Desert Truffles- A Gourmet’s Buried
"A natural phenomenon of great complexity,
one of the strangest plants, without root, stem, fibre,
branch, bud, leaf or flower." The words of Theopharstus,
a pupil of Aristotle’s in 300 BCE, puzzled by the
mystery of the truffle. 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 types grow completely
in the wild: no one has ever managed to grow them under
cultivation, despite continuing efforts.
They look for most of the world like bruised, lobed potatoes,
wizened walnuts or dried prunes. There are more than 30
varieties of truffles — Brown, black, creamy white,
sometimes pink. They are usually no more than a few centimetres
across, but occasionally the size of a fist, light in the
hand, typically weighing from 30 to 300 grams.
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 Baghdad and Basra in Iraq.
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 ‘Fag’,
the Syrians ‘Kamaa’. The Iraqis call them ‘Kamaa’
or ‘Chima’, depending on local dialects.
A common belief in the Middle East is, that the truffles’
numbers and size are influenced by the force of thunderclaps.
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 an rot the
truffle spores. Researchers found that as little as 200-250
millimetres of rain can produce a good crop. When there
is less, experienced truffle-gatherers know to look preferentially
in hollows and other places, that may dry out more slowly.
Even before searching for or buying truffles, you ought
to know what kind of taste you are in for. European truffles,
prized for their intoxicating aroma, can impart a delicate
flavour to terrines of foie gras, poultry scrambled eggs
and soufflés.. The truffles of the desert are not
so strongly flavoured, but as they grow much more prolifically
they can be used in much greater volume. While a salad made
of European truffles may cost a king’s ransom, even
people of relatively modest means can afford a kilo or two
to make a Cream of Desert Truffle soup — a gourmet’s
delight if there ever was one.
Relished by the rich and famous from the earliest times,
desert fungi were served to the Pharaoh, as papyrus writings
Part of the mystique of European truffles that grow around
the roots of oak and hazelnut trees, their extravagant cost
of around $2000 a kilo.
Desert truffles should never be cooked more than a few
minutes. Roasting them in campfire ashes remains one cooking
From Aramco World Magazine
Crème of Desert Truffles
9 or 10 medium-sized white desert truffles, fresh or tinned
4 cups whole milk or light cream
1 small onion , peeled and roughly chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
4 more cups whole milk or light cream
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons, white all-purpose flour
1 vegetable cube
1/2 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt & freshly ground white pepper
1/4 tablespoon more unsalted butter
3/4 cup more light cream
Clean fresh truffles from sand as necessary.
Roughly chop all but two of the truffles. Put the onion
& garlic in the first four cups of the milk and let
it boil for five minutes, then add the chopped truffles.
Simmer gently, for another three minutes , no longer. Purée
the mixture in a blender & set aside.
Make a white sauce. Melt one tablespoon of the butter,
then turn down the heat,
add flour & keep on stirring until it becomes a thick
paste. Then pour in the remaining four cups of milk , half
cup at a time. Keep stirring until a smooth, creamy, thick
sauce is achieved.
Slowly stir in the puréed truffle mixture until
it is absorbed into the sauce. Drop in the vegetable cube
& sugar. Add salt & white & cayenne pepper.
Stir in the 3/4 cup of cream & the 1/4 tablespoon of
butter for finishing. If the soup seems too thick, dilute
with a little more milk.
At the very last moment before serving, so as to obtain
the maximum truffle flavour, take the truffles you have
set aside and grate them, directly into the soup. Keep the
soup hot, with the lid on, in double boiler, and do not
let it boil again.
Kept in a sealed jar, the finished soup will keep its truffle
flavour for several days.
P.S. tinned truffles are obtainable from Middle Eastern
Eileen Khalastchy writes:
Back in 1970, we were still in Baghdad. At the beginning
of winter, the Government of the United States sent excellent
wheat seeds to the government of Iraq to be given to the
farmers to plant. They were warned that the seeds were poisoned
and not to be eaten.
The farmers were tempted to make bread out of that wheat
and did not pay attention to the warning. They also fed
their cattle of that wheat.
A disaster happened out of their greed. People died by
the hundreds. Some families were all wiped out. In some
families just one person survived who luckily left early
for work before the bread was baked. (Because country farmers
bake their own bread every morning).
We had a friend who worked as a matron in a hospital and
used to tell us what was happening.
To be on our guard, we stopped eating any meat as sheep
and chickens were dying also.
That year, rain and thunder came in abundance. So truffles
were plentiful. And so we used them in cooking instead of
meat. For four months all we ate was truffles in different
kind of dishes just like meat. I must say they were delicious
and as tasty and nutritious as meat.
The truffles come in two kinds in Iraq. One kind is found
in lands where wheat grows and are dark in colour and tastier
than the ones found in the land where barley in grown.
In Baghdad the street vendors of snacks used to call
which means "Egg and Truffle sandwiches at 2 annas"
(2 annas = 1 pence = 1.6 U.S. cents.).
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