Intro. [Recording date: September 13, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is September 13th, 2021 and my guest is journalist and author, Rowan Jacobsen. He has written books on apples, oysters, and now his latest book and our subject for today is Truffle Hound: On the Trail of the World's Most Seductive Scent, with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs. Rowan, welcome to EconTalk.
Rowan Jacobsen: Thanks, Russ. Good to be here.
Russ Roberts: So, your book is the story of the world of truffles. And, I've heard of truffles, but I actually didn't know much about them. I now am fully educated, remarkably so, by your very entertaining book. But, I think most of us, when we think of truffles, think of chocolate. So, that's not what your books about. So, tell us what truffles are.
Rowan Jacobsen: It's funny, most people actually think of the chocolate truffles when they hear the word truffles. But, the chocolate ones are named for the real truffles, which are the fruiting bodies of a fungus that lives underground and has a partnership with trees. When the fungus wants to reproduce, it makes these spore-filled balls, which are called truffles, and which the chocolate ones were kind of inspired by.
Russ Roberts: So, that's crazy, because the real ones--the ones that are fungus--aren't very chocolaty most of the time, from what I can tell from your book. But, you're saying it's just the shape? The round, little ball thing?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, basically when the first chocolate truffle came along, somebody looked at this little, round ball, and thought, what does this remind me of? Oh, I know. This thing that's a mushroom that lives underground that's really expensive. So, that's a good thing to name these after.
Russ Roberts: So, they are really expensive. And, maybe we'll get into why that is as from an economist's perspective. But, give us a feel first for how expensive they are, and a little bit about the world of truffles. There are a whole bunch of different varieties. Some are more expensive than others. Some are more considered more tasty than others. Give us a little bit of an overview.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah. So, the two famous truffles are the black winter truffle, which is associated with France, and the white truffle, which is mostly associated with Italy. And, the white goes for about $3,000 a pound in the United States, and the black goes for maybe $800 a pound. And the difference in those prices is not a perceived difference in quality, but because the black truffle is cultivated. We figured out how to farm the black truffle. The white truffle, no one's ever been able to figure out how to farm it. So, it's purely a wild-foraged ingredient. So, supply is much sketchier for the white.
Russ Roberts: So, the wild foraged ingredient--I love that phrase--because most of the book--a lot of it's a cultural commentary on food, and life, and dogs, and being outside, which is really cool. But, a lot of it's just the challenge. They're underground. You can't--mostly, almost always--you can't see them. So, how the heck do you find them?
Rowan Jacobsen: And, that to me was one of the key fascinations that led me to work on this book, is: Here's this very significant industry that can only find its material by using a dog. Truffles smell really strong. That's their whole reproduction strategy, is: they're underground but they smell so strong and irresistible to an animal that an animal with a good schnoz will be able to detect them from yards away, and will be consumed with the need to dig them up and eat them, and then spread the spores later.
We are not one of those animals with schnozzes that good. So, we need a partner. And, originally, people partnered with pigs a few hundred years ago. And, a lot of people think we still use pigs to find truffles. But, back in the 1700s, people figured out that it was a lot easier to work with a dog than a pig. The dog doesn't actually care about eating the truffle. It just wants the treat, so it will dig up the truffle for you, and then look for its treat. So, no pigs have been used in a long time.
Russ Roberts: Pigs like the truffles. They eat them. That's one of the reasons that they got--they're unemployed as truffle hunters, because--right?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, they love them. And, they are unemployed, except for Nicolas Cage's new movie, Pig, which centers around him having a truffle pig that gets stolen, and he has to go find his truffle pig. But, no one told the screenwriters that no one uses pigs anymore, apparently.
Russ Roberts: Okay. And, based on a true story, kind of, once, 300 years ago.
There is an expression, 'Even a blind pig finds a truffle every once in a while,' right? Which is a fascinating expression to me. But, I'd heard that, and I didn't--your book allowed me to actually understand the richness of that line. And, of course, the blindness is not so important. That's really interesting. I never thought about that.
Rowan Jacobsen: No problem for a blind pig. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, the dogs--you said people don't have good enough schnozzes. There's a nice discursive treatment of human smell versus dog smell. I always, quote, they have a "more sensitive" nose. It's a little more complicated than that. Explain why dogs are so much better at smelling a truffle. Remember, this thing is underground. It's exuding some kind of scent and producing volatiles--the little pieces of stuff that go in the air that make the scent. But, why is a dog so much better at sensing that than a human?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, and it is amazing how much better they are. It can be, like, 35 degrees in a cold Italian forest in December, and a dog will be finding these things from 30 yards away when they're a foot underground. It's just amazing. And, pinpointing the exact spot and telling you where to dig.
And, it's because the dogs have several different kinds of upgrades on our noses. One, they just have a lot more olfactory receptors. So, if you think about it like a camera, they've got--they're going to have a lot more sensors picking up on that image. So, you're going to have a much higher pixel image, much higher resolution image. And, then the size of the schnoz--they can actually bring in a lot more air at a time. So, they're sampling constantly.
And, they have a unique physiological evolution that allows them to be better than us, too. For us, we have basically one passage that--we breathe in, and then the same air goes out through the same way. So, it's in, out. And, so, everything is getting mixed up, and we're breathing in some air that we just exhaled.
For dogs, it doesn't work that way. They've got those little slits on the sides of their nose, and that makes it a constant one-way stream. So, they breathe in. The air actually gets held up in their nasal passages for a while, and then shot out through the sides of their slits. They have a little flap where they can change the direction the air goes. So, then they're always breathing in fresh air straight up and in. They have time to analyze it, and then they shoot it out the sides. So, it's a whole different system.
Russ Roberts: And, in the actual hunt, they're trying to--of course, there's, unlike, say, a beam of light, where you can just, you see its source and you can head toward it, smells are constantly sense. Aromas are constantly wafting around in different directions, making it a little harder to pinpoint where it's coming from. And, what the dog does is this really beautiful dance of triangulation, and often with a second dog, correct?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah. A lot of hunters will have two dogs, and sometimes even a third trainee dog, whose job is just to watch what the other dogs are doing and learn. But, yeah, they'll bracket a smell, and then, just like you say, they'll start triangulating. You'll see them just going back and forth in the woods. And, you see dogs do this with other smells all the time. And, what they're doing if they're building a mental spatial image in their minds of where that scent is, and then they--so that they can go right to it.
