Bulgaria’s underground truffle trade

In the forests of Bulgaria, thousands of truffle hunters and their dogs supply the western market with ultra-luxurious mushrooms.

This catch of fresh black truffle is as aromatic and flavorful as any found in the famous truffle areas of northern Italy, but these were discovered in the forests of Bulgaria.

According to a 2020 government reportBulgaria is the world’s largest producer of wild forest truffles, and the valuable mushrooms provide a source of income for more than 20,000 people.

Bulgarian truffles are virtually unknown outside of the country, and even many locals have never heard of the unregulated industry operating in their forests. Only 1 percent of truffles discovered in Bulgaria are sold on the domestic market, with the majority going to Western Europe.

Ivaylo Penev
Ivaylo Penev

On August 9, truffle hunter Ivaylo Penev allowed RFE/RL to take part in a morning truffle hunt near the northeastern city of Silistra with his two dogs, brothers Diablo and Dino. He explained how the mysterious mushrooms are discovered, what makes a perfect truffle and how much it sells.

According to Penev, about 50-60 percent of black truffles on the world market come from the Balkans, mostly from sun-drenched regions of Bulgaria, Croatia and Serbia.

“The Italians sell our truffles and say they’re Italian,” he claimed.

Although exact figures – including those released by the Bulgarian government – are impossible to verify, it is a black market for truffles is known to exist in Italy.

Balkan truffles are sometimes misrepresented as hailing from the Piedmont region of northern Italy, where the delicacy commands staggering prices. In 2021 some varieties of Italian truffles were sold for almost $10,300 per kilogram.

Penev hunts in forests near Silistra.

“In a good season, you can find truffles almost anywhere,” he says, even in his hometown’s city parks. But in dry periods like this summer, hunters need to know exactly where to look.

The key to a successful hunt are dogs that can track down the hot mushrooms and deliver them safely to their owner. Penev prefers the Italian Lagotto Romagnolo breed, which is described as “long-lived workers with an excellent nose for rooting out truffles.” Pigs can also be used, but the animals are more difficult to control and tend to devour the mushrooms.

Penev uses a specially designed tool used to dig up truffles and cut tree roots while causing minimal damage to the landscape.

Diablo and Dino run back and forth through the forest, sniffing the air before occasionally sticking their noses in the ground and digging as Penev spurs them on.

Truffles grow a few inches underground between the roots of certain plants, including the hawthorn trees that grow in this forest. But the valuable mushrooms in Bulgaria can only be found where limestone is present in the landscape, Penev says.

Large truffles like these are the most valuable in gastronomy. Once cleaned of dirt and dog fat, they are used as a side dish and shaved for meals by a white-gloved waiter. Smaller or damaged truffles are used to flavor soups and other dishes.

Penev checks the mushroom’s quality by smelling it – good truffles have a stunning scent that’s almost fruity and lingers like smoke. A single truffle can fill an entire room with its aroma in a matter of minutes.

Ripe truffles have the rubbery texture of a bouncy ball and a maze-like pattern inside.

“Truffles are found all over Europe, but you don’t get the same taste as here,” Penev said. “It’s about the sun. Only the Balkans get that much sunlight.”

In Bulgaria, for a mixed selection of black truffles like this, a hunter is paid around $103 per kilogram. Hunting intensifies in autumn when white truffle season begins. White truffles are considered the holy grail of edible mushrooms. Last year in Bulgaria, hunters were able to sell premium white wines for $7,300 a kilo.

“There are people who travel through it all [white truffle] season, and they can get up to 50 kilos of truffles, but they have to work non-stop, even through the night,” Penev said, adding that the high prices have led to fierce territorial disputes.

In some areas of Bulgaria, local hunters have set up cameras in the forests to spot outsiders.

“They can flatten your tires, smash your windows, poison your dogs… Not many hunters are like that, but they’re out there,” he said.

Two truffle hunters in neighboring Serbia were shot in December 2020 because of a dispute over truffle grounds.

Although the market for truffles in Bulgaria is tiny, the culinary world is starting to take notice of “Thracian” truffles.

This truffle shop opened six months ago in the center of Sofia. Shopkeeper Feodor says local interest in Bulgarian truffles is growing but remains low for economic reasons.

“Bulgaria is the poorest country in Europe and this product, as you can see, is quite expensive,” but tourists are increasingly coming to the Balkan country to try both black and white Bulgarian truffles, he says.

Restaurants serving local truffles in Bulgaria are hard to find. This dish, served at La Capannina in central Sofia, sold shaved black truffles for the equivalent of $3.15 a gram. When the white truffle season kicks off later this year, slices of this delicacy will sell for around $9.50 a gram grams sold.

Whatever happens to the truffle market in Bulgaria, Penev says he will enjoy the process in nature along with his dogs as much as the payouts.

“I’m not going to be a millionaire,” he said. “But it’s a beautiful life.”

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