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Truffles in the desert?

From Africa via Lanzarote to the Alps

I’m actually talking about these tuberous mushrooms that are so incredibly expensive and make every gourmet’s heart beat faster. And once again I’m going to span the arc from Lanzarote to Germany to the Alps. But this time I’ll start my story in Africa…


Rainy season in Namibia

In Namibia, where I lived for four years, the year is not divided into summer and winter, but rather into rainy and dry seasons. I can well remember the months when I ran as fast as I could to the nearest café after work in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, because the rain usually started at exactly the same time every day. And woe betide anyone who didn’t have a roof over their head. Later, in Europe, I never saw such huge raindrops again. They didn’t seem to fall, but to be catapulted out of the sky. It really hurt when you did get hit by them. But I’m getting way too far ahead of myself again 🙂


The termite fungus has a large root network

In the rainy season, and ONLY in the rainy season, certain mushrooms were offered for sale here and there. I was always fascinated by the Omajova or termite mushroom because it can only be found right next to the huge termite mounds. At the time, I didn’t know that both termites and mushroom benefit from this coexistence, that is, it is a symbiosis. You have to remember that what we call a mushroom is only the fruiting body. The actual being, if I may call it that, is a widely branching underground root network. It is still present even when we have long since eaten the mushrooms above ground and there is nothing left to see there.


Truffles in the Namib Desert

The second type of mushroom I learned to appreciate in Namibia is the desert truffle. As the name suggests, it is found in the desert sands of the Namib after the rains. It is actually called Kalahari truffle. But that’s not what they call it in Namibia, of course. It also forms a symbiosis with the candle and hook-thorn acacia, which is why it is found in their vicinity.


Different preparation

I prefer to cut the tangerine-sized tubers into finger-thick slices and prepare them with onions like fried potatoes. Simply delicious. It also tastes delicious with homemade ribbon noodles. However, the taste has hardly anything to do with that of “real” truffles. It is much finer and more delicate. Personally, I even like it better. In Africa, you can find two types of truffles: the Kalahari truffle (Terfezia pfeilii Hennings) and the lion truffle (Terfezia leonis).


There are also desert truffles on Lanzarote

Many years after my time in Namibia, I discovered to my great delight that there is a very similar delicacy on Lanzarote: the so-called papas crias. In Spanish, papas are the normal potatoes. And the truffles actually look like them too. On Lanzarote, too, it must have rained heavily before it makes sense to go in search of them. The Canary Islands rainy season takes place between mid-January and mid-March.


The strange behaviour of mushroom pickers

When a few sunny days follow, you can tell by the strange behaviour of the locals that the coveted mushrooms can be harvested. Armed with plastic bags, they walk in zigzags across the sandy plains, bending down here and there. A strange spectacle.
Imagine the German autumn forest after a rainy day. It is sure to be full of mushroom pickers. And now just erase all the trees in your imagination and replace the forest floor with sand. It looks similar in Lanzarote at truffle time, except that the German pickers carry baskets instead of plastic bags. By the way, I absolutely cannot understand why plastic is still so popular on the Canary Islands. But that is another topic.


The mushroom forms a symbiosis with a flower

Just like the mushrooms in Namibia, the papas crias on Lanzarote also form a symbiosis. Namely with the flower named Helianthemum canariense, which the locals affectionately call “la madre de papas crías”, which means “the mother of desert truffles”. You first have to find this pretty yellow flower and then look for star-shaped broken ground near it. There, you can use your bare fingers or a spoon to bring the tubers to light. Usually they are not much bigger than ping-pong balls, but in the local press photos of specimens the size of a man’s fist are published from time to time.


A symbiosis is a win-win community

A few words about the term “symbiosis”: the fungus makes water more readily available to the plant, which can be existential, especially in deserts and steppes. It also provides the plant with some nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen. In contrast to the fungus, the plant can carry out photosynthesis. It offers it, so to speak in exchange, the carbohydrates built up in this way, such as glycose, i.e. sugar. It is a real win-win situation in which both sides have advantages. The special symbiosis between fungi and plants (there are others too) is called mycorrhiza .


