A few people have asked me this question since I posted a picture of fresh truffles on my social media last week. It's a good question, and one which I have thought about quite a bit. Here is what I think....
A truffle is the fruiting body of a fungus called Tuber melanosporum in the same way that a button mushroom is the fruiting body of a fungus called Agaricus bisporus. Are mushrooms vegan? Of course they are, so what’s the issue with truffles?
Commercially grown truffles are produced in fields of deciduous trees such as oaks and hazels whose roots are inoculated with the fungus. It then takes several years for the first highly prized truffles to be produced. As you probably know, they grow underground, on the roots of the inoculated trees and are therefore difficult to find. And that is the issue with truffles...
I visited a local truffle farm to learn more about the harvesting, before I decided to go ahead and buy truffles to use in my plant based cheese business. Most truffle farms these days use dogs to sniff out the location of the truffles. To my knowledge, dogs aren’t bred to be truffle dogs, its more about their temperament. One local farmer has two rescue dogs that he has trained to be excellent truffle hunters. What I saw on my visit, was a much loved dog running around outdoors, nose to the ground, and occasionally stopping at a patch that smelled particularly good. She then sat down and waited to be given a treat. An actual human then came along and smelled the spot to confirm the presence of the very distinctive truffle aroma, and only then was the spot marked. I also got to sniff a marked spot, alongside a patch of earth with no truffle below, and it is absolutely extraordinary how the aroma permeates through the soil. The dogs don’t dig up the truffles, that delicate task falls to another human who carefully excavates the prize.
Now as vegans we all “seek to exclude - as far as is possible and practicable - all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. Is the truffle dog being exploited? The Oxford Dictionary has this definition of exploitation: “The action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work”. From my own due diligence in personally observing the truffle harvesting that takes place at the farm from which I source my truffles, there was no unfair treatment of the animals. It’s not a perfect scenario and I know I could eschew truffles completely but I am comfortable with my decision to use truffles in my vegan cheese. I personally think truffle dogs fall somewhere in between horse riding and keeping companion animals. It’s not black and white, there will be different opinions but there are much bigger issues to be concerned about.
On a lighter note, if you do decide to indulge in our Tamar Fresh cashew based cheese, with Tasmanian truffle, can I just leave you with the knowledge that the highly-prized truffle produces anandamide, a compound that triggers the release of mood-enhancing chemicals in the human brain. What's more, it does so using the same biological mechanism as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for producing the mind-bending effects of marijuana (1).
I guess that explains why I can’t get enough of them!
(1) Pacionia, Rapino et al.,Truffles contain endocannabinoid metabolic enzymes and anandamide. Phytochemistry (2015) 110:104-110.