Black truffle collector breaks with tradition to sell direct to the consumer

By Jenny Eagle contact

- Last updated on GMT

Josep Maria Carol with his daughter Núria at Vic market, Spain. Photo: WRBM.
Josep Maria Carol with his daughter Núria at Vic market, Spain. Photo: WRBM.

Related tags: black truffles, Spain, Alimentaria

A black truffle collector in Vic, Spain, is breaking with tradition by being the first vendor to sell black truffles direct to the consumer rather than on the black market, which is rare in this region.

Josep Maria Carol, owner, Carol Tófones (truffles) and a founding member of the Osana Truffle Grower’s Association is a strong supporter of the regulation of the truffle industry, leading the fight against illegal growers and supporting best truffle collection practices. 

'Black diamond'

Josep Maria Carol

The third-generation family collector is now teaching his daughter Núria, 23, how to become a pioneer in the collection and marketing of truffles, which in itself is an accomplishment because most collectors in this region are male, retired, and trade on the black market. 

A truffle is a type of mushroom which typically grows on the roots of trees. The best kinds are found in Italy and France, where the soil types are perfect. They are expensive because they are rare, they are difficult to find and they have a unique flavour. In some cases, the price can go up to €400 per kilo​,” said Carol. 

They vary in size, from 4cm in diameter to 8cm and can weigh up to 100g. This explains their high price on the specialised markets that sell them in Catalonia such as those in Vic or Centelles​.” 

Vic is the capital of Osona (municipality) in Catalonia, Northeast Spain and Carol has a stall at the local market in Plaça Major, every Tuesday and Saturday to make truffles more accessible to a new generation. 

Other regions known for black truffles (Tuber Melanosporum or ‘black diamond’) include Alba in Italy’s Piedmont region and Périgord, in south-west France. Other black truffles can also be found in Greece, Spain and Italy and new cultivation of truffles are being carried out in California and Australia.

The global truffles market is expected to reach a CAGR of more than 19% during the period 2019-2023, according to Technavio. It predicts a key factor driving growth is the rise in commercial truffle farming.

It claims commercial truffle farms are gaining popularity across the world as they produce higher volumes of truffle than traditional truffle cultivation in the wild. It says as a result, the gap between the supply and demand for truffles is reducing. Several countries including Australia, the UK, the US, Canada, and New Zealand are engaged in commercial truffle farming.

The challenge for us today is climate change. There are very few types of truffle that are considered good or high quality, and they will not grow in most areas due to the soil pH, moisture, and soil content. They can take five to 10 years to mature to become big enough to hunt for,​” said Carol.

I’m happy right now thanks to the position I am in (openly selling the product to consumers) but I see hard times ahead due to climate change because mushroom collection is dependent on the weather and truffle yields are much lower than they used to be​.”

Shelf life

The shelf life of a truffle is only good for a day or at most a week and they have a short season, of a few months. Once harvested, they need to be eaten as after five days the aroma will disappear after seven days all the flavour is gone.

Most black truffles are an ideal accompaniment to sauces, pates and dishes en croute, to keep the maximum flavour. 

Talking about why he decided to set up a market stall, Carol said he was persuaded by Pep Palau, co-director, Forum Gastronomic Barcelona, because he wants to protect the industry. 

The black truffle industry is responsible for the damage it is doing. The industry hasn’t evolved because it’s sold in secret on the black market, which means it is uncontrolled and cultivation is not regulated​,” said Palau. 

Carol truffles

The black truffle isn’t protected. We want to open it up to protect the industry. The collection and marketing of the product is conservative but in a negative way and the future of the industry depends on cultivating it. People in the industry don’t want to do it because they think it will kill their business so there is a battle on our hands to bring it out into the open and to become more transparent.

Some collectors want to keep trading as it is and others want to evolve and cultivate the product and protect it so it doesn’t die.​” 

Palau said about a century ago, France produced multiple hundreds of tonnes of truffles every year but today that number is down to 40 ton per year, which means it becomes a scarce product in high demand which in turn can lead to a lot of fakes going around.

In Catalonia, the truffle has an important presence, representing 30% of the truffle surface known in Spain.

Carol said owing to climate change, if there is no rain for two months prior to hunting the truffles, they cannot be harvested. Black truffles are normally collected between November to March. But they are sensitive to conditions including; soil temperature; soil moisture and irrigation; plant density; spacing; the amount of sunlight striking the ground and competing fungi.

Truffles are relatively rare. There are over 200 species known to man, but only a handful are fit for consumption. The ones that are good to eat, aren’t very easy to cultivate.

Carol says because the truffles belong to the ectomycorrhizal fungus ​family, they can only grow underground, near the roots of trees. With these trees, they absorb the soil for water and nutrients to pass on to the tree, via its roots. In exchange, the tree provides the truffles with sugars it generates from photosynthesis.

They grow from late autumn/winter to early spring, beneath the soil among the roots of specific trees, but mainly oak and hazelnut.

Artificial cultivation

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Black truffles can be artificially cultivated by impregnating the roots of selected young trees with the spores, although connoisseurs would argue they lack the flavour of wild truffles. 

The black truffle starts out red or white in colour and the rain helps them to become black. The hunting season is traditionally with pigs or dogs before sunrise and it ends in March when the seeds germinate again. We don’t need rain during collection time,​” said Carol. 

I also have a partnership with people who are lucky enough to have the trees where truffles grow in their gardens in Spain. I have an agreement to access those gardens of the owners in return for offering them advice on how to grow and cultivate the truffle, then I pay them a fixed price dependant on how much the truffle is worth but you need to have a licence to be able to be a certified collector, not everyone is able to do this​. 

Because of their high value and underground origin, truffl​e farmers are highly secretive about their harvesting spots. Other collectors sell black truffles to the general public on the black market and in Catalonia the members who are collectors are mainly men.”​ 

Truffle farms have become one of the main tourist attractions in many truffle-producing countries such as Spain, France, and Italy. Several truffle hunting tours are being organized in these countries with the increase in the number of tourists visiting truffle farms every year.

The city of Vic will host an international congress on truffles called Trufforum​, between January 24-26, 2020, with the intention of putting the entire professional sector in contact with the general public and disseminating the values ​​and culture of the edible fungi.  

“The global foodservice industry is growing at a rapid pace because of factors such as innovation and customization in menus. The increasing demand for healthy and nutritious meals in menus has led chefs in fine dining restaurants to use truffles in their dishes. Moreover, with changing taste preferences, consumers are willing to explore new, customized foods which will boost the demand for truffles,”​ according to Technavio. 

Trufforum was created by the European Mycological Institute (EMI) to promote the responsible use of European truffles both in domestic and professional kitchens. 

The event acts as an international meeting point for the truffle industry, held every year, with activities for professionals and consumers, including cookery courses, a conference and two exhibition spaces. 

For more information about food and beverages in Spain Alimentaria Exhibitions will host Alimentaria 2020​ in Barcelona, from April 20-23. 

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