Russ Roberts: And, presumably, they're measuring something about its intensity, which is, it's a hotter, warmer, colder thing that's telling them to where to head, in which direction.
Russ Roberts: There's a lot of dog life in this book. And, Rowan, I told you before we started, I'm not a dog person. I'm sure a lot of listeners now are pausing their audio or their video and saying, 'Oh, EconTalk was nice, but it's over.' But, I'm not particularly a dog person. But, it's interesting, I've come to appreciate dogs, partly through YouTube, because I've seen more dog human interaction through shared videos than I did when I was not a dog person, particularly not a dog person. But, one of the things that's really beautiful about the book is this--the zeal with which some dogs interact with their both owners and the truffles in this search. And, talk about the different breeds and how much they cost, because it's rather extraordinary.
Rowan Jacobsen: It is, yeah. So, a good truffle dog can--as we said, a white truffle can sell for $3,000 a pound. So, if you have a dog that's capable of finding a pound of truffles in a day, that's a very valuable dog. So, I've heard a lot of different prices, but there's a breed from Italy called the Lagotto Romagnolo, which is the only breed that's actually specifically bred for truffle hunting. It has been used for truffle hunting for hundreds of years. And, they're pricey now. Like, they go for--$5,000 is pretty typical. If you get them from Blackberry Farms, which is this sort of high-end resort in Tennessee that's become famous for breeding them, I think there, it's more like $8,000 or $9,000, and you've got a three or four year waiting list. So, the dogs are expensive. But, a really good truffle dog, if you're a professional, will pay off, so it's worth it--one that's trained and is good to go--because it takes a long time to get them up to speed if they haven't been doing it.
Russ Roberts: But, one thing we learned across the course of the--what's fun about your book is it starts off with this very romantic image of Italy is the source of all the great truffles, and the Lagotto Romagnolo dogs as the only really true truffle dogs.
But, as the book evolves, we learned that there's truffles in England, which is one of the least romantic places you could find truffles, perhaps. There's truffles in Canada. There's truffles in Oregon. There's truffles in North Carolina. There's truffles in Serbia.
And, people use all kinds of dogs, and some even don't like the Lagottos [Lagotti--Econlib Ed.]. I did not--I'd never heard of the breed. You can Google it, folks at home. It's maybe the cutest dog I've ever seen. So, I can see the appeal of them. They're really perfect if you're going to romanticize Italian truffles and have a dog called Lagotto Romagnolo, is that right? So, it's got the word Rome in it; it's perfect. But, there are other breeds, right?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, and I think you nailed it. The Lagotto just has the perfect image. And, they are, they're really cute. They're the ancestors of the modern standard poodle. So, if you like poodles, you're going to love Lagottos. It's a poodle with a much better name. And, they're super enthusiastic about it, high energy. They look like they're smiling all the time. So, super appealing. I can see why people go crazy for them. And, they do. Go to Instagram, plug in Lagotto, and you will see how crazy people are for their Lagottos, whether they hunt truffles or not. But, all the professional hunters I went with said any mutt off the street can learn to do this if you work with them.
Russ Roberts: Again, not being a dog person, and not doing that much work with the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and dogs at the airport, I never really thought about how you train a dog to look for one smell. I understand that you could train a dog to do something--but one smell. Like, it's the worst thing in the world if you had a truffle dog that wanders off in search of squirrel, which is less than $3,000 a pound usually in my supermarket. How do you train out a truffle dog?
Rowan Jacobsen: And, even the best truffle dogs do still have the squirrel issue. Like, this will be dog's work for years. It's on the job, looking for truffles, smells a squirrel, and you got to wait 10 minutes because squirrels still rate higher than the truffle.
But, yeah, so there are different philosophies. There's a European philosophy of dog training, which is much more strict, and it's a working relationship. And, then there's the American philosophy of truffle training, which is make hunting truffles the most fun thing you could possibly do, and just make your dog want to do it all the time. And, they both seem to work.
But, in Europe, the dogs are often kenneled. They don't live in the house. They're working dogs. So, they'll get their dogs out, and go on the hunt. And, for the dog, it's their exercise. It's the most fun thing they do, because they're in a kennel. So, they're super into it, but it's work. And, they like being working dogs, just like a Border Collie likes being a working dog.
America, we're much softer. It's like we're softer when we train our kids in school, and we're softer with our truffle dogs. So, in America, you let them start eating the truffles when they're young. You hide the truffle under pillows in the house, and they find the truffle, then they get a treat. You just make them love truffle hunting so much that that's all they want to do. And, then you go out in the woods, and they've already learned to look for that scent, because you've been burying truffles for them. And, then hopefully, they start learning to find the wild ones. And, that's always the tough part. Like, it's easy to train them to find a truffle in the house, or under a pillow, or even that you just put under the grass, one inch under the grass. But, transitioning to a wild setting is always a lot more complicated, because there's a million smells out there in the woods.
Russ Roberts: And, it's like the difference between batting practice in a real game. It's those artificial things.
I'm going to read a short excerpt. There are many parts that amused me in your book. It's very colorful and entertaining, but this part I really liked. You're working with two dogs, an owner of a dog, named István, and Mocha. You say:
István is also the Pope of truffle dogs. And, the owner says, "I can train a dog to find truffles in thirty minutes. Just throw a truffle in the grass, and let your dog fetch it. Over and over. Be very happy when they bring it back." Then start burying it, and do the same thing.
The harder thing, he says, is finding a dog who loves to work hard day in and day out. So many hunters told me their dogs were toast after two or three hours, but István and Mocha hunt six hours a day, five days a week.
And, then your truffle expert gives us advice for the ideal truffle dog, which I just love this:
- 1. Buy a year-old dog. Its personality will already be evident.
- 2. Hunting and retrieving breeds are best. Water retrievers can be really good. He's not a fan of Lagottos. "Too much energy."
