Mao Xinping rakes through the undergrowth in a pine forest on a hillside in China's Yunnan province. After only a few minutes, he finds what he is looking for—a handful of golf-ball-size black truffles. "I get paid 1,000 renminbi a kilo for them, which is a large part of my income." Mao says.
A growing number of wealthy Chinese diners have also been seduced by the musty, morel-ish allure of these earthbound fungi. With me as I visit the local producers of several high-end ingredients during a recent trip to China is Terrence Crandall, executive chef of the Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai, who wants to encourage more awareness of the quality produce available in China. Many affluent Chinese consumers have embraced foods that are not traditionally Chinese, and chefs like Crandall are increasingly incorporating them into high-end menus. Chinese entrepreneurs and established companies are also taking advantage of the increasing demand for luxury foods, both imported and Chinese-grown.
Crandall explains that truffles are far from the only delicious fungi to be found in Yunnan. The province is home to nearly 30 types of edible mushrooms. China is already the world's largest producer of fungi and the third-biggest exporter after Poland and the Netherlands.
Chinese truffles, along with the country's nascent but rapidly growing wine industry, may never rival the very best foreign alternatives, but there is one luxury food product the Chinese are definitely in line to dominate—caviar.
The heartland for caviar production in China is in one of the most exquisite and unspoiled destinations in the country—the vast Thousand Island Lake. The Kaluga Queen caviar company, based at the lake, produced its first caviar in 2006. Five main species of sturgeon are being reared in the Thousand Island Lake. Last year, Kaluga Queen produced 45 tons of caviar, making it the largest producer of farmed caviar in the world.