Hidden Delicacies of the Desert
A desert truffle surrounded by some rare greenery.
After the winter rains, the deserts of Qatar bloom. Meadow-like swathes of silvery-green tasselled grasses form on the gravel plains, and in the shallow depressions where the thorny scrub bushes grow the ground is starred with tiny yellow, pink and blue flowers. They attract myriads of feeding butterflies and other insects, while birds and darting dragonflies come to feed on the insects.
This is the time to go looking for a rare and expensive delicacy: desert truffles. Every year, if there is sufficient rain early in the winter season, truffles form just under the sandy or rocky desert surface, and searching for them is a local family pastime.
Traditionally the Bedouin people of Qatar, who were and still are expert truffle hunters, believed that they were spawned by lightning and a clap of thunder, just as they believed that Arabia's other great treasure, pearls, were formed by oysters rising to the sea surface and receiving drops of rain. It's no coincidence that the precious winter rains should be credited with the creation of both these marvels. A local expert claims that the number and size of the truffles are directly influenced by the number and strength of the crashes of thunder during a storm. As the growth of truffles depends on the amount of rainfall, there is a grain of truth in this belief.
Known as fuga in local Arabic, the desert truffles are botanically distant cousins of the truffles of Europe, which they do not resemble in taste or appearance. They are locally as popular as the famous truffles of France and Italy are in Europe, which fetch almost unbelievable prices at auction. In 1993 Perigord truffles, sometimes referred to as black pearls', sold in London at $1450 a kilo, and the same year Italian truffles reached a record high price of $2,200 a kilo. The truffles of the Arabian desert have never commanded quite such dizzying prices, but they are considered a luxurious delicacy and many local families prefer the challenge and satisfaction of finding their own.
Possibly it is the secret and mysterious nature of truffles which has fascinated truffle addicts for countless centuries. Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, referred to truffles in the fourth century BC as, one of the strangest plants, without root, stem, branch, bud, leaf or flower.'
Desert Truffles in Qatar
Desert truffles being prepared for sale in the Omani market
In Qatar they are usually found in close proximity to the rock-rose or sun-rose plants Helianthemum lippii, H. salicifolium and H. ledifolium (Cistaceae) with which they have a symbiotic relationship. Fungal filaments of the truffle penetrate the roots of the other plant, sometimes reaching as far as 40 centimetres to do so. It is thought that in return the truffle produces a substance that inhibits competing plants.
In Qatar the Helianthemum species are common and can be recognised, even by those without knowledge of botany, by their narrow oval greyish-green leaves and small, pale yellow flowers. Small, shrubby plants, they reach from 10 cm to 30 cm in height. They are known locally in Arabic as ragroug.
Truffles are found in arid areas all around the Mediterranean, especially along the North African coast from Morocco to Egypt and further east across the great desert plain between Damascus in Syria and Basra in Iraq. In all these regions, people gather truffles for food. They go by different names in different places and many varieties are found in Arabia.
In Qatar the two main varieties are khalasi or jubei and huber. The former are oval with a dark skin and a pinkish interior and have a robust, nut-like flavour. Some people prefer the second type, the creamy-coloured huber, with their more delicate flavour. Zubaydi, another popular truffle, is also found here and more are imported from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Iran and Egypt, which sell for anything up to, and sometimes more than, QR 300 per kilo.
Truffles can usually be found for sale during the early months of the year at the back of the Salwa Road vegetable market and in a lane at the side of the nearby Omani market (see Qatar's Wholesale Markets for details). Sometimes, Asian expatriates working in Qatar go out into the desert at weekends and offer the truffles they find for sale beside the main roads.
Usually no more than a few centimetres across, but sometimes as big as a man's closed fist, truffles are light in the hand, weighing anything from 30 to 300 grams. The skin can range from a pale sandy brown to a deeper chocolate hue, and some have a reddish tinge. They are roughly spherical, but with a tendency to irregular lobes and bumps, and have a slightly spongey texture.
Experienced searchers for truffles know to look for them in slightly hollow areas that may dry out more slowly than level or hilly ground. The best time of day is either in the very early morning or at sunset, when any slight rise in the sand casts a shadow that indicates a truffle might be hiding a few centimetres below.
My first efforts at truffle-hunting were not a success; being unsure exactly what I was looking for I threw away the first two I found, mistaking them for pebbles! I know better now, but lack the patience of the truly successful truffle hunter.
Once found and brought to the surface, desert truffles have two enemies, sunlight and humidity, so need to be speedily taken home and prepared. They are not happy being kept in plastic bags and storage in the refrigerator does not prolong their life. Better to keep them in a shaded room with an air conditioner blowing cool air over them, if they cannot be prepared and eaten at once.
Ready for eating!
Traditionally, the bedouin roasted truffles in the ashes of their campfires or boiled them in camel's milk. Lacking either a campfire or a handy camel, some western expatriates prefer to boil them in cow's milk. Occasionally, gifts of truffles from generous Qatari friends come our way. We find that they are excellent fried gently in butter for a few moments, with a sprinkling of rock salt and black pepper.
Another simple way to cook truffles is to slice them, brush them with olive oil and BBQ them on a skewer. In Oman, where truffles are known as kumba, a popular recipe is to boil the truffles and add them to fried onion, garlic and tomato sauce with some spices. To my mind, this kills the delicate flavouring of the truffles.
Whatever method you use, truffles require the minimum of cooking, like mushrooms. You should also recognise that, no matter how carefully you clean them and slice them, their method of growth traps pockets of sand in the folds of the fruit body. So be prepared for a slight crunchiness!
Finding truffles in the Libyan desert
And in Qatar!