- 3. Don't get a dog that's too smart for its own good. They have to like doing the same thing over and over and over.
- 4. Train your dog alone, not with an older dog. When dogs are together, they pay attention to each other, not you. The mind meld happens when you spend a lot of time alone with your dog.
And, then this amazing story is fun. One of these truffle dogs--
[István] was once hunting in Italy with friends. The first truffle they dug up had a hibernating frog next to it. Everyone exclaimed over the frog. The dog was watching their reactions closely. After that, it raced to the woods digging up frogs.
And, those are dogs. You can't really--it's hard to explain stuff to them. You got to get it right the first time, I guess.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, I love that story. And, that guy, István Boggy[sp.?], was probably the best truffle hunter I went out with. That was in Hungary, and his dog, Mocha. He and Mocha really did have a mind meld where they had worked together for years. Mocha is a black Lab, very mellow, which was a totally different approach than the Lagottos I was with. And, yeah--they would decide ahead of time whether they were hunting black truffles or white truffles that day. And, they just had all these hand signals between them. It was really quite amazing.
Russ Roberts: I confused readers. I think I assumed István was one of the dogs. He's the owner. Okay. Yeah, sorry. When you said he was the Pope of the truffle dogs, I thought maybe he was within the truffle dog hierarchy, the Pope. No. He's the--okay, I got it.
Russ Roberts: One of the extraordinary things about truffling--truffle hunting--is it's become something of a tourist attraction. And, there's this romance--again, as we read your book, we find out there's a wide range of different types of people who hunt truffles. But, in this sort of romantic, seductive version, it's a salt-of-the-earth, peasant-like person with a dog, and you can go out with them and experience the magic of truffle hunting.
And, as you point out, a lot of these folks bury truffles in advance so that the tourists will be sure to find something and have a good day. And, so, talk about how you didn't want to do that. And, some of your days were, like, when you insisted that they not be buried in advance, and you actually could, as a journalist, not just as a tourist, find out what the experience was like. And, tell us what that experience is actually like, what it's like to go out in the woods on that cold December day in Italy.
Rowan Jacobsen: When you get over for the International Truffle Fair in Italy, which is the giant one, you'll see lots of advertisements for people who want to take you out on a truffle hunt. And, they don't really say that it's a simulated truffle hunt. Of course, it is, because tourists are looking for quick bang for the buck. They want to watch the dog for half an hour, an hour at the most. They want some success, right? They want that instant gratification. So, from that perspective, it makes sense to do a simulated hunt. And, the hunters sure as hell aren't going to take budget tourists to their best truffle hunting spots. I mean, they don't take anybody to those spots.
So, it's simulated, but for whatever reason, they don't tell you that. They should just say, 'We bury these in advance. Now let's have fun watching the dog do its thing.' But, they don't. They try to pretend it's real.
But, I, of course, being a journalist, wanted the full deal. Being from the Hunter S. Thompson school of gonzo journalism, I wanted the whole experience. So, I finally found a hunter who was willing to really take me out.
But, yeah, what that meant is--they all go in the night, in the middle of the night, in Italy. And, when you ask why they do all this hunting at night, you get a bunch of different answers. There's the romantic answer, which is, 'It's all mysterious. Nobody can see what you're doing. It's secretive.' Or they'll say, 'The wind is less than night, and the temperatures are cooler. It's easier for the dogs to detect the scent.' But, then you ask a few more questions, and it turns out, well, they started hunting at night because they all have day jobs, right? So, like, when are you going to hunt? This was the only time available. But, they still--the tradition is to go at night.
So, there you are at midnight. It's cold, because the truffles are ripe in November and December. And, you're just, like, trying to keep up with the dogs in these forests where you can't see. And, you're also worried that you're going to be found by another hunter or possibly whoever's land you happen to be on, because there are some public forests, and there are some private forests, but it's hard to tell at night sometimes. And, it can take four hours, and you often get skunked. My first time going out, we didn't find a single truffle for a full night's hunt. And, that wasn't the only time I got skunked.
So, there's a very romantic idea that you just sort of, like, trundle after your dog for a little while, and you come home with your truffles. But, it's actually a lot of work to find the truffles.
Russ Roberts: It reminded me a lot of my youth when I was--I spent a lot of time fishing. It's easy to claim that if you don't catch anything, it's just as good, because the real point is to be outside. But, the truth is you want to catch something.
And, the other part that reminded me of fishing is that, just like under the surface of the water, you never know what's lurking, how big a fish. The fun thing about truffle hunting, they don't all come out the size of chocolate truffles. A lot of them are bigger, smaller. So, talk about some of the excitement. And, by the way, talk about how you actually have to excavate the truffle once the dog finds it. It's not so straightforward, and you had some misadventures--I was going to say adventures. You had some misadventures.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, so depending on the type of truffle, they can grow from a couple of inches under the surface to a foot or more down. And, the Italian whites, the really valuable ones, tend to grow the deepest. They'll be a foot down, often. And, also, that soil in central and northern Italy is pretty rocky. So, it's a workout to actually get the truffle. So, they all carry what's called a vanghetto, which is kind of like a little spear or a trowel with a long handle, maybe like a three-foot handle. And, once the dog finds the spot, the dog will start to dig. And, then they'll push the dog away, because they don't want the dog's claws to hurt the truffle. Because the pricing on truffles, there's different tiers depending on the quality. And, a dog-nicked truffle is immediately--you're down to tier three or whatever.
So, once the dog finds the spot, they'll push the dog away and start to work with their vanghetto. But, you don't want to nick the truffle with that either. So, it's very much like excavating, like, valuable dinosaur bones. I did that once for a story, and it was the same thing. You sort of go down a wide circle around where you think the truffle is, especially if you think it's a good one, and then slowly dig around it until the truffle is basically on a little pedestal of soil with a big, like, bomb crater around it. And, only then do you slide underneath and pop it off.
So, it can easily be 20, 25 minutes of work to get a really good truffle. And, like you said, you don't know ahead of time how big it's going to be. And, often, you'll have the full excitement of a find, and you dig down, and you get a little BB [bullet balls, ball-bearing sized pellets shot by BB guns--Econlib Ed.] that has no value at all. And, you can still smell it. The smell is still there. It's amazing. But, you can't do anything with it.
