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The Truffled Desert

FORKLORE

November 24, 1999|CHARLES PERRY

The famous truffles of gastronomy are the black truffle of Perigord and the white truffle of Piedmont. But there are other underground fungi that count as truffles too, even though they don't grow in France or Italy or even belong to exactly the same genus.

American foodies have certainly heard of the Oregon black truffle. It turns out to have a Mediterranean cousin, the Moroccan white truffle (Terfezia boudieri), also known by its Berber name, terfas. These truffles are so common in the Sahara that they're available canned.

Terfas might as well be known as the giant truffle, because medieval Arab writers report specimens weighing as much as 3 pounds. (For comparison, the largest white truffle in history weighed only 2.) One writer observed that rabbits in the region of the Ghadames oasis sometimes dug their burrows inside giant truffles. The important question is, of course: Did the rabbit eat its way into the truffle, flavoring itself along the way?

This truffle is not as fragrant as the best European truffles, particularly when it's canned, but a truffle's a truffle, and the 12th century Arab writer al-Idrisi declared that there was no better food in the world. Bedouins still cook them in the Sahara as they did in al-Idrisi's day, either boiled or roasted on coals. Of course, back then truffles were often stewed with camel meat, while these days they're more often served with a sensible vinaigrette sauce.

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