From Pig Food to Porce­lain Plates

NewsChina - - FLAVOR OF THE MONTH - By Mina Yan

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.

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