Russ Roberts: The aesthetics of the truffle itself--when you say if it's nicked by the dog's paws, it's not worth as much. Some of these truffles are going to be taken into high-end restaurants and shaved at the table over pasta, say, or other food. And, the experiences is far more aesthetically pleasing if it's a whole, undamaged truffle, correct?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, and those are the ones that are really expensive. All the chefs want a beautiful, round--basically a golf ball. That's what they're looking for, that they can get these perfect disc slices over pasta or eggs or whatever. So, if it's got furrows in it, if it's not round, it's not worth as much.
And, sometimes, the truffle will be broken when you dig it up, or the digger will break it. Like, once I thought I knew what I was doing, I volunteered myself to dig up a truffle. And, I destroyed it with the vanghetto, and turned, I don't know, a $500 truffle into $100 worth of pieces of truffles. I didn't try to dig up any more after that one.
But, so, the pieces get sold to use in sauces and stuff. But, for the table side, you really want something that's as aesthetically pleasing as it is sensorially pleasing.
Russ Roberts: My favorite part of that story when you dug up your own one is that when you cracked it and butchered it and ruined it, the dog averted its eyes in shame and embarrassment for you.
At high-end restaurants--like, most of us have been in a restaurant where someone might, I don't know, crack some pepper. And, they're cracking pepper, and you go, and they say, 'Is that enough?' And, you say, 'Keep going, put some more.' Or you might have Parmesan cheese at the table. Sometimes if you're at a low-end place, it's a shaker. But, at a nicer place, it's a piece of cheese with a little grater. And, that's not the way they do it with truffles, is it?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, well, at that price--this is really a European thing that Americans have picked up on a little bit--but, at that price, you want to know exactly what you're getting, and then they want to charge you for exactly what you're getting.
So, it's this bizarre ritual, where they come to the table with the truffle and the shaver and a little scale--like a cocaine scale, basically. And, they weigh the truffle, and then they start grating. And, they keep grating until you say, 'Basta.' ['Enough,' in Italian--Econlib Ed.] And, then they weigh the truffle again. And, so, you've paid the difference in price between what it used to weigh and what it weighs now. So, you can get as much as you want, but it's going to run you four euros a gram or whatever.
Russ Roberts: So, if you were really into--if you really love truffles, and you really wanted a lot over your pasta--like, you tell a story in there about a serving of eggs which might be 10 euros. With the truffles on it, it's 40 euros, which is something on the order of $50 worth of eggs for breakfast. It's a very expensive breakfast, even by modern metropolitan standards. Is that what you're adding to the cost of your food when that scale is at the table? Is it a $20, $30 addition to spice up your pasta, or is it sometimes more than that?
Rowan Jacobsen: That's just sort of like the entry level, is yeah, you're probably adding about $30 bucks. And, it can go up from there. So, that sounds a little crazy, but sometimes, I like to compare it to the bottle of wine at the table. People don't hesitate to spend 100 bucks on a bottle of wine for four people, right? So, it's--
Russ Roberts: Some might, but yeah.
Rowan Jacobsen: Whether they should hesitate is another question. But, it's not uncommon for a bottle of wine at a nice restaurant to cost $100 bucks or even more. So, I kind of see them as, like, bringing in another expensive bottle of wine into the evening.
Russ Roberts: Now, one of the terms of your book is the emotional response that truffles engender in you as a newcomer to this world, or something of a newcomer. You say at one point that they don't have much taste: it's the smell that's the--the smell is the powerful thing. You have a whole bunch of really wonderful attempts by people to describe it, what it smells like. You write at one point, this is your own version:
I have smelled lots of yumminess before, but this was different. It was not the warm, cozy scent of chocolate chip cookies baking. Nor was it mouthwatering. It was hardly a food scent at all. It was more like catching a glimpse of a satyr prancing across the dining room floor while playing its flute and flashing its hindquarters at you. You think, What the hell was that? And, then you think, I have to know.
So, there are many beautiful--here's one of the nice ones--there are many beautiful evocations of the scent: gasoline, garlic, strange, pineapple. It's hard to describe. Some people have tried. But, it's seductive. It gets into your bones somehow evidently, and you want to pursue it. Is that what happened to you?
Rowan Jacobsen: Totally. I was seduced by that first truffle in Italy. And, it is very difficult to describe. There's so many different volatile aromas that truffles make. And, clearly, they've figured out what drives an animal crazy. But, it's surprising--like, one of the immediate responses you have when you smell that first truffle is, 'I'm fascinated, I'm fixated, I want more.' But, you can't quite understand why, because it's not a standard deliciousness-type smell. It's more--it's something that just takes over your mind, which I think is the truffle's goal all along.
Russ Roberts: You're right. You quote Josh Ozersky, a food writer. You said he described it as, quote, "a combination of newly plowed soil, fall rain, burrowing earthworms, and the pungent memory of lost youth and old love affairs." It's really a inspirational fungus. There aren't many fungi that manage to bring out that kind of poetry in writers.
It reminds me a little bit of scotch. People--one of my favorite--there was a contest for people to describe what Laphroaig tastes like. And, a lot of people don't like Laphroaig. It's one of my favorites. It's in my top three scotch favorites with Ardbeg and Lagavulin. But, the winning entry, or one of the winning entries in the Laphroaig contest was that it's like kissing a mermaid after she's eaten barbecue. A really gorgeous piece of poetry, right, to describe something. It's indescribable: It's smoky, okay. It reminds you of the ocean somehow. So, you get the mermaid--it's just really--it's really cool.
But, how is it that if the main thing is the scent, how does it get used in pasta? Are you smelling it while you're eating it? Or is it somehow it does have a strong taste in some set--once it's been shaved, or--what's going on there?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, and this is one of the very strange things about the whole culture of truffles to me, is when you first smell them, when the thing comes to your table, say, or when you first, like, find it in the ground, there's just this amazing, complicated emotional sensation of when it hits you and goes straight into your emotional circuits in your brain. But, then, it can very quickly, this thing that was intense and overwhelming, can easily disappear. And, it's so volatile.
