Truffle wars: French farmer on trial for murder

A French farmer went on trial this week for shooting dead a man he thought was stealing his truffles. The shooting a occurred during a so-called "truffle war" that saw French farmers regularly threatened by armed thieves.

Truffle wars: French farmer on trial for murder
French farmer on trial for murdering a 'truffle thief'. Photo: Remy Gabalda/AFP

Laurent Rambaud, 37, had grown increasingly frustrated with a spate of thefts in the southeastern region of Drome, and on the night of December 20, 2010, headed out into his fields armed with a shotgun.

He came across 43-year-old Ernest Pardo, who was known as a truffle hunter and had previous indictments for theft, who was walking with his dog.

Taking him for a thief and believing him to be armed, Rambaud fired two shots on Pardo, killing him almost immediately.

The charge against Rambaud has been reduced from murder to manslaughter after the court decided the killing was not premeditated, but the 37-year-old still faces 30 years in prison if convicted on Friday.

Rambaud, who was president of the young farmers association in the region and a volunteer fireman, had repeatedly complained about thefts.

Truffles are a delicacy in France, known as “black diamonds” and worth around €1,000 ($1,100) per kilo during the holiday season.

“This is a man who felt in danger that night. He was scared,” said his lawyer Alain Fort in opening remarks, who added local farmers had been confronted by armed thieves.

The trial continues, with judges due to give their verdict on Friday.

In 2014 The Local reported how French truffle growers are up in arms over cheaper imports from China which they say are being doctored by unscrupulous chefs and passed off fraudulently as the hugely prized local variety.

In comparison to the price of truffles in France, the pale tuber indicum variety from China and the Himalayan foothills fetches only €30 a kilo.

French trufficulteurs, as the cultivators are known, allege that some eateries spray scents and chemical additives on the Asian variety and pass them off as Perigord truffles to an unsuspecting clientele.

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‘Unprecedented’ black truffle shortage hits Dordogne

Drought in the truffle heartland of France means the famous "Black Diamond" truffles are in short supply this year and are being sold at exorbitant prices.

'Unprecedented' black truffle shortage hits Dordogne
All Photos: AFP

The traditional Saint-Alvère market in the Perigord region (now known as Dordogne) opened on Monday, but closed its doors after just 10 minutes.

The traditional seasonal market, which runs until February, is famous for its black diamond truffles, a delight for foodies around the world.

But this year only 13 kilos were sold in total, seven kilos fewer than last year.

The reason for the lack of the Tuber melanosporum — dubbed “the black diamond” on account of its colour and extraordinary price – was put down to a lack of rainfall earlier in the year.

Reports suggest the truffle heartland went some 14 weeks without rain earlier this year.

“Fourteen weeks without rain is crazy. It’s the first year we have seen that,” Patrick Maxime who runs the market told Le Figaro newspaper.

How to spot a good truffle? “A good truffle has a perfume, an aroma. If it smells of nothing, move on,” said one specialist. The finest black truffles have a subtle aroma and an earthy flavour reminiscent of rich chocolate.

The shortage of black diamonds has of course impacted on the price, with Le Figaro reporting that category one truffles had hit €650 a kilo at the Saint-Alvère market.

Category two truffles were going for a slightly cheaper price of €400 a kilo.

“A lot of truffles are immature or damaged,” said Maxime.

Trufflers now face a barren season but are hoping a cold dry snap may improve their harvest over the coming weeks.

But their industry faces an uncertain future.

Scientists behind a 2012 study found that climate change was hitting the Périgord black truffle hard.

A century ago, French trufflers notched up a harvest that, according to legend, reached 1,000 tonnes in a year.

In the 1960s, truffle yields were still 200-300 tonnes annually.

But in recent years, they have been a meager 25 tonnes or so, prompting retail prices to rocket to as high as €2,000 ($2,500) a kilogram.

The Aquitaine region, or more to the point the departments of Dordogne, Gironde and Lot et Garonne, account for most of France's truffle production.

In a letter to the journal Nature Climate Change, Swiss scientists said they now had clear data that drier summers were to blame, as this affected the oak and hazelnut trees on which the prized fungi grows, a process known as symbiosis.