The locals of Hama Village know what to do with a fat, smelly truffle. For centuries, if the village pigs in this remote corner of China's Yunnan province were acting a little less amorous than normal, the farmers fed a shovelful of truffles to the creatures in order to guarantee a future litter of piglets. Then, a few years ago, a strange tale wended its way through this hamlet, so disconnected from modern China that Cultural Revolution slogans from three decades ago are still inscribed on the village's mud-brick walls: foreigners, for some mysterious reason, were willing to pay exorbitant prices for what the locals dismissively call "pig snout" fungi. "When we first asked the people in the countryside whether they had any truffles, they were shocked we wanted to buy them," recalls Wu Jianming, chairman of Kunming Rare Truffle Co., the province's largest truffle exporter. "An hour later, they brought us a whole bagful and still couldn't believe that foreigners wanted to eat what they usually fed to their pigs."
China is the world's biggest exporter of fake goods, from pirated DVDs to knock-off Birkin bags. Add truffles to the list. To the naked eye, the Chinese black truffle, or Tuber indicum, looks virtually indistinguishable from its much vaunted European cousin, Tuber melanosporum, a gastronomic delicacy that perks up winter menus with its earthy pungency. One taste, though, clears up any confusion. The Chinese variety is insipid when compared with the one found in France, Italy and Spain. Yet over the past few years, unscrupulous dealers in Europe and the U.S. have begun passing off the Chinese truffles as Umbrian or Périgord black diamonds. The deception has roiled the luxury-food industry, particularly as European harvests have dwindled. Last season, when a heat wave cut the Périgord bounty from the usual 50 tons to 9, the import of Chinese truffles skyrocketed to an estimated 30 tons, from 20 the year before. This season the U.S. is facing its own Chinese-truffle deluge. A strong euro has sent the price of French-truffle imports up 30%, to $1,800 per kg wholesale, in the past year, leading some restaurants and gourmet-store owners to substitute Eastern truffles for Périgords. Purists are outraged. "You can't compare the two," sniffs Guy Monier, who sells French truffles for $2,300 per kg at his Paris shop and has seen the Chinese fungus masquerading as the French variety in nearby supermarkets. "The Chinese import is just a flavorless, rubbery black ball." In Italy it's illegal to import or sell the Tuber indicum, although that protective barrier may not last. "With Italy in the E.U., sooner or later the law will be the same for everyone," says Bruno Urbani, a director of Urbani Tartufi, an Umbria-based firm that is the largest exporter of truffles in the world.