Text and photos by Ron Swilling
The riches of the earth do not all have a golden glow or a diamond sparkle. Besides the priceless sunrise and sunset, fresh stream water, green cathedrals of trees and the natural treasures whose worth and wealth is beyond currency, we have put a value on a host of rare and precious phenomena, olfactory essences and culinary delights.
Amongst this assortment is the lofty truffle prized in Europe as gastronomic gold.
This sought-after fungus sniffed out from rich loamy earth under oak trees by pigs or specially trained dogs has a unique, unusual and exotic smell and taste described as rich, earthy and organic with floral and fragrant undertones. It can fetch as much as US$1 200 a kilogram on the European market.
Truffles are hypogeous fungi, that is fungi that have their fruitbodies growing below the ground. They exude an aroma that intensifies as they ripen, attracting animals to unearth them and disperse their spores. This centuries-old delicacy not only has forest fame but has also been sought after in the souks of Syria since time immemorial.
The desert truffle, of the Hypogeous ascomycete family Terfeziaceae, differs from its distant Tuber relative of southern Europe by favouring arid soil, and is found in arid and semi-arid areas of the world including the Mediterranean, Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Namibia.
Referred to as manna from the heavens by the Prophet Mohammed, as well as by local Namibians, the desert truffle can be found growing in the Kalahari Desert in the eastern section of the country. Called both omatumbula in the north and the Nama name of !nabas in the east, the,Kalahari truffle, Terfezia pfeilii, is smooth like a potato and can be eaten raw as well as cooked in a variety of ways, from baking in searing sand to frying, and incorporated in speciality recipes concocted by creative chefs in the restaurants of Windhoek.
Visiting the impressive Gathemann Restaurant the day after a truffle delivery from the Gobabis area was a fortuitous occasion, as owner and chef Urs Gamma invited me into his kitchen to taste these interesting fungi and to watch as he expertly created a mouth-wateringly delicious truffle ragout. Truffles can be eaten raw, sliced with drizzled olive oil and parmesan cheese or cooked and served as a starter or main dish. When in season, truffle ragout or truffle ravioli in a champagne sauce are Gathemann house specialities. Sautéd in butter with onions and a splash of white wine and pepper, the truffles have a nutty mushroom taste. Added cream holds the aroma and a few Swakopmund asparagus with a triangle of savoury seeded pastry completes the delicious dish. White wine or a rosé accompanies the treat, making the humble truffle a royal meal.
Kalahari truffles grow close to the surface and are visible to the trained eye of truffle collectors as cracks and protuberances in the red soil. Like the termite-hill mushrooms omajowa, they grow in the wet season but usually occur only when weather conditions are favourable, often later in the season. Their partner plant is not the oak of the northern-hemisphere truffle but the wild melon, with which the desert truffle forms a symbiotic relationship.
The history surrounding desert truffles stems back thousands of years. In the 1st century Africa’s truffles, dined on by Roman emperors, were described by Pliny the Elder as ‘the most esteemed’. Folklore amongst the Bedouins and North African Arabs holds that they appear without seeds or roots, especially in places where lightning strikes, and are swollen by rains and loosened from the desert sand by thunderstorms.
Besides being a nutritious meal, desert truffles have been used by the Bedouins as remedies to cure ailments ranging from stomach complaints and open cuts to eye infections. Today, modern medicine is exploring their antibacterial and antiviral properties.
These treasured fungi, although thankfully not fetching the same exorbitant price of the more aromatic European variety, have been valued for centuries by desert-dwelling peoples. They have fed villagers through times of famine and have been sung to by harvesting Bedouin girls on sandy desert soil. They combine with Namibia’s cuisine of rich game meat and fresh Walvis Bay oysters, to provide a rare culinary treat with their singular scent and distinctively Terfezia taste.
Flamingo May 2008