And, so, once it gets put on food, especially if the food's hot, those volatiles can disappear pretty quickly. So, it can go from overwhelming to invisible--like, impossible to find. It's very elusive that way.
And, people screw up truffles all the time. Chefs screw it up all the time. A lot of chefs really have less experience working with them than they might let on. So, they actually try to, like, cook with the truffle. And, then you just lose it. You really need to use it at the end or just before the end of cooking.
Or with the whites, they always do them at the table, raw, for that reason. But, it's just--for something that's very expensive, it can totally disappear on you. So, if it's done wrong, people can be very underwhelmed by their truffle experience.
Russ Roberts: Now we come to a great--sad for some of us--disillusionment that you came to, which is: Truffle oil is not really truffle oil. Talk about that issue, and how chemical and synthetic truffle flavor gets used.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, and that's the solution, the industry solution to the fact that these things are tricky to work with. At some point, I don't know, in the 1970s or 1980s, I think, originally, chemists figured out how to synthesize one of the key components of truffle smell, a chemical called dithiapentane. And, it does. If you smell it, you're like, 'Oh, yeah, that's part of that truffle thing.' But, it's only one of 50 or 100 different molecules that are in the real truffle smell. But, it is one of the dominant ones. So, it's got the old-socks scent of truffle. But--
Russ Roberts: I think I would have picked a different one, but okay. That's what they chose. All right. Gymnasium. It like designing a perfume called Gymnasium or Locker Room. You wouldn't think that would sell, but if that's what they did, okay.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, and unlike the real truffles, it persists in food, no problem. Plus, you can use--it's super cheap. Pennies for applications, so you can use as much as you want.
So, this whole new wave we've seen of truffle products--the truffle salts, and truffle oils, and truffle fries--that's all truffle oil. And, it's totally synthetic. There's no truffle in there. But, it does give people a very strong experience. Not necessarily a great experience, I think. But, I think it actually turns a lot of people off of truffle who've never had the real thing. But, it also makes people expect to be completely overwhelmed when they do have truffle. So, the subtleties are completely lost.
Russ Roberts: The part I really liked about the synthetic truffle oil thing is that you talked about some of the chefs who had been using it extensively, and then they find out it's, quote, "fake." Now, you could argue, 'Well, it's just a chemical, and real truffles have chemicals.' And, so, it's not that bad thing. But, as you point out, it's not really even beginning to capture the real thing.
And, it's the fun part is that they should have known that it wasn't the real thing, because it was cheap. So, as an economist, I just love that. You think you're getting this great bargain: you're getting truffles themselves, or, $50 bucks to add to your pasta but just sprinkle some oil on for a nickel. It's probably not going to be the same thing.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, and the economics of it are really interesting. And, I'm sure you can think of 100 parallels, but does introducing this super cheap ersatz version undercut the real thing or make the real thing more valuable? It's like diamonds and fake jewels.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, yeah. Fascinating.
Russ Roberts: The other economics--there was a lot of economics sprinkled throughout the book. But, one of the things I loved the most was--I've already mentioned that for me, the truffle hunting experience reminded me of fishing. You actually compare it at one point to lobstering. You say,
Take a wild resource and enough time, and the locals will work it out, no government required.
What were you referring to there? What's the informal norms that prevent the tragedy of the commons and preserve the hunting or the fishing in this, whatever you want to call it, the truffling that happens as a result of those norms?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, so, with lobstering, it's pretty well known that basically, the fishermen have worked it out amongst themselves over generations, where everyone knows where everyone's spot is. And, even though it's theoretically a commons, they figured out how to prevent the tragedy of the commons. And, so, if you come into an area and fish someone else's area, you're going to find your lines cut on your boat, or worse. You know, like, you're going to find some people waiting for you when you get back to the docks. It's not going to happen. Like, they police their resource very carefully. And, your spot, when you're done, will be inherited by someone else. But, it's all unofficial, yet it's very real.
Truffling is the same way, and I think it's for the same reason, because it's done in places that are out of control of the state. So, the state has never had to come in and make the rules. With truffling, you're out in the woods. No one really knows what you're doing. No one's policing you, officially. And, then you come in with this, and you're selling this small, untrackable, valuable resource into a completely gray market, basically, where there are buyers moving up the chain, but then pretty much avoiding the taxman all the way, traditionally.
So, it was always--so, the rules had to just evolve naturally. And, they did. So, just like with lobstering, if you have an area that you've inherited or you've earned for some reason that you can go truffling, or you and your family can go truffling--in Italy, it's often families--you've got that, and everyone knows not to go there. There are also some public areas where everyone can go.
But, if you try to go somewhere else, there's lots of stories of people coming back to their car in the middle of the night, and all the tires have been slashed, or worse. Sometimes in Italy, dogs have been poisoned. Like, if somebody is hunting with their dogs in an area that they don't have official rights to, people will actually put out poison baits for the dogs. Like, I've never talked to anyone who experienced that directly, but there's definitely a lot of stories about that happening.
And, then Serbia has become a hotbed for white truffles, and farther into Eastern Europe, Romania. And, everyone told me that things get tougher--the farther east you go, the tougher things get--and that they said they would not feel comfortable just hunting blindly over there.
Russ Roberts: Talk about the culture generally. A lot of the people you talked about, you spent a lot of time with different types of people in this business. Some are doing it on the side, others are doing it full time, some of the families have done it for generations. It's a really fascinating look at--fishing and other activities are like this. There's a huge range of how much intensity is devoted to it. And, of course, when it's incredibly valuable, a little bit like a gold rush, there[?] much people start saying, 'I'm going to go spend a couple days, just see if turn up one.' Talk about that culture, and the kind of people it attracts, and what it was like to be an outsider in that world.
Rowan Jacobsen: So, like fishing, nobody wants to show you their best spots. So, you have to kind of talk them into it. But, in this case, the people who are really good at it, they kind of want to show off a little bit at the same time. So, they want someone to see how good at it they are.
