Truffles have gained widespread attention in the culinary world lately, becoming a favourite among chefs and food-lovers alike. Not to be confused with the chocolate confectionery of the same name, truffles are a type of fungus that grows near the roots of certain trees.

Truffles were a mystery to the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans but this did not prevent their culinary enjoyment and knowledge of several varieties from various locations. They can be found most dominantly in Europe and the Middle East. They are especially famous in France and Italy. The French black truffle and the Italian white truffle are like diamonds in the culinary world. They are rare and have to be excavated deep within the dirt like a potato. They are also extremely expensive.

The reason why they are usually referred to as a mushroom is that they are a fungus much like a mushroom and are found in the woods; However, mushrooms are a type of fungus that grows above ground and truffles are subterranean which is they are not technically “mushrooms”.

Cheaper and considerably more abundant than their distant European cousins, desert truffles are part of the genus Terfezia, found throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Desert truffles do not have the same flavour as European truffles but tend to be more common and thus more affordable.

As with their European counterparts, these truffles form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of specific plants and grow only in certain types of sandy soil under the right conditions. The lightning from those storms fixes nitrogen in the soil, encouraging the truffles to thrive. That makes cultivating them extremely difficult and predicting where they will grow in the wild more art than a science.

hunting desert truffle
A man collects truffles, in a desert south of Baghdad. Even though they are formed underground, the fruit bodies of desert truffles are not very deep and can be visible to the trained eye. (Image: Mohammed Ameen/Reuters)

Desert truffles are traditionally gathered not just for nourishment, but also for their curative and aphrodisiac properties, treat eye, skin diseases, antimicrobial, antioxidant, antiviral, anti-mutagenic, anti-carcinogenic, antiradical, hepato-protective, immune-suppressants, anti-inflammatory properties etc.

LEGENDS

Local legend holds that heavy thunder causes the spores to germinate, leading to expectations of poor harvests in years during which there are no lightning storms. One Bedouin nickname for them translates as ”the potatoes of thunder.” According to Bedouin legend, thunderstorms and lightning strikes are believed to be the catalysts to the formation of these desert truffles which only grow in the wild. Bedouin believed that the number and size of the truffle depend on the frequency and the strength of the rain.

HISTORY

The first evidence of the use of desert truffles, which have nourished populations in the world’s arid and semiarid areas throughout history, is found among the oldest records of human culture.

Desert truffles were coveted by the Bronze Age Amorites, mentioned in the Bible, and discussed by the Classic Greeks, Romans, and in the Jewish Talmud. Islam’s Prophet Muhammad recommended their medicinal use. Travellers throughout history have recorded the culinary, medicinal, and artistic uses of desert truffles among the local communities they passed through, observing that desert truffles have often been a survival food for these communities.

The first mention of truffles appears in the inscriptions of the neo-Sumerians regarding their Amorite enemy’s eating habits (ca. 2000 BCE) and later in writings of Theophrastus in the fourth century BCE. In classical times, their origins were a mystery that challenged many; Plutarch and others thought them to be the result of lightning, warmth, and water in the soil, while Juvenal thought thunder and rain to be instrumental in their origin. Cicero deemed them, children of the earth, while Dioscorides thought they were tuberous roots.

During the Renaissance, truffles regained popularity in Europe and were honoured at the court of King Francis I of France. However, it was not until the 17th century that Western (and in particular French) cuisine abandoned “heavy” oriental spices, and rediscovered the natural flavour of foodstuffs. They have significant amounts of protein and very high amounts of antioxidants, which make them nutritious food.

Desert truffles are delicate, so once you’ve bought some, use them up right away. The method of growth seems to trap pockets of sand in folds within the fruit body and cleaning them is a protracted and not necessarily successful operation. Biting into sand is a disconcerting experience! As they expand, the truffles can embrace the sand in which they grow, so the more gnarled they are, the more likely they are to contain grit.

I encountered truffles for sale in Baghdad recently. We bought some truffles, called Kima locally, in a Baghdad market and spent a good deal of time washing them and peeling the outer layer before slicing and boiling them as we had been advised. It should not be cooked much so as not to mask their delicate aroma. We also had them fried in butter and then over omelette. Yes, the aroma was distinct. Maybe, we should have eaten them roasted like the Bedouins for the original taste and flavour. Next time, perhaps.

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