From Pig Food to Porcelain Plates
When people talk about the “big three” of Western gourmet fine dining, they usually mean caviar, foie gras, and truffles. But while all three have origins in the West, they're now also mass produced here in China. And why not? There's more than enough land and labor. And in the case of foie gras (made from the liver of a duck fattened by being painfully force-fed, sometimes through a long tube), China's lack of a nationwide animal protection law makes it near impossible to impose the kinds of bans on the delicious product that have rolled out elsewhere.
But truffles are a different story – unlike caviar and foie gras, which were brought to China by foreigners, few realize truffles, a kind of edible fungus prized for its earthy flavour, are native to China too. Specifically to the biologically diverse southwestern province of Yunnan.
There are two main types of truffles: white and black. The white is rarer, dearer, and significantly more flavorful and aromatic than its black counterpart. The French argue their truffles are the best, of course, but my personal preference is Italian truffles. Every year the tranquil Northern Italian city of Piedmont fills with chefs, restaurateurs, and foodies for an annual truffle festival, where attendees bid on the largest white truffle of the season, and spend the rest of the time sampling wines and eating truffles. It's casual decadence to the max.
In Yunnan, black truffles are abundant. In 2015 a reporter for The Guardian interviewed local farmer Mao Xinping, who revealed he and his wife would forage for the black gold nuggets to feed to their pigs! Relying on instinct and experience, the couple were able to unearth two ice cream buckets full of the things in about an hour and a half. The size of the bucket was unclear, but assuming they were a typical gallon-sized American tub, at current market prices their haul would have fetched more than 3,000 yuan (US$476). Not surprisingly, since discovering the value of their pig feed they have made a rather lucrative business out of selling black truffles to China's high-end restaurants. Sorry piggies, you'll have to stick to eating slop.
China is, in fact, the biggest producer of mushrooms in the world, and in 2014 made some three-quarters of the world's total production of 10.3 million tons of the fungus. Yunnan alone produced 200 million tons in 2015 and exported US$1.5 billion worth, including porcini, the famous Japanese matsutake, and seasonal morels. The moist, cooler climates are the perfect environment for mushrooms to thrive.
Unlike the other two of the “big three,” Yunnan truffles need some work if they're going to compete on the same scale as their French and Italian counterparts. While Chinese and French black truffles look identical in appearance, the former are sometimes dismissed as not measuring up to expectations – or as “knockoff truffles.” This is not entirely fair as Yunnan truffles ( Tuber indicum) are in fact a different species from the European ones ( Tuber melanosporum).
The fragrance of a Chinese truffle is weaker and less impressive, a problem when the first thing people notice about a truffle is its sweet, earthy scent. Taste-wise they have less flavor and a chewier texture.
Chinese truffles may not win an international award anytime soon, but the surplus of lower-cost supply has seen them incorporated into more types of cuisine. At one-tenth the price of their European counterparts, they're being used more commonly in Chinese cuisine as chefs experiment with dishes that play to their strengths, meaning this delicacy may soon be a regular on lazy susans around the nation.