From Fashion To Truffle Hunting, A Businessman’s Tale

Serge Desazars stops and smells the truffles
Serge Desazars stops and smells the truffles
Stéphane Frachet

CHINON â€" Serge Desazars' bodyguards are very hairy. Hip-Hop, a two-year-old Springer, jumps whenever a new visitor arrives. Serge lets out a smile, surreptitiously materializing on the unemotional farmer's face. Hip-Hop is clearly too playful for this former international director for the clothing brands Petit Bateau, Céline and Holland & Holland. Desazars, who abandoned carpeted offices for the clay-limestone soils of the wine-rich Chinon region, prefers the efficiency of his two frizzy-haired Italian Lagotti Romagnoli, dogs that are experts in the art of unearthing the Tuber melanosporum â€" or "black truffle."

The exchanges between master and animal are rather distant. Being a "boss and a friend" isn't the most efficient strategy in the quest for the black diamond, and Desazars plans to have a total of 12 dogs to generate enough revenue. The truffle farm, which he created in 2011, now boasts close to 125 acres. "The goal is to reach 500 acres by 2020. The company will be profitable from the moment we reach 170 acres," the businessman calculated.

We ask him why he put an end to his career in 2012, when he was the right-hand man of the CEO of German clothing company Strenesse. Was it to escape the company of men and the "triviality" of fashion, to seek shelter in the homeland of French Renaissance author Rabelais? Yes and no. "I'm still in the luxury business and I'm building a brand, Baron de la Truffe," he starts. "I grew annoyed at the fact that we had to reverse strategies whenever there was a new boss. I needed a clear line, a long-term vision and I wanted to have my own business."

The amateur truffle farmer had already begun selling truffles to those around him, but he didn't think of leaving his old job behind, at least not at first. "It was a friend of mine, Timothée Sautereau, a former account director at Carat who became a butcher in Paris 18th arrondissement, who showed me it was possible." It was a return to his roots rather than an escape, after a life of international flights, openings and negotiations.

As a child, he used to spend his holidays in this region where his father, Jean Desazars, a former director at Lafarge, had bought a second home. "He came here because we'd just missed out on a house in Normandy. A friend of his invited him here, and he stayed." Serge himself acquired a farmhouse in tuffeau stones, the type of limestone that gives the villages of the Loire valley their charm. One of Serge's brothers. Louis, CEO of Shiseido Europe, lives just around the corner.

Serge Desazars admits it bluntly: He's "addicted" to truffles. In 1996, aged 26, he planted truffle oaks on 1.5 acres next to the family house. "He used to train his dog in Paris' public gardens by hiding truffles in the soil," says Adrienne, his wife, laughing as she remembers her husband down on all fours, his hands in the soil to feel the precious mushrooms. "People would look at him as if he was a freak. Many thought he was a crackpot."

When the Parisian launched agricultural production in a land more renowned for its vineyards than its truffles, many were dubious â€" even his father. "Not many people believed in the project at first, but I didn't care one bit about what other people thought," he says. But he still had to convince a few people to be able to acquire the land.

Thankfully, Chinon is no stranger to truffle production. There are about a hundred people who, like Serge Desazars, are reviving the trade in the area. "The region used to be the biggest truffle producer in France in the 19th century, at a time when the country as a whole would produce about 1,500 tons a year," explains Louis Houette, vice-president of the Syndicat de la Truffe Rabelaisienne ("Rabelaisian Truffle Union").

France's current production of just 50 tons isn't even enough for national demand, let alone exporting. "A global market is out there waiting for us," says Serge. Soon, he hopes to board international flights again, this time with boxes of truffles in the baggage hold.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!