PARIS — French police have arrested a farmer who fatally shot a trespasser he suspected of trying to steal highly coveted truffles from his land on the edge of France's southern Provence region.
The 32-year-old farmer told authorities he was guarding his truffle patch in the town of Grignan when he was frightened by the intruder and shot him in the legs and head with a hunting rifle, police said Wednesday.
Police said the farmer believed the man was armed. The 43-year-old victim died shortly after Monday's shooting. Authorities did not release the names of either man.
Truffles are a fungus found mainly in forests in France and Italy that grow underground, in the root systems of host trees. They are prized for their rich, earthy flavors and can fetch astronomical prices – making them a prime target for thieves.
Didier Chabert, a local truffle-grower who has known the accused farmer for many years, said the man had already been hit by thieves two or three times this truffle season, which runs from December through March.
"At this time of year, the thieves are waiting for the moon to grow so there is light at night, the thief comes at that time to steal truffles," Chabert said.
French forests produce 50 tons of black truffles in a good year, but poor weather caused last year's harvest to drop to 25 tons, said Chabert, the former head of the local truffle-growers association.
Demand for truffles peaks at Christmas time, when the French traditionally splurge on delicacies such as truffles, champagne, foie gras, prawns and oysters. Last year black truffle prices reached $600 a pound due to the shortage, Chabert said. The current price is just under $500 a pound.
The head of another truffle sellers association said the problem of truffle theft has been growing.
"In the past month, everyone around here has been robbed," said Michel Meille. "We went to the local officials and the police, but nothing was done."
Meille said thieves have no trouble fencing the stolen tubers. "It's all done under the table," he said.
Chabert said his truffle patch is a mile-and-a-half away from the accused farmer's. He inspects it every morning for truffle thieves' telltale footprints, but so far he hasn't caught one. He says he wishes his neighbor had come to him for help.
"If we were two or three to watch the truffles there wouldn't be this problem," Chabert said.