After selling mushrooms of the tricholomamatsutake variety to Japan forvery many years, which at the heightof the season in summer meant anaverage volume of about 50 tonnes,mainly transported by Air China, WangJin, director of the Chengdu ShanxingCompany, in 1995 discovered thehigh value of truffles. Before that time,truffles had never been considered oreven used by the Chinese as a food orfood additive.
In 1994 one of Wang’s Japaneseclients visited his farms in ChengduProvince and pointed out that oneparticular area of forest had the correctenvironment for truffles.
While the traditional mushroomscontinued to grow, Wang developedan additional product line for thehigh-value truffles. As a result, freshtruffles are now airfreighted to Tokyorestaurants for their gourmet customers,who have the yen for this delicacy,and lots of yen to pay the bill. Withan established market in Japan, thetraders have now set their sights on theEuropean epicures.
The mushroom and truffles markethas become a big money earner for thelocal farmers and dealers in China. Andthe knock on effect is that the volumesof this high- value product, which arebeing air freighted to the endusers,are increasing. In addition to happyfarmers and dealers, the carriers arealso enjoying the "fruits" of this newfoundcommodity.
Truffles are mostly collected in thewinter months, and while finding thetruffles sounds easy as they are usuallylying in the surface soil or just a fewcentimeters below, the key is knowingwhere to look for the delicacy.
In this case, nature dictates the circumstancesunder which truffles canbe found with the right mix of soils,moisture, tree cover, altitude, and withthe right ambient temperature. Unlikethe French, who "invented" the truffle,the Chinese have yet to learn the art ofusing dogs or female pigs to sniff outthe truffles.
Wang’s Chengdu Shanxing Companyhas been in the mushroom businessfor over twenty years, exportingthe product by sea and air in variousforms, either fresh, freeze dried form,or canned.
Like the mushrooms, processing ofthe truffles for export is carried outunder extreme hygienic conditions.Wangs says the type of water usedfor cleaning has to be just right andhis workers immerse their gloves ina cleansing alcohol solution every 15minutes. They also screen the productwith a metal detector to pick up anystray metallic ores that may be attachedto the outer skin of the truffle.
According to Joe Gei, KLM Cargomanager in Chengdu, a normal consignmentof truffles weighs about two tonnesper flight into Amsterdam SchipholAirport, from where the truffles are transhippedto France and Spain. Althoughin terms of weight, the truffles representa comparatively small consignment. Thevalue, however, is considerable.
KLM’s Gei recently showed PayloadAsia the preparations for a B777 flightfrom Chengdu’s Shangliu airport toAmsterdam with the cargo shipmentsbeing prepared and netted for theafternoon flight to Holland.
Nine pallets were being netted witha wide mix of cargo; aircraft parts forChicago, clothing and vegetables forAmsterdam, and amidst all those shipmentsthe distinct piquant aroma fromthe numerous cartons of truffles for aBarcelona consignee.
These direct flights of about 13hours, which avoid air or road transportto the normal gateways of Beijingand Shanghai, from the middle ofChina into the heart of Europe, offerunbeatable shipment opportunitiesfor the local truffle growers. With prebookingof space and good planning,such perishable cargo could be in therestaurants in less than 36 hours.
Another smaller truffle trader, MsDing Yi Fan, who heads Chengdu OrientalTrading Foodstuffs, said: "My totaltruffle production is only 20 tonnesper year and my best customers arein Germany and Japan." At a rate ofUS$40 per kilo for black truffles (CFREuropean airport), that surely adds upto substantial revenue.
In comparison, Ms Ding said thatrestaurants in the United Kingdom arebuying some varieties of truffles at US$115 per kilo, and for those who wantthe absolute creme de la creme of thisgourmet food, the price will go throughthe roof.
– Brian Thomson