Words

The Truffle Underground

A darkly delicious mystery

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Authors and publishers have learned that if you add a lengthy, intriguing subtitle to your book, you increase the chances of someone picking it up. Investigative journalist Ryan Jacobs put this into practice with his first full-length work, The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulations in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus.

With a title that dramatic, it’s important to deliver, and Jacobs does, crafting a fast-paced, fascinating micro-history that will take you out of your quarantine tedium.

Jacobs was covering international crime for The Atlantic when he took note of a headline in Der Spiegel, “Mushroom Thieves at Large in German Forests,” and started asking around. While his contact seemed to think the attack of a forestry worker by four shady porcini foragers was a one-off, he did tip Jacobs off to a bigger story—the dark underworld of the truffle industry.

Even if you’ve never had so much of a whiff of a truffle, much less a nibble, Jacobs will make you want to experience them. He conveys their intoxicating allure, their rarity, their ephemeral nature. He takes time to explain how they grow, how humans first discovered them and ultimately learned to cultivate them, and how the truffle business evolved into a multimillion-dollar industry.

Like other food-focused micro-histories—think Salt and Cod by Mark Kurlansky, Banana by Dan Koeppel, and Milk by Anne Mendelson—Jacobs piles on vivid details using evocative language.

Where The Truffle Underground goes a step further is by introducing the crime angle—bandits sneaking into oak forests and poisoning prized truffle hounds, truffle hunters passing off inferior product, arson, theft, tax fraud and even murder.

By the end, Jacobs unearths a vast conspiracy to defraud unwitting consumers by selling more “genuine” Italian white truffles than the country can possibly produce each year.

The world of truffles is filled with colorful characters and Jacobs interviews many of them. There’s gendarme Andre Gaugier, who patrols a region of 2500 French truffle growers, and Laurent Rambaud, a farmer who was charged with murder after he shot and killed an intruder to his truffle grove.

Jacobs also checks in with Sandrino Romanelli, a white truffle trader who counts Robert De Niro as a client. He introduces us to Gian Piero Vivalda, a Michelin-star restaurateur whose hard work and good luck was sorely tested in 2014 when four robbers attacked him in his home and made off with eight kilograms of fresh Piedmont truffles and, for good measure, several bottles of Barolo.

Jacobs ends with an interview with Olga Urbani, the over-the-top heiress to the Urbani Tartufi fortune. He describes her customary fur coat, her regal bearing, her questionable ethics and her unwavering passion for truffles. As she shaves sliver after sliver of fragrant white truffle over a perfect plate of fresh tagliatelle, Jacobs experiences “the kind of culinary pleasure that rips you away from concerns and anxieties. It made me forget where I was.”

We could all use some truffles right about now.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at http://www.wcls.org/info. For those who don’t have access to the internet or would like to speak to library staff one-on-one, WCLS is open for phone calls from 1pm-5pm daily at (360-305-3600) or by calling a WCLS branch directly.

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Whatcom Art Market

11:00am

Works by as many as 45 Whatcom Art Guild members can be viewed from 11am-5pm Tuesdays through Sundays at Whatcom Art Market, 1103 11th St.

Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present

11:00am

The fifth annual “Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present” exhibit can be seen from 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday through May 2 in Anacortes at the Scott Milo Gallery, 420 Commercial Ave.…

Scatter Sunshine

11:00am

From 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday, visit La Conner’s Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum, 703 S. Second St. Currently on display are “Scatter Sunshine: La Conner in Bloom…

The Work of Jesus Guillén

11:00am

“The Work of Jesus Guillen: An Artistic Legacy of Love and Courage” can be seen from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through May 2 in La Conner at the Skagit County Historical Museum, 501 S.…

Rock, Paper, Paint

11:00am

“Rock, Paper, Paint” shows from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through April 25 in Edison at i.e. gallery, 5800 Cains Court. The exhibit features new “drop” oil paintings by Allen Moe, rock…

Sculpture Northwest Exhibit

11:00am

The works of 15 Sculpture Northwest artists can be viewed both indoors and out from 11am-5pm Fridays through Sundays (and by appointment) through April 23 on Camano Island at Matzke Fine Art…

A Road Well Traveled

12:00pm

“Max Benjamin: A Road Well Traveled” can be seen from 12pm-4pm Thursdays through Sundays at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St. The solo exhibit featuring the work of the…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…

Art-iversary Exhibit

10:00am

From 10am-5:30pm Mondays through Saturdays through April 30, celebrate 20 years of ownership for Sheri Wright of Fourth Corner Frames, 311 W. Holly St. A wide variety of works are for sale as…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…