The dynamic here was really interesting, because even a bunch of guys--and it's mostly guys--who would never--they don't need you to know how good they are. I think they would rather just keep it quiet and not reveal their spots. But, they love their dogs. And, they really want you to see how good their dogs are. They're so proud of their dogs. So, the dog was the key thing that I think got me into a lot of places. Once they knew I wanted to chronicle their dog's genius, they're like, 'All right, fine, come on, you have to see this.' So, that got me into a lot of places.
But, yeah, often, it's, as you'd expect, the people who want to be off with their dogs in the woods--it's an excuse to take a walk with your dog in the woods. Maybe get away from the home for a little while. And, if all goes well, you've paid for the trip, and then some, right? And, at worst, you've had a nice walk in the woods. So, there's that aspect to it.
Then there are sort of, like--and in certain areas, this is more true than others--but the guys who might not have a real job, and might need to score $100 bucks today for various reasons, and are just out prospecting. They don't necessarily last that long at it. But, there's the occasional sort of crackhead truffle hunter, as well as the traditional guys who make it a profession and have done it for years.
Russ Roberts: You talk about the British truffle person who leads a very intense life. He's supplying some of the best chefs in England with truffles, and spent a lot of time on a motorcycle delivering them, and we're finding them[?] at the last minute. Talk about that and what that was like being with him.
Rowan Jacobsen: It's a guy named Zak Frost. He's transformed the truffle business in England. Because for a long time, truffles were what--so many other ingredients in the restaurant industry, where these guys would just show up on your back door with products, and you would buy them, and you didn't really know much. It was before the whole, like, farm-to-table revolution where the chefs weren't that interested in the provenance of these ingredients. But, then that changed for some of the ingredients. And, truffles, because they were traditionally dealt by these old school French and Italian companies, didn't change with the rest of the farm-to-table movement. But, now, there's new guys coming in the industry who are doing exactly that. And, Zak Frost is one of those.
So, he wants the chef to know exactly where all these truffles are coming from. He wants them to know about the hunters and the dogs. He wants to make it much more personal, and also improve the freshness. Like, there's much less of a chain of supply there. He works directly with hunters, gets the truffles, hops on his bike the day they arrive, and starts delivering to chefs. So, that's really changed things. And, there's a few other guys like him both in the United States and in Europe.
But, yeah, so what that means is that he's ordering these ingredients that cost thousands of dollars a pound, and that deteriorate within days. So, to me, it's the nightmare of anxiety, where you might be shelling out $50 grand for a shipment that is going to be worth nothing in eight days. And, the clock is ticking, because truffles are constantly losing weight because they're losing moisture, and they'll rot after eight or 10 days. So, he's basically got to be on that bike, and has got to get all those truffles delivered as fast as he can. So, that's his life.
Russ Roberts: And, you talked about the provenance of the truffle. And, the first part of the book, you are a little bit seduced by this as well--that the Italian truffle, the French truffle, somehow a Serbian truffle doesn't sound as exciting. But, that--and a lot of truffles that are passed off as Italian or French are actually coming from Serbia or Spain, or even in one case, you chronicled China. So, talk about that Chinese debacle for one of the larger producers of truffles in Italy.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah. The French and Italians kind of set themselves up for disaster by pushing this myth that the best black truffles came from France and the best white truffles came from Italy. Which was fine, until there wasn't that much of a supply in France and Italy of those truffles, and they had to be getting their truffles from other places, which were just as good all along.
But, they couldn't--they were stuck with their myth at that point. So, they just keep pretending. So, Spain grows most of the black truffles, sells them to France, where they get sold as French truffles for the single reason that supposedly French truffles are better, even though they're the same. Same deal in Italy with the white truffle: more and more coming from Eastern Europe or from Central Italy, and are just as good as the Alba truffles that were originally made famous. But, the Italians are still stuck with this story they have to tell about how all truffles come from Alba, and those are the good ones.
So, they just need to get rid of these old myths, and celebrate the fact that truffles come from all these different places, and might have small differences depending on the place and the landscape. But, that's actually part of the fun. So, I think we're seeing in this revolution taking place in truffles, kind of what we saw in the wine world a generation ago, where people started realizing, 'Oh, there are wines from places other than Burgundy and Bordeaux. And, they're pretty good, too. So, let's learn about all that.'
Russ Roberts: But, the China thing was a special case. So, talk about that.
Rowan Jacobsen: So, the ultimate example of getting trapped by your own story was the great black truffles. The black winter truffle is considered the creme de la creme of all the black truffles. That's the one that goes for about $800 a pound. But, it's always in short supply. There's a truffle that grows wild in China that is a dead ringer for it, but has, like, maybe 2% of the smell. Really smells like nothing. But, it looks just right. So, for a while, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, there was this huge surge of truffles being dug in China, shipped to Italy or France, and then sold as black winter truffles--French black winter truffles or Italian black winter truffles. But, they were all Chinese. It was illegal.
And, the numbers were huge. One dealer in Italy was caught with 47 tons of these Chinese truffles in their warehouse, like, 10 years back. So, it was--probably a significant amount of the black truffles being sold in the world were completely fake and were actually these Chinese truffles. And, I don't think that's true anymore, but there was a dark era there.
Russ Roberts: That 47 tons--I think you said that the entire Italian crop was 30 tons, something like that?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah. French and Italians produce maybe 20 to 30 tons a year, each. And, so, this was a huge amount of ersatz truffles.
Russ Roberts: So, is there an explosion of--toward the end of the book, you talk about some of the attempts to farm truffles. I'm living in Israel, so I just for fun googled 'Israel truffles' and found out some Israeli agricultural users are trying to create--I don't know which kind, I don't remember---but they're growing truffles in some novel way. There are a lot of people in America creating--basically, you create a tree farm, and you seed the trees with truffles so that as they mature, the truffles expand and fill up the soil, but beneath the surface of where the trees are. Given the prices, this must be happening in lots of places. And, I assume it's going to have a little bit of a long-run effect on bringing that price down a little bit. Is that happening? Do we see that?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah. Well, you tell me, because that's--you're right, the French truffle, they've gotten pretty good at cultivating it. And, people are doing it all over the world. I actually met that Israeli guy at a conference a couple of years ago. He was on it. And, I think you're going to see some really good black winter truffles coming out of Israel.
