The Trouble with Truffles: the effect of climate change on good taste

Being married to a food writer, you would think that at the end of the day our two jobs would have little in common. Of the two of us (me climate change blogger, he professional epicurean), you would think that I would run into far harsher criticisms and accusations of conspiratorial and delusional thinking. But in fact, there is actually nothing that people get more hysterical, angry and conspiratorial about than food. People love food and it makes them hysterical.

While my worst critics have only called me a “warmist” (whatever that means), my husband has actually been accused of being a stooge for “BIG CHEESE”. And I’m not talking about a symbolic big cheese, but the big cheese industry. I’m not sure what being in the pocket of big cheese would look like – I mean would we bathe in Gouda if my husband wasn’t in the food industry? It’s hard to know…..

Today though, our occupations will collide, as I will be talking about a fancy food. And this fancy food is controversial. Though some still swear it is a delicacy, it is slowly making its way into the land of raspberry vinaigrette and poached pears, i.e. déclassé. Only to add to the controversy, is that the availability of this food might be altered by climate change. The food I’m talking about is truffles. Not chocolate truffles, which became un-edgy about 20 years ago, but the fungal truffle, which is losing its cool as you read this blog.

Foodies, you may now lose your mind.

So let’s go over truffle basics briefly. Truffles are the reproductive part of a specific fungus that grows underground and colonizes the roots of some plants. They have a very distinct smell that trained pigs & dogs can detect, which make them into a sort of cryptic, luxury food. I mean how many foods do you need a specially trained pig to eat? Also, they look like poop, sorry foodies. They do. Fortunately they taste like heaven. To some people. In the year 2010.

The controversy with truffles started last year when some researchers published a little paper in a little journal for little scientists who like to get really worked up over little things, like fungi (you should see the articles on grasshoppers, we’re talking bloodshed). It seems that these researchers took a little truffle dog out to the forests of Germany, a place where truffles historically have been rarely seen, and found a bumper crop of one variety, the Burgundy Truffle (1).

How could truffles start growing where they historically never were? “Climate change!” The researchers declared. Warmer, moister soils in these German forests were making the forests more amenable for truffles to colonize. Countries that previously had been shoving their truffle growing in the faces of the Germans for years would soon have strong competitors. While the Mediterranean was becoming too hot and dry for truffles, Germany was becoming ideal. Take that Spain!

Sounds like a great story, but is this an accurate picture of what was really driving the new truffle invasion?

Some truffle-loving, rabble-rousing researchers immediately objected to this depiction of truffles (2). It turns out that burgundy truffles are not sensitive to temperature in the way that other truffles are, so climate would not be a strong direct driver of their success. Possibly instead, the shift in distribution could have more to do with the movement of the animals that disperse the truffle spores, which may have changed with recent climate change.

That is assuming that the historical truffle maps were complete. Maybe Germans just weren’t looking before? Or maybe the researchers were looking in the wrong texts, as there are historical records dating back hundreds of years demonstrating truffle harvesting in Germany.

The original researchers countered immediately. Those historical records are incomplete and inappropriate for scientific analysis. Though burgundy truffles are not sensitive to temperature, the plants they associate themselves with absolutely are. What is good for the tree (warmer climate) is good for the truffle (3).

So is climate change responsible for this recent bumper crop in Germany? Is it responsible for a decline in more Southern areas? In the end it may not matter what is responsible. The going rate right now for 2 ounces of truffles is $700.

Screw science, I’m getting a dog and moving to Germany to become a truffle hunter. See you suckers.

Further reading
(1) Truffles & Climate Change
(2) Is climate change altering the geographic distribution of truffles?
(3) Illuminating the mysterious world of truffles

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science writer in the Bay area. She apologizes for not blogging over the last two weeks, and also giving truffles such a hard time. As mellow fungi, they are just so easy to make fun of. What are they going to do? Come to her house? Yell at her? Losers.

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