On Lanzarote: with gambas and garlic

On Lanzarote, truffles are absolutely prepared with garlic. Except for me, no one seems to mind that the delicate aroma of the mushroom is then practically imperceptible. Often they are accompanied by prawns or ham. Well, I prefer to stick to my simple “Namibia fried potato version”, which in my opinion brings out the best of the Papas Crias’ own flavour. They also taste delicious raw, with just a little salt.


Truffle pigs in Germany

Now let’s take a look at Germany. Here we actually find the “real” truffles. In the past, they used to search for them with pigs. This worked so well because the smell of the truffle is very close to the sexual attractant smell of the pig and therefore attracts any potent boar.


Dogs are trained for truffle hunting

Today, mostly dogs are trained to be truffle hunters. I suppose they are easier to control than pigs. To raise good truffle dogs, breeders often rub fresh truffles into the teats of the nursing bitch to forever link the smell of the mushroom with the feeling of bliss in the puppies. Of course, special training is added later.


Cats also help with the search

There are even cats that help in the truffle hunt. Truffle expert Ingo Fritsch from near Kiel raised a litter of little kittens with truffle milk especially for this purpose. The dogs’ happiness trick has worked here too, and the adult cats now unerringly indicate where the mushrooms are to be found.


A fly reveals the mushroom

Truffles can also be found without pigs or dogs. A special type of fly likes to lay its eggs near truffles. If you see a swarm of flies of this species buzzing around near a truffle symbiosis tree, you can assume that they have laid eggs there and that truffles may also be found there.


Each truffle needs a specific tree

Funnily enough, the different types of truffles form symbiotic relationships with very different trees. The winter truffle (tuber brumale), for example, is only ever found under oak and nut trees. The white Alba truffle, on the other hand, the “queen among truffles”, has almost white inner flesh when it grows under willows or poplars. But if it grows under an oak tree, it is more light brown and under lime trees it can turn intensely pink. By the way, this truffle variety is eaten raw. Others, such as the meander truffle, are even poisonous raw!


You can grow truffles in your own garden

And now it gets exciting: there are so-called truffle nurseries, where you can buy trees that have already been “inoculated” with the corresponding truffles. This way you can grow truffles in your own garden. However, it takes at least three years to get the first harvest. Usually it’s even more like five to six. 🙁
By the way, truffle hunting (and finding) is only allowed in your own garden and is otherwise severely punished, as the mushrooms are strictly protected. All the more reason to get one of these little trees.


Truffles also grow in steep mountain forests

And what about in the direction of the alpine pastures? Of the more than 240 different varieties of truffles, about 50 grow in Italy. They are mainly found in Piedmont in the north, but also in Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Lake Garda. The black winter truffle (Tuber Brumale Vittadini) in particular can be found in almost all of Italy. This is perhaps because it tolerates both calcareous and clayey soil and (unlike other truffle varieties) also likes damp and shady locations. It likes to form a symbiosis with various oaks, but also with beech, lime, hazelnut, black pine and Swiss stone pine. The highly aromatic Tuber melanosporum can also be found in Italy, sometimes even together with the winter truffle under the same tree. They like to grow in steep, wild and natural mountain forests at 1800 – 2600 m altitude. Who knows, maybe also on the Alpe di Siusi. Unfortunately, I have not yet found any information about this.


Symbiosis between alpine helianthemum-flower and truffle?

But what I have already seen on the Alpe di Siusi are alpine helianthemum-flowers. Do you remember? On Lanzarote, the Papas Crias form a symbiosis with the canarian helianthemum. Perhaps there is also a truffle on the Alpe di Siusi that gets on well with the alpine helianthemum? I couldn’t find anything about that on the internet either, but who knows…..? In any case, this thought brings me full circle once again.



Now I’m sure you’ve got the urge to go truffle hunting yourself. That’s why I’d like to repeat this just in case:

Truffles are protected.
It is strictly forbidden to harvest them in the wild

And that’s a good thing. But you can go on holiday to Lanzarote or Namibia in the rainy season. These laws do not seem to apply there (unfortunately). Or better: you can get your own truffle tree in the garden. Or, anyway and in general: you simply enjoy your knowledge and let it fire your imagination.

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