Russ Roberts: [whistled 'whew'--Econlib Ed.] Thank goodness.
Rowan Jacobsen: But, yeah, it's funny, because you see the people--the truffle promoters--like, pulling, encouraging new people to plant their farms. And, you see the returns on investment, and the assumption is always that the price is never going to drop. But, Economics 101: I would assume once everyone's neighbor is growing black truffles, that supply is going to affect things, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I'm thinking.
But, your point, which is a sub-theme of the book, is that there is this European brand, whether it's the French or the Italian, that--in the case of wine, you can't call your product Champagne if it doesn't come from the region of France. So, you call it Prosecco or whatever other names there are for sparkling wines. You can't really do that with truffles, or at least they haven't figured out--they may try to do that. But, especially if it's true that it turns out they are just as good.
And, so, one of the themes of your book, which you just alluded to a minute ago, was what I might call the democratization of truffles: that there's this glamor about, say, champagne, and then it turns out Prosecco is pretty good. And, so, there might be this glamor about Italian and French truffles which could keep the price somewhat insulated from competitors and new arrivals. Although, if they're being sold in the gray market as French and Italian, it's not going to help them. They're going to have trouble keeping that price up, no matter what.
But, I love this idea that this very stodgy--'stodgy' is not the right word, traditional--traditional way of doing things is being disrupted. It's being disrupted by technological innovation in the farming of truffles, this agricultural innovation we were just talking about. And, it's being disrupted, I assume, by chefs all over the world wanting to bring this product to their customers, and realizing that they can't all have Italian--and the pasta is still pretty good when it's not the Italian, it's the Serbian truffle. So, talk about what's happened with other products like wine, and how that process has worked there, and why you think we're in the middle of that with truffles.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah. And, with truffles, it's being disrupted by the technological innovations of growing the trees--so people can grow them all over the place.
But, it's also being disrupted by cell phones. Because what you're seeing now, many of the hunters I went out with, they've got their clients on their cell phones. Some are just individuals buying them for their home dinners. Some, dealers, small scale dealers. When they find truffles, they'll just call the first person on the list and take a photo of the truffle, and say, 'You want it? I'll put it in the mail to you tonight.' So, cell phones have allowed some of these hunters to cut out all the middlemen in the chain, go straight to chefs or straight to consumers. And, I think that is really going to democratize the truffle business.
But, yeah, back to the hierarchy, it seems like the French really love to create hierarchies for everything. Like: This is the best version of this, and here's third-best version.
Russ Roberts: Yeah--wine, cheese.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah. And, for a while, truffles were sort of a prisoner of that, and that's really changing now. Americans want to try all of the examples of something, and see what's good about each one. And, so, with wine, now with American wine the prices are actually pretty competitive with French wine now. And, oysters are one thing I've noticed, where, again, you had this inherited conventional wisdom that the French oysters were the best. And, then everyone in America started farming oysters, and people started noticing that they were--the quality was amazing. And, now, with oysters, there's been a real shift, where people don't really think the French oysters are better anymore.
So, it can happen as soon as--it always takes some time. The perceptions can hold something down for a while. But eventually, the chefs are going to figure it out. Especially younger chefs. I think it's often--you get generational turnover, and that's when it happens.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, just like in science right? You have to kill off people with the wrong theories before they can adopt it, and the new people come along who are more open-minded, don't have the stake in it.
Russ Roberts: I don't think I've ever had a truffle. So, give some advice to--for fun, I googled 'truffle' and 'restaurants near me' or something, a Jerusalem restaurant, and found some truffle fries, which I immediately recoiled in horror from, because I now know that they're not really truffle fries. They are ersatz, pseudo, faux truffle fries. But, say I wanted to--a consumer listening to this, a foodie who's never had truffle--one of the things you do gather from your book is it's a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition: that not all the chefs know how to use them well. So, you could go to maybe even a high-end restaurant, spend a reasonably large amount of money, and not really get a truffle.
So, what advice do you have for people--this episode reminds a little bit of the Jack Daniels distillery tour in Lynchburg, which I've been on a couple times. I think it's still true, but when I was on the first--the first time I went to that distillery, you see the bourbon and smell the bourbon in all of its manifestations from its beginnings, in a mash form to concentrated. And, when you're done, you really want to have Jack Daniels, and you can't have one. It's a dry county. Lynchburg is a dry county. And, they give you lemonade at the end of the tour--at least they used to.
So, at the end of your book, I'm like, 'Boy, I'd really like to try some of this pasta with truffles.' How do you find the real thing? And, of course, you catalog--the first half of the book is a lot of your sometimes disastrous attempts to buy a truffle in a back alley from somebody, and--anyway, it's a very charming and amusing set of stories. But, if you're a customer, and you're trying to find a good meal with truffle in it, because you've listened to this, and you think, 'This sounds good, I want to try this. This is a novel experience I've missed out on in life,' what do you do?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, well, one thing that you have in your favor as a customer is that working with truffles is actually really easy. As we had talked about, you don't really want to cook with them. So, you don't have to figure out a recipe. All you really need to do is shave this thing over your risotto or your pasta or whatever at the last minute.
So, anybody can do that at home. And, so, I really think home consumption of truffles is the way to go. And, because they're also--they're very small, so they ship great. So, it's great to order them online, and just have them overnighted to your door, and then you're good to go. And, you're going to be saving money over a restaurant, anyway.
Russ Roberts: But, you do have to have the right kind of shaver. And, yours got confiscated, your first attempt. I assume you have a better one now. But, you did--talk about what happened with your microplaner?
Rowan Jacobsen: Well, yeah, I got that confiscated at the Milan Airport. Stupid--I should have known. But, like, you can't really, like, fight your way into the cockpit with a truffle shaver. But, I guess, you know, it's metal; it looks sharp. [crosstalk 00:58:02]. But, those are--the funny thing is you get--those are when you want those perfect thin slices, the thin discs. But, in terms of flavor, just any microplane grater is going to work great. So, you can use any grater in your house to do it, really. But, the microplanes are perfect. So, I'm not worried about seeing those perfect discs. I just want to get that flavor all over. So, I just grate truffles.
