In Southwest China, Truffles Smell a Lot Like Money
“I have to keep the good stuff hidden away,” Uncle told me as he set down a small basket of black truffles at the entrance to a wild mushroom market in the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming. It was a hot day, and we settled in for a long wait.
In between turning the truffles over to keep them from drying out, Uncle sized up the shoppers as they passed his makeshift stall, mentally separating the connoisseurs from the tourists. A man and his wife stopped to ask about his prices, but Uncle brushed them off. Another man, bald and dressed in black, sauntered over for a look. This time, Uncle sprung up to greet him. Telling me to keep watch over the stall, the two of them wandered off for tea in Uncle’s warehouse nearby. In China’s booming truffle market, personal ties are everything.
Uncle is not my uncle, though it’s as good a descriptor of our relationship as any other. As part of my research into the emerging truffle industry in Yunnan, in China’s far southwest, I’ve spent months trailing him to market days — long enough that he refers to me as his nephew and trusts me to watch over his stall. In his sixties, he’s active for his age, and his upscale outfits — dress shirts and leather shoes — stand out in the otherwise casual marketplace.
The day was nearly over before Uncle decided the time was right to make his move. Taking basket after basket of his best truffles out of hiding and arranging them in a neat row, he waited for the serious buyers to bite.
The fragrance of fresh truffles wafted over the market like a cloud. A wholesaler came sniffing around, asking if I might be interested in buying as well as selling. I turned him down after learning he came from a county on the outskirts of Kunming. Truffles taste differently depending on their terroir, and even minor geographic differences can produce tremendous variations in price.
Just as Shangri-La in Yunnan’s northern mountains is famed for producing the best matsutake, every truffle hopes to be born in Gongshan, not far from the Myanmar border. Uncle only trusts his long-term business partners, whom he calls his “brothers,” to get the goods. They acquire their truffles directly from the source, rather than from middlemen who make their money fobbing off goods further down the line of distribution — a category that includes Uncle himself, if truth be told.
Before leaving me in charge of the stall, Uncle had already sorted the truffles into different baskets. He always takes care in preparing the top layer of each, making sure the display reflects well on his business. A truffle merchant squatted down and examined them for a moment. I waited for him to stand up before subtly reorganizing them. “These are textbook specimens,” he remarked in a heavily accented Yunnan dialect.
There’s no textbook, but “standards” are key when it comes to pricing truffles. What makes a good truffle can be mysterious to the uninitiated. Their scent is somewhere between musky and animal, like cured ham or vintage cheese. Merchants prefer vaguer terminology. If you place a truffle under your nose and gently breathe it in, the damp earth on its surface has a slightly fishy scent, while the fruit body smells vaguely of fresh grass. In industry terms, this is the truffle’s “wet fragrance.” Once the surface dries, the fresh smell of plant matter and earth is replaced by a nuttier “dry fragrance.”
These categories are of relatively recent vintage in Yunnan. Prior to the advent of refrigerators, freezers, and cold-chain logistics, truffles were typically preserved by drying. This process greatly reduced their flavor and scent, and dried truffles were available for low prices at the province’s markets. Refrigeration has greatly expanded access to ripe, undried truffles, while also forcing sellers to reframe their overpowering scent as a sign of freshness.
What merchants call “freshness” is determined by a mix of three factors: a truffle’s size, shape, and maturity. The larger and more mature they are, the more fragrant and therefore more valuable they become.
Though various types of truffles may not look all that different to the undiscerning eye, connoisseurs can quickly sort out those fresh enough for sale on the luxury market. There’s a saying in the industry: “A lower grade costs you 100 yuan.” To maximize profits, Uncle and his assistants sort the truffles at least three times, assigning each one of 13 different grades. Black truffles between five and seven centimeters in diameter offer relatively good quality for their price. They’re mature, but not overripe. Rolling around in the basket, they release a fragrance so potent it assaults the noses of everyone within a 5-meter radius — myself included.
Much like wine and coffee, the complicated criteria developed by industry professionals both reflects and creates disparities in consumers’ personal tastes. Even some luxury truffle retailers can barely stomach the way their own, supposedly superior, wares smell. Uncle’s son doesn’t eat the truffles his father sells, claiming that they “smell like a pig in heat” and are better sold than consumed. A businesswoman I met in my research felt similarly, complaining that truffles have a kind of “masculine stench.” Nevertheless, she uses them to make soups in addition to selling them to her “high-end clients” in Shenzhen. When I asked why, she responded cryptically: “These things boost male virility, and they’re useful for women, too.”
She had made the long trip from Shenzhen to Kunming figuring she could buy truffles cheaper closer to their place of origin, only to realize that, by the time the truffles reached Kunming’s markets, they were already too expensive to make the trip worthwhile. Finding success as a middleman, as Uncle has, requires traveling — or knowing someone — further upstream.
Middlemen use their connections to capitalize on regional differences in truffle price and quality, moving their goods from where they are cheapest — in villages in Yunnan’s rural hinterlands — to markets where they can be sold to buyers like the above-mentioned businesswoman. The profit margin created throughout this process is referred to by middlemen as the difang cha — or “regional disparity.”
The more links there are in the distribution chain, the less transparent these costs become. This makes it easier for middlemen to define their own prices using nebulous luxury criteria, complex descriptions of terroir and palate, and dubious promises of increased virility or other health benefits. Between the smell and the cost, merchants sometimes need to sell buyers on the idea of truffles as much as the truffles themselves. One husband-and-wife team I met offers cooking tips: “Add a little chili pepper. No ginger or garlic — they overpower the flavor.”
The truffle market may be heating up, but the appeal of this delicacy is still a mystery for most — even Yunnan locals. Indeed, I’ve watched older Miao women directly pull truffles out of the ground and sell them by the side of the road for only a few hundred yuan a basket, with no fancy rhetoric or classification systems.
By comparison, when Taiwanese celebrity Barbie Hsu announced her divorce last year, the media delighted in the gory details of her new life, including the post-breakup plate of white truffles she ordered at a fancy restaurant for a reported cost of over $300.
Before it was a luxury food item, a health care product, or a trendy gift, the truffle was merely another fungus. On the value chain, Uncle is far closer to the old women who pick the truffles than Barbie Hsu, but it’s his work, and the work of other intermediaries, that has validated and spread the truffle legend across China, making it not just possible, but plausible, for luxury consumers to spend a fortune on a plate of humble fungus dug out from the Yunnan earth.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A vendor cleans truffles in Kunming, Yunnan province, Nov. 10, 2021. Li Jiaxian/CNS/VCG)