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Namibia's Four-Star Fungus

Unlike its French kin, the Kalahari truffle is cheap. The African state goes wild for the savory delicacy, and residents eat it every which way.

May 15, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

WINDHOEK, Namibia — It resembles nothing so much as a lump of desiccated donkey dung, nestled beneath the desert sands and guarded by knee-high grass and deadly puff adders. It's difficult at first to see why people in Namibia are wild about this humble-looking fungus.

But you only need to nose into a sack of them to catch a whiff of the singular scent that inspires a seasonal passion in everyone from the poorest shack dweller to the hottest chef here: the earthy redolence of the Kalahari truffle.

Black truffles have long been prized in France, where pigs or trained dogs snuffle about under oaks to bring the treasured delicacies to market for as much as $1,200 a kilo when they're scarce.

But in the Kalahari Desert in southern Namibia, the Nama people will sell you a couple of pounds of truffles for a few dollars or so, unless they're keeping them to eat. The Nama call them !nabas, the exclamation mark somehow conveying the passion and excitement this fungus inspires. (In fact, it indicates a tongue click in the local language.)

The Nama recommend carrying a stout stick when truffle hunting to flip aside hissing adders, though it seems they rarely bother with such fancy precautions themselves, thrusting their hands into the dense grasses to pluck out the truffles betrayed by a small crack in the red sand.

The quest for the Kalahari truffle leads you ambling between camel thorn trees and hunting along the roadside amid bushman's grass, which carries a surprising scent of a wine cellar.

But as much as the physical hunt, nosing out Kalahari truffles means unearthing Namibian truffle lore: advice, stories and recipes.

Outside a shabby tin shack in truffle country, an elderly Nama man's eyes light up at truffle talk. To Krisjan Gariseb, 73, nothing else that grows on Earth tastes so good.

"It comes from the soil and it's full of good things," he says. "If anyone tells me there is !nabas on a farm, I'll drop everything and go right there and get it."

He describes the traditional cooking method: First build a hot fire and let it burn away until even the coals are gone. Then bury the truffles whole in the searing hot sand.

If you ask him how long to leave them there, he replies, smiling, "Until they're done."

Namibians are as inventive about Kalahari truffles as others are about the potato. They bake them, boil them, puree them, slice them raw with salt or serve cooked slices in a salad. Some barbecue them or grate them over pasta. Some fry them in lashings of butter and eat them on toast. Some recommend wrapping small ones in bacon and baking them whole. Others whisper their own secret: Cook them, but let them sit a night and eat them the next day, the flavors richer and enhanced.

They like to slice truffles into thick disks or chunky cubes, with none of the delicate shavings, thin slices, strips, trimmings and peelings that the French truffle is usually subjected to.

In Windhoek, the sleepy Namibian capital, Swiss chef Urs Gamma bounces about in front of his stove top, tossing arcs of cream-laced truffles from a pan, enthusing about their qualities, his spectacles twinkling.

Gamma, whose Restaurant Gathemann is one of the best-known restaurants in Windhoek, urges subtlety, caution: a whisper of this, a smidgen of that is all the truffle wants. But Dave Cole, the aficionado who sold Gamma his truffles, takes a more robust approach. Stick your nose over the pot on his stove top, and the fumes of mingled truffle, vodka, herbs, cream and even a dash of chili will almost flatten you.

Out in the heart of truffle country, retired schoolteacher Bess Steenkamp looks contentedly at a small mountain of truffles waiting in her kitchen to be cleaned and peeled.

"It's a wonderful smell, isn't it? All my friends and family are phoning with requests from all over the country: 'You must buy! You must buy! You must buy!' "

Kalahari truffles, Terfezia pfeilii, are distantly related to French black truffles, but they are not as aromatic.

Unlike the black French truffle, with its hard, knobby outer layer, Kalahari truffles have a smooth brown skin like a small round potato. Like the French truffle, which is always found near the roots of oaks, the Kalahari truffle has a symbiotic relationship with a plant -- the desert melon.

Kalahari truffles are cheap in Africa because it is Africa: The collectors are often poorly paid or ask little for their goods. But if the Kalahari truffle ever found its way into the exotic street markets of Paris or Rome, it would doubtless create ripples of excitement, curious buyers and higher prices -- if not the sky-high prices of European black or white truffles.

The difficulty with exporting truffles, however, is not just their short shelf life -- about a week -- but regularity of supply. This wet-season desert fungus is widely available one year and scarce the next.

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