There is nothing quite like a truffle to stir up an air of mystery. It's in their nature.Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle's, referred to truffles in 500 BC as "a natural phenomenon of great complexity, one of the strangest plants, without root, stem, fiber, branch, bud, leaf, or flower." They grow completely out of sight, below the surface of the soil, and no one can predict exactly where they will grow, or when. All of them grow wild: No one has ever managed to grow them under cultivation, despite continuing efforts. And the treasured desert truffle of the Middle East, it is widely believed, is spawned by lightning and a clap of thunder. But don't let this put you off. If a basket of desert truffles should come your way, you should know that they make delicious eating. Wrinkled and gnarled when dug up, and slightly perfumed, they look for all the world like bruised, lobed potatoes, wizened walnuts or dried prunes. Their appearance is of course deceptive-part of the mystique.
Brown, black, creamy white, sometimes pink, there are more than 30 varieties, all members of the Terfezia or Tirtnania genera, cousins of the white, fragrant truffles (Tuber spp.) of Piedmont, Alba and Umbria and the "black pearls of Perigord" that grow around the roots of European oak and hazelnut trees.
If you can only find them, desert truffles lie in wait in arid areas all around the Mediterranean, especially along the North African coast from Morocco to Egypt and farther east across the great desert plain from Damascus in Syria to Basra in Iraq. In all this vast region of the earth, you will find few, if any, surface signs to show you where the truffles are hiding—yet in all these regions, people gather truffles for food.
Truffles go by different names in different places. In Morocco they are called terfez—probably the source of the Latin botanical name. In Egypt the Bedouin of the Western Desert call them terfas. The Kuwaitis call them fagga, the Saudis faq', and in Syria they are known by their classical Arabic name, kamaa. Iraqis call them kamaa, kima or chima, depending on local dialects, and in Oman they are either faqah or zubaydi. In the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where they are found mainly between Nu'ayriyah and Qaysumah, and also near Safaniya, local names are also used, and two varieties are best-known: Khalasi are oval with a black skin and a pinkish-ivory interior, and have a nut-like flavor that many think makes them the very best. However, after years of enjoying many varieties of Saudi truffles, I favor the second major type, the cream-colored zubaydi, which is usually more expensive, but which offers a more delicate flavor.
Usually no more than a few centimeters across, but occasionally the size of a fist, desert truffles are light in the hand, typically weighing from 30 to 300 grams (1-10 oz). A Bedouin truffle-gatherer told me, "The number and size of the truffles are influenced by the force of thunderclaps." And in fact, there is a connection, for the rains must be just right during October and November to start the truffles germinating. Too much rain at the wrong time can rot the truffle spores. Then the weather must remain dry during January, followed by a light shower or two in the spring to bring on the truffles in February and March. Altogether, researchers have found, as little as 200 to 250 millimeters of rain (8-10") can produce a good crop, and when there is less, experienced truffle-gatherers know to look preferentially in hollows and other places that may dry out more slowly.
They also know to look for certain plants that are symbionts of the desert truffle, especially shrubby grasses of the Helianthemum genus—relatives of the common rock rose cultivars of North America. Desert truffles are often found nearby. Fungal filaments of the truffle penetrate the roots of the other plant—sometimes reaching as far as 40 centimeters (15") to do so—and obtain nourishment from it; in return, researchers speculate, the truffle produces a substance that inhibits competing plants.
Provided all the circumstances are right, the truffles are ready to be plucked from the sand—if you know where to look. And if the truffles themselves are shyly hidden, the truffle-gatherers of Egypt's Western Desert and Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province are downright secretive. Information on where truffles might be found is kept in the dark, under the surface, sub rosa—just like the truffles themselves.
But you might get a few hints, along the lines of "Where the desert rag-rug flower grows," or instructions that the best times of day to go in search of truffles are at the bewitching hours of sunrise or sunset, when any slight rise in the sand casts a shadow that indicates a truffle might be hiding nearly a hand's breadth below. Perhaps it is best left to those who know the trade well, for you can get desert truffles at many markets throughout the Middle East, if you inquire and learn when to go.
Even before searching or buying, you ought to know what kind of taste you are in for. European truffles, prized for their intoxicating aroma, can impart a delicate flavor to terrines of foie gras, poultry, scrambled eggs and soufflés. The truffles of the desert are not so strongly flavored, but as they grow much more prolifically than their European cousins, they can be used in much greater volume. I once enjoyed, in a humble restaurant in Damascus, a whole plateful of raw, sliced black desert truffles as a salad, dressed in olive oil and lemon. Now where, in all of Europe, could you enjoy such a thing? It would cost a king's ransom. With the desert truffle, however, even people of relatively modest means can splurge on a kilo or two to make a Cream of Desert Truffle Soup—a gourmet's delight if ever there was one.
