By Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud Vendors display the truffles stacked in their stalls.
Truffles born of thunder … nurtured by rain Over 30 varieties found in the desert

Brought to life by flashes of lightning and claps of thunder, and nurtured by early seasonal rainfall, the desert truffle is a gastronomic treasure that lies hidden beneath sandy soil in undisturbed landscapes.  Highly prized by the pharaohs, relished by ancient Greeks and Romans, and still much sought-after today, desert truffles, known as fugga in the local dialect, are sold in ramshackle sheds at the back of the Friday Market just off of Fourth Ring Road. 

The truffle vendors need no prompting to talk about their wares.  “You want to know all about truffles?  I will tell you,” says Abu Abbas.  “The truffle season begins the middle of November and ends the middle of May.  Truffles will only grow if there is rain during the wasm season, which in Kuwait is from the middle of October to the middle of November, and there must also be electrical storms.  The truffles emerge 76 days after the first rains have fallen.

“The first truffles come from Algeria, because their rainy season begins early, in September.  After that come truffles from Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt.  At the end of January, you have truffles from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait, and later on there are truffles from Syria.”

The question of whether truffles actually still grow in Kuwait is a point of contention in the truffle market.  “Kuwaiti truffles?  There haven’t been any in years,” says one of the vendors. 

“He’s right,” says an old Kuwaiti gentleman passing by.  “The desert has been spoiled by all the campers with their cars and buggies, so nothing grows there any more.”

Another vendor claims there are truffles to be found in remote areas of Kuwait, where motor vehicles have not severely compacted the soil.  Other vendors agree, citing fenced off security and oil production areas, and even the sands surrounding Kuwait International Airport runways, as places where truffles still grow.

During this visit to the truffle market early in the season, the truffles are all from Algeria, with the smaller ones selling for KD 4 a kilo and the biggest ones priced at a kilo for KD 8.  The smallest are a bit larger than a ping pong ball while the largest are about the size of a man’s fist.  They resemble gnarled, irregular-shaped potatoes with lobes. 

A Kuwaiti lady bargains for a basket of medium-sized truffles, carefully examining them to make sure they are firm and fresh.  When questioned, she discloses her recipe for preparing these desert delicacies. 

“First you have to wash the truffles several times as they are full of sand.  Then you boil them until tender, and at this stage I slice and wash them again, to make sure all the sand is removed.  Then I dry them off and fry them in clarified sheep fat called dehen adani, along with finely chopped onions, cumin, black pepper, and the dried black limes known as loumi aswad, and serve them along with rice.  We like to eat them like this with our traditional dish called machbous, which can be made with meat or chicken.  You can also just boil the truffles and then fry them in butter, like regular mushrooms.  I made them this way for my family the other day and they really enjoyed them.”

Desert truffles are also used in local traditional medicine and are said to be good for treating eye, back, and leg problems.  “To make a cleansing and soothing eye wash, cut and wash the truffles thoroughly, then boil them and keep the water.  When it has cooled off, put some of the water in a dropper and put a few drops into the affected eye,” instructs Abu Abbas.

Another vendor advises eating lots of truffles to strengthen the body, claiming this food is particularly beneficial for those with back, knee, or leg ailments.

There are hundreds of species of truffles.  Desert truffles are the relatives of European truffles which are more rare, have a stronger aroma, and are infinitely more expensive.  The price of black truffles sold by a retail seller in France several years ago is listed as 3,940 euros per kilo, the equivalent of more than KD 1,462.  European white truffles fetch equally astronomical sums.  The record price for a single white truffle was set in 2007 when Macau casino owner Stanley Ho paid $330,000 (around KD 92,814) for an Italian specimen weighing 1.5 kilos.  At such extravagant cost it’s no wonder that European truffles are served very sparingly, often finely-shaved into paper-thin slivers.

The fabulous reputation of the European truffle, however, should not detract from the merits of its cheaper cousin.  Desert truffles were enjoyed by the great gourmets of the ancient world, the Romans, who cooked up mass quantities obtained from their colonies in Lesbos and Carthage.  The first written mention of desert truffles dates much further back into the mists of time, with the neo-Sumerians noting the truffle-eating habits of their enemies, the Amorites, who belonged to the Third Dynasty of Ur, 20th century BCE.  Papyrus writings tell us that desert truffles were popular with the pharaohs, while some three thousand years later they turned up on the tables of the Fatimid caliphs in Cairo. 

