Kuwait's desert truffles remain elusive despite wet year

Many expected a bumper crop of the seasonal delicacy after one of the rainiest years in recent Kuwaiti history

Fahad Saud walks through the Saudi desert looking for cracks in the sand – the tell-tale sign of a desert truffle growing underneath. Naser Al Wasmi for The National
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A crack in the sand disrupts Fahad Saud’s slow trawl through the Saudi desert. He picks up his pace as he walks to the bulge, hoping to find an underground bounty unique to the Middle East.

He hitches his dishdasha and kneels down. With a screwdriver, he pierces the ground near the fist-sized crack, and tries to prise out what he believes is a larger-than-average fagga, or desert truffle.

Instead, there is only sand.

“The rain was perfect – the thunder, the way it fell," says Mr Saud, a 42-year-old with an athletic physique from his years in Kuwait's armed forces. "We all thought it would be the best year in our lives for truffles. Instead, there’s nothing.”

Whenever it rains in Kuwait, hopes of a healthy truffle season trigger foraging fervour. The underground fungi are unique to arid environments and grow in a symbiotic relationship with desert shrubbery. Older Kuwaiti men tell tales of truffles as big as baby sheep, large enough for an entire family to feast on the earthy delight. Most are a much more modest golf-ball size.

Unlike their European counterparts, desert truffles have a subtle flavour when prepared by either boiling them in rice dishes or chargrilling them on open fires. Despite their seasonality, their abundance makes them the main component of a dish rather than a seasoning as is the case with their northern relatives.

Locals believe intermittent rain in November and December, accompanied by thunderstorms then followed by sunshine, create the perfect conditions for the growth of the seasonal delicacy.

In a good year –  Mr Saud recalls 1997 as having been particularly bountiful – the desert manna can be collected in sacks.

A torrential storm in November dumped nearly 200 millimetres of rain on Kuwait in less than a week. Although the downpour caused more than 100 million Kuwaiti dinars (Dh1.2 bn) in damage, it was also thought to be ideal to start the truffles on their three-month gestation period.

"Many people said, while they were mopping up their homes, that this means a good harvest season," said one Kuwaiti after the storm.

A Kuwaiti vendor stands behind his truffles for sale at a market in al-Rai, an industrial zone northwest of Kuwait City on March 1, 2018. 
White or beige, but never black, the "desert truffle" is a rare delicacy with a dedicated marketplace in Kuwait, where remnants of the Iraqi invasion and changing weather patterns have decimated local production. / AFP PHOTO / YASSER AL-ZAYYAT

But as truffle-hunting season arrived in February, the Kuwaiti desert was bare of the telltale cracks that signify a truffle swelling underground. Even the spring blooms that turn the desert green, yellow and purple were absent.

Desert-going Kuwaitis crossed the border into Saudi Arabia, only to find the same situation there.

To add insult to injury, dozens of stalls lining the road back to Kuwait displayed signs reading "truffles for sale" and styrofoam boxes filled with fungi the size of large potatoes.

At one stall, Miz’il Ali, a chain-smoking retiree who lived in Kuwait his entire life, was negotiating the price for two boxes. He settled on 350 Saudi riyals (Dh342) a kilo. “But honestly, the prices you get in Saudi Arabia are still much cheaper than the Kuwaiti market,” he says.

The vendor claims the truffles were foraged locally, but Mr Ali wasn't buying that.

“These kids are full of it,” he says. “They try to pass it off as locally found, or that we just don’t know how to forage. We’ve been doing this forever; I know they are getting it from Iraq.”

Iraq, like many other countries in the region, was enjoying a boom year for truffles. Social media users there shared photos of truffles piled high at markets, bragging that a kilo was selling for as low as 10,000 Iraqi dinars (Dh31).

In Syria, where the Syrian Democratic Forces were until recently driving ISIS out of the Euphrates River valley, the US-backed militia took advantage of lulls in the fighting and the relative absence of competition from other foragers to gather truffles by the sackful.

But foraging in areas that are contaminated with mines and unexploded munitions has its risks. In February, 20 Syrian truffle hunters died when a mine planted by ISIS exploded underneath their van in Hama province, state news agency Sana reported.

Kuwaiti vendors sell truffles at a market in al-Rai, an industrial zone northwest of Kuwait City on March 1, 2018. 
White or beige, but never black, the "desert truffle" is a rare delicacy with a dedicated marketplace in Kuwait, where remnants of the Iraqi invasion and changing weather patterns have decimated local production. / AFP PHOTO / YASSER AL-ZAYYAT

Exactly why truffles flourish in one region one year and not another remains something of a mystery to horticulturalists.

What is known is that desert truffles, or terfeziaceae by their scientific name, have a symbiotic relationship with helianthemum plants, a kind of rock rose. Encroaching urbanisation in Kuwait and an increased human presence in the desert both have an impact on the environment.

Foraging pressure and the passage of vehicles in particular are believed to affect the development of the delicate fungus. Overenthusiastic and premature harvesting may also affect future seasons. Abdulrahman Al Fraih, a horticulturalist in Kuwait, said picking immature specimens could hit the fungus's ability to reproduce.

“Desertification, loss of symbiosis with native plants due to overgrazing and also heavy harvesting reduce spore counts is my hypothesis,” said Mr Al Fraih.

Deserts in Iraq are less affected by human activity. With fewer major roads and greater distances from population centres, the relative absence of the off-roaders who criss-cross the desert in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia provides a better environment for reproduction.

In Kuwait, the best truffle grounds are in restricted areas at the airport, according to a local pilot. Where public access is limited, airport staff find plenty of truffles, he says.

The government is aware of the habitat destruction in Kuwait’s small desert territory. After a population boom and a four-fold increase in migrants following the Iraqi invasion in 1990, the government limited what was once free access to the desert. In the early 2000s the state began designating the 20 regions around the country where people are allowed to camp.

Back across the border in Saudi Arabia, Mr Saud's frustration at the lack of truffles was growing apparent. As his mother in the back seat second-guessed his directions to what she was sure were prime truffle grounds. Mr Saud was driving faster but seeming less sure of where he wanted to go in the vast expanse of desert.

“It’s bizarre," he said. "We’ve had drier years in the past with better yields.”

On the horizon, the white thobe of a Saudi stood out against the brown of the desert. Noticing the Kuwaiti licence plate, he beckoned the car over.

When Mr Saud opened the window, the man leaned into the car and placed some truffles in his hand.

“These are really small,” Mr Saud said, inspecting the truffles the size of a ping-pong ball.

“If I don’t pick them someone else will,” the man replied. “Take these back home. Next year when the truffles will be bigger; dinner will be on me.”

That night at a desert camp, Mr Saud brushed the sand from the four small truffles with a toothbrush.

"Really, it’s sad that we don’t get the same harvest any more,” he said as he threw the truffles into a pot of cooking rice.

That way everyone would at least get a taste of this ephemeral delight.