Relished by the rich and famous from the earliest times, desert fungi were served to the pharaoh, papyrus writings tell us. Three thousand years later, the tables of the Fatimid caliphs in Cairo were graced with truffles gathered from the nearby Muqattam Hills. In 1835, the English historian Edward Lane noted that "truffles were sold in such quantities in Cairo's souks that far from being choice dainties they had become cheap and common."
But alas, desert truffles have long since been swept off Muqattam by urban sprawl, and today few Egyptians have ever even heard of them. A search in the Egyptian Agricultural Museum's library failed to turn up a single reference to Terfezia, let alone terfas.
But Khamis 'Abd Allah Briek belongs to a Bedouin family in Marsa Matruh, a town on the Mediterranean coast and a center for truffle-gathering in Egypt. He remembers when his father taught him how to hunt for them: "At the same time as hunting for birds and gazelle, we would gather a basket of terfas and roast them in the ashes of our nightly coffee fire." He is also quick to point out that truffle-gathering in Egypt (and Libya) is not without peril: Large areas of the coastal desert were mined in World War II, and more than one truffler has been injured in an encounter with unexploded ordnance. More recently in Kuwait, some aspect of the 1990-1991 Gulf War seems to have ruined many truffle-gathering areas, and there have been reports of Kuwaitis crossing the border to try their luck in truffling areas of Saudi Arabia.
Once found and brought to the surface, desert truffles have two enemies, sunlight and humidity, and the only way to deal with these is speed. Four to five days out of the sand, truffles are past their peak. You cannot keep them in plastic bags, nor can you store them in the refrigerator. They just don't like either one. Keep your truffles in a deeply shaded room, and blow a current of cool air over them, say the truffle merchants of Marsa Matruh.
Headed for Marsa Matruh in his half-ton truck, a modern Bedouin truffler, having braved the terrors of decades-old land mines, will generally alert the truffle merchants of his imminent arrival by mobile phone. Until he calls, no one will have had any idea when to expect truffles in the market, but once word is received, excitement grows. "The truffles are coming!"
Within 20 minutes of their late-afternoon, arrival, the precious crates are quickly transferred and whisked off to Cairo. At dawn the next morning, the truffles are in air cargo holds, and by that afternoon they are being hawked in markets in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Kuwait and Riyadh, in time for them to be on dinner tables just 24 hours after their arrival in Marsa Matruh.
Part of the mystique of truffles is, of course, their often extravagant cost. On a recent television food program, chef Antonio Carlucci of London's Neal Street Restaurant looked at the diamond-and-gold brooch on his hostess's blouse and estimated, "Your brooch, Madame, is worth less than my truffles." In London, in 1993, a kilogram (2.2 Ib) of the "black pearls of Perigord" sold—wholesale—for $1450. The same year, in Bologna, Italian truffles fetched $2200 a kilo. Those, however, were forest truffles of the Tuber genus; Terfezia truffles sold last year in Riyadh for $80 to $105 a kilo, and in recent years have reached no higher than $270. This year, however, from Morocco to the Gulf, it has been an exceptional, unprecedented season for desert truffles and, market forces being what they are, they were selling in Riyadh for a mere 100 riyals ($26.75) a kilo.
So once you have come upon your truffles, by a long day's scruffling in the sand or by a timely trip to the market, you need to know what to do in the kitchen. First, keep in mind that desert truffles should never be cooked too much—no more than a few minutes. Roasting them in campfire ashes remains one cooking method, and the Kuwaitis like to boil them in camel's milk or roast them in melted butter. Lacking a campfire or a camel, however, western gourmets prefer to boil them in cow's milk and I tend to agree.
Before I impart my original and heretofore secret recipe—everything about truffles is secret—for Cream of Desert Truffle Soup, let me digress a moment and give you a true truffle story: One morning, I visited Fauchon, Paris's most exclusive food store, in the Place de la Madeleine. I was "just looking"—I could hardly afford a thing on the shelves. I came upon an opulent-looking American lady talking to a store assistant. The man leapt to a nearby glass cabinet and brought out a palm-sized can. "Yes... yes, that's the one," the lady said, and the assistant replied, "Does Madame know the can is now 400 francs [$60]?" The lady sighed, "You know, monsieur, yesterday my sister came into the living room from the kitchen and said to me, 'I found some old prunes in your refrigerator, so I threw them out.'"
Having laid your hands on a kilo of desert truffles, brown, black, pink or white—it won't matter, really—and having paid the price, don't dilly-dally. Get busy, for your truffles will only last a day or so, and concoct a disarmingly simple Cream of Desert Truffle Soup or, if having the title in French adds to your sense of truffle mystique, Creme de Truffe du Désert. And don't let anyone throw out your "old prunes."
Filmmaker, writer and photographer John Feeney, a native of New Zealand, has seen many a truffle season during the nearly four decades he has lived in Cairo.