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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 December 2004, 12:09 GMT
France sniffs out truffle thieves
By Hugh Schofield

Black gold: truffles are a much sought-after delicacy
Police in southern France have stepped up night patrols to try to stop a growing menace in the countryside: truffle thieves.

Criminals are using ever more sophisticated methods to dig up the valuable fungus, which can fetch up to $1,000 (516; 734 euros) per kilogram.

But truffle-filching is not a new phenomenon.

In the vast oak groves of Provence a trained pig or dog can easily snuffle up the black tubers undetected.

The problem is that the thieving is now hi-tech and highly organised.

Truffle microchips

According to French police, armed gangs are driving up at night from the coastal cities of Nice and Marseilles. Many of them have infra-red lamps. They leave their dogs in an oak grove and pick them up with the truffles a couple of hours later.

One morning recently, police found as many as 250 holes that had been dug overnight. Truffles are believed to be taken across the border to Italy or sold on the black market to unscrupulous French restaurateurs.

Police in the area are stepping up night patrols during the season, which lasts until February, and they are contemplating a hi-tech response of their own: microchips.

Inserted in a batch of truffles still in the ground, they would allow police to track any thieves by satellite - as long as the delicacy does not hit the cooking pot first.

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