – a sea of compromises and legal quibbles allowing all manner of fraudulent intentions to slip through – can almost be hailed as a miracle.

This resolute legislation will certainly cause long faces among many who will be hit in the pocket. For example, business people making a fortune with “truffle” products or those chefs who prepare truffle dishes without truffle when tourists pour into Italy. That’s it and it’s no good them making out that it is really the consumer who demands these products, that sales are too good to be stopped. If truffles are so valuable it isn’t only because they are good, it is because high-quality cuisine knows how to use them in a wonderful way. Truffles are valuable because they are rare, because finding them is difficult and absorbing. Prices are often ridiculously high and it is true that not everyone can afford them. Personally I would prefer to do without when prices reach certain levels, but everyone has to understand, particularly potential consumers, that the substitute products have no sense, they are completely different and may even be bad for us. The money spent, even though much less than would be spent on the genuine article, is money thrown away.

First published in La Stampa on January 11 2004

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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