This past weekends, gourmands started an annual pilgrimage to Piedmont for the yearly white truffle festival of Alba. Over the next month or so, ivory globes purchased in the ancient city will be shaved atop fettucine and beef tartare in eateries from Las Vegas to Macau, by eaters smug in their ability to outspend anyone to taste the best of the best, the rarest of the rare. All the while, though, the white truffle will be quietly, resoundingly out-priced by another subterranean fungus: the Cordyceps Sinensis, or caterpillar fungus.
The rare fungus, found only in small swathes of the Tibetan plateaus of the Himalaya Mountains, is the subject of a recent piece by Lauren Silverman of NPR. Silverman reports that prices now reach $50,000 a pound, explaining that traditional Chinese medicine extols caterpillar fungi for their efficacy as aphrodisiacs. "The Viagra of the Himalayas" is also a status symbol among wealthy businessmen, who cook the fungus into duck and goose. Others eat the fungus, which has been attributed with huge variety of non-erotic health benefits as well, as a tonic, a pill or in broth.
According to Cordyceps expert Daniel Winkler, most caterpillar fungi are harvested by Tibetan nomads and townspeople. They sell their finds, for a few dollars each, to Hui Muslim brokers, who then sell them to consumers in wealthy coastal China and abroad.
The market for Cordyceps Sinensis is so lucrative that it accounts for an astounding 8% of Tibetan GDP -- and far more of the total cash coming into the province. The money has been a huge boon for the Tibetan people. Successful harvesters often make many times as much money as any of their neighbors, allowing them to afford education for their children and Western-made material goods for their families, according to a LA Times report on the fungus. Still, no sudden influx of cash is without its problems. There have been reports of fights and turf wars, some deadly, among Tibetans hoping for control of the market.
The caterpillar fungus has quite a modest origin, considering its massive societal impact. Every year, as winter approaches, ghost moth larvae seek shelter underneath the frigid Tibetan earth. While there, many devoured by the fungus, which emerges from the caterpillar graves in the spring, to be found by harvesters looking to make money off the impotence (or gullibility) of people thousands of miles away.