Russ Roberts: But, then you got to look back at the grater and realize there's $12 worth of truffle left in the little interstices of the shaving part.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, no joke, actually. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: So, you spent two years, I think, on this odyssey. And, it's an odyssey. You go from Italy to Oregon. It's really a mix of a food book, a travelogue, and a dog book, I'd say, plus some nice references to popular culture. The Damn Yankees was a real bonus for me. I appreciated that. Readers will have to discover why that's in there. But, I'm curious--
Rowan Jacobsen: We're dating ourselves--
Russ Roberts: I know. But, I didn't think you were--I think I'm older than you. I'm pretty sure I'm older than you. And, I didn't know anybody who's as young as you knew Damn Yankees and the song "Whatever Lola Wants." I knew it was Gwen Verdon. I think my parents saw Gwen Verdon on Broadway in Damn Yankees. There's a lot of things good about that show, one of which is the title. I'm a Red Sox fan. But, anyway--
Rowan Jacobsen: And, I am. Me, too.
Russ Roberts: What I'm curious about is, I'd like you to reflect on the impact on you of this experience. You had a good time. You got a fabulous book out of it. You got to the bottom of a mystery of cuisine, and chefs, and the supply chain; and it's all fantastic. But, the book starts with you being, again, seduced by this smell, and thinking, 'I want more of that.' Where do you stand now? Are you over it? Are you still infatuated? Where's your passion right now? Tell us about what happened to you as an eater. And, you confess at the end of the book that you did teach your dog with some truffle oil to maybe go out and find some.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, he's pretty good. Although he doesn't want to go too far. If there truffles within 300 yards of the house, he's good with that. Beyond that, he's like--ehhh. But that's a great question. And, it did change me, and for the better. I pay better attention to smell than I used to, I think. Like, you would think as a food writer I would have been paying attention to smell, anyway. And, I probably was indirectly, but just to--navigating the world by smell, you watch a dog do it, but you're thinking about smell much more consciously than normal when you're out there truffle hunting. And, you realize how sort of vision centric you are all the time, and that can be limiting in some ways. So, I've definitely become better appreciator of smell, and just smell--the intrinsic value of smells. When you watch the dogs at work sampling things, you can just tell that they're just--it's like we admire art. They're just taking it in. It's not necessarily goal-oriented all the time. It is as if you're digging truffle, but they're just taking in smells--because the world is an amazing place and they're enjoying it. So, I've definitely picked up on some of that.
And, I see forests differently now. Truffles kind of drew me into a much better understanding of what's going on under the soil than I had before.
So, I used to think of a forest as just a bunch of individual trees competing with each other for resources. Now, I know that the fungi that make truffles are actually connecting all those trees underground in these mycorrhizal networks that are interplaying together. So, the forest--all those trees, even trees of different species--are actually operating more like a super-organism in a sense.
And, the fungi underneath are the ones pulling the strings and trading resources in this marketplace that's happening underground. So, I actually see them as bringing sort of like executive function to the forest. They're, like, strengthening this tree, weakening this tree, making sure there's a couple other species of trees in the mix. And, for their own ends, but there really is this incredible trading network that's going on under the soil, and in a sense, able to make better decisions than the trees left on their own wood. So, I see a lot of complexity in the forest that I might not have picked up on before. And, that's been a pleasure.
Russ Roberts: How about as an eater, though? I want to know whether you like truffles. People have obsessions. I would say this is kind of an obsession--if I may be personal for a minute. And, you get over them, or they become a lifelong habit, a hobby. Is this something you're just going to--is the book over now? Truffling is--not just truffling, but the truffle itself is just now in the past for you, or do you think this is going to be a passion for a while?
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, no, definitely obsessed. Like, full disclosure: On Friday, I'm heading down to the Appalachian Mountains, an undisclosed location in the Appalachian Mountains, to hunt the Appalachian truffle, a native truffle of Eastern United States. So, I'd say the obsession continues.
And, it's because of whatever that those truffle scents do to your limbic system. You know, they cut straight to that area where memory and emotion are sort of entangled.
And, that's probably changed me as an eater, in that I realized that that's a key part of eating. It's not just like the flavor on your tongue. It's the way the experience lingers. Like, often, what will happen with a truffle is you'll have a truffle, and you'll be like, 'Wow, that's an amazing smell.' But, then days later, something will happen to trigger almost like a flashback memory of that smell. Like, you'll, like, re-experience it, and you get a very nostalgic, almost like Proustian[?] moment of being just, you know, like, staggered by the memory. And, it's made me realize that that is such an important part of eating. It's why often we're drawn to foods from childhood and things like that. It's like the story you tell yourself of experience, and so much of that is through smell, and we don't even realize it.
Russ Roberts: Now, the movie Ratatouille is certainly a tribute to that experience. And, the rats treat garbage the way you talk about truffles--and dogs, at least. They savor this particular rotting piece of food. But, it's a beautiful--it's a very clever, obviously, way to get at this piece of the human experience that I think we often either ignore or don't appreciate.
And, I think the idea that--it's a weird thing that you can remember a smell, right? You can close your eyes and remember of something you saw from a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, your childhood. You can also close your nostrils, and remember what--I remember what my grandparents' attic smelled like when I used to go up there on a hot summer day in Memphis, Tennessee, when they didn't have the fan on. And, that it's a part of life that I think we--that is under-appreciated.
Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah. Yeah, there's this great quote by this sense[?] researcher that I use as an epigraph at the beginning of the book, which is: Tell me why you love her, and what the attic smelled like. And, I think that kind of captures that ineffable profundity of smells, that it's hard to find words to explain why they matter so much.
And, certainly, like, the crazy things people do for truffles, either to find them or to try to grow them, it makes no sense if you just look at the dollars. So, something else is going on. It's a drive that goes much deeper, and it's connected to love in some sense, I think.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Rowan Jacobsen. His book is Truffle Hound. Rowan, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Rowan Jacobsen: Thanks, this was great.