Desert truffles, of which there are more than thirty varieties, have been found in a wide range of arid and semi-arid zones including the Kalahari and the Sahara Deserts, the Mediterranean basin, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran, parts of Eastern Europe and China.  They belong to the Terfezia or Tirmania genera, and can be brown, black, creamy white or sometimes pink.

Much information on Kuwaiti desert truffles can be found in the writings of Dame Violet Dickson and her husband, the British Political Agent, Colonel Harold Dickson.  The couple came to Kuwait in 1929 and during their many years in the country they chronicled Kuwait’s history, natural history, and desert traditions.  Dame Violet wrote a book called The Wild Flowers of Kuwait and Bahrain in which she describes the local desert fungi.

Writing about the Zubaidi or White Fugga (Tirmania) she says, “This truffle is found in great quantities in the Dibdibba, some 100 miles west of Kuwait, when the rainfall has been good...  (The truffles) are associated with a plant known as ‘Rug-rug’ (Helianthemum lippi).  They are looked upon as a great delicacy, and are sold in the Bazaars.  These truffles are also found in Kuwait nearer the town, but they never attain the size of those found further west.”

According to Dame Violet, the Khalas or Brown Fugga (Terfezia) is smaller and not such good eating as the white Zubaidi variety.  In her day it was found all over Kuwait, together with the White Fugga.  “Before they are fully grown they only crack the earth very slightly and are difficult to locate, but as they grow larger they push up quite a mound of earth.  A truffle of say, three inches across, will make a mound at least 12 inches across.  They are usually 4-6 inches deep in the ground... The Arabs say when they locate one truffle that her ‘walad am’, or cousin, must be close by.”

Dame Violet mentions one more type of desert truffle called Haberi or ‘Birds Fugga.’  “They are small and usually four or five grow together.  The largest I have seen is barely an inch in diameter, but more often they are no bigger than peas.  They are eaten raw by all Badawin children.  The migrating birds discover them and peck them out of the ground, as they do not grow deep down.”

Dame Violet also states that unless the wasm rains are accompanied by thunder and lightning, truffles will not grow.  This association between the germination of desert truffles and electrical storms was already noted in the first century AD by the Greek philosopher, Plutarch, and the Roman poet, Juvenal, who thought that truffles were engendered by thunder, lightning, and rain.

In her book, Forty Years in Kuwait, Dame Violet also provides an interesting account of a truffle-hunting expedition that took place in February 1968 following a season of abundant rainfall.  On a bitterly cold morning she and her bedouin friends set off to the Dibdibba region of the desert, where they found many tents and many of the Rug-Rug plants which live in symbiosis with the truffles. 

“On our first search for the truffles, Nasser, who has eyes like a hawk, immediately discovered a large white one (zubaidi), and later dug out many of the smaller brown ones... On the fourth day we went back to town with twenty kilos of truffles, more than 120 Pounds Stirling worth, at the prevailing market price, for this much-prized delicacy.”

Three weeks later, Dame Violet and her friends returned to the same area.  By this time it was warmer and the desert was carpeted with wildflowers.  “With my three companions I searched daily from early morning to nearly noon, and then again in the afternoon.  (At mid-day, with the sun overhead, the small tell-tale cracks in the surface which mark the presence of a truffle have no shadow in them, and are difficult to detect.)

“The weather was perfect, and each evening we boiled up enough truffles for our own supper.  It was a wonderful time, as this harvest of truffles gladdened the hearts of all the badu, and in our own party, as well as among the others we met, there was an air of happy excitement.”

After five days the truffle-hunting party returned to Kuwait town with about 150 kilos of large white zubaidi truffles, which Dame Violet divided between herself and her companions, giving many away to neighbours and friends.  The bedouins told her it was the best truffle-season they’d seen in thirty years.
In his fascinating, detailed book on local bedouin life, The Arab of the Desert, Colonel Harold Dickson also wrote of the significance of the desert truffle.  “If rain falls in October, truffles and mushrooms, great delicacies to every Badawin, appear in the following spring, and form the staple food of the tent-dweller and his family for weeks on end.  Truffles with hubara (a game bird) are verily, like the manna of old, Allah’s reward to those who have endured the summer heat.”

In modern Kuwait, despite the vast variety of different foods available and the proliferation of restaurants, the gnarled and wrinkled desert truffle is still much in demand.  Perhaps part of its attraction has to do with nostalgia for simpler times.  After all, the desert truffle is evocative of the days when the spring air was scented with the sweet smell of wildflowers and Kuwaiti families in their seasonal camps could spend peaceful and enjoyable hours together hunting for fugga.


 

 


By: Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud Special to the Arab Times

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