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Namibia's Four-Star Fungus

The World | COLUMN ONE

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

Despite the ups and downs, truffle season is always more of an event in Windhoek than it is in Paris, where truffles for many people can be a mere curiosity displayed in a glass case at a marketplace. Few in France can afford to rush out into the countryside to buy up dozens of pounds, like Cole does regularly in truffle season, returning with his head swimming from the heady perfume that fills his car.

The musky, mysterious scent of the French truffle has challenged the descriptive powers of avid epicureans and food writers. The Kalahari truffles are no different.

To call it a pungent, earthy, fungal smell, though accurate, sounds repugnant and ignores the subtle, savory perfumes and floral hints of grass that are its essence.

"What do they taste like?" says Cole, pausing and puzzling. "Like

When Dumenikus Freeman, 40, of the Nama tribe was out hunting for truffles last month, he happened upon a haul to remember for a lifetime.

In a typical season, he might walk for hours and find a few truffles. But Freeman, his wife and children, hunting in the roadside grass, were plucking out truffles every few seconds. Sitting on the ground beside his donkey cart was a sack with at least 15 pounds of truffles, and it was only midmorning.

Heavy rains had robed the Kalahari in luxuriant green this year, instead of the usual red dust, and spawned prodigious amounts of truffles, a bumper season unlike any that people can remember.

Freeman sold a few pounds, but that night he and his family feasted on truffles boiled with salt.

As Freeman collected truffles, chef Gamma had just taken delivery of a large supply in Windhoek and was planning entire truffle menus: roesti with truffle, carpaccio of raw sliced truffles with virgin oil, truffles with sole, truffles with wild game, and a sublime creation of truffle-stuffed ravioli nestling on a rich truffle puree.

Gamma, originally from Biel, Switzerland, is a self-taught chef who seeks out indigenous products and has never cooked or tasted European truffles.

The first time he bought a sack of Kalahari truffles, he had no idea what to do with them and had to call around for ideas.

"No garlic," he says, revealing his truffle secrets. "Garlic just kills the taste. And no spices! Just a touch of dry white wine and a few herbs. If you cook them too long, they go black."

Until there is a regular and predictable supply, bringing these Kalahari delicacies to the world market is near impossible.

Professor Varda Kagan-Zur of Ben-Gurion University in Israel has been studying the cultivation of the Kalahari truffle and melons in Namibia in an effort to commercialize them.

Cole, who belongs to a Namibian nonprofit association of development experts, the Center for Research Information Action in Africa, is helping coordinate the project, now in its final year.

He says it has had mixed results, "but we have learned quite a few good things."

The study, underway for the better part of a decade, aims to create a predictable supply for markets and provide a livelihood for poor rural farmers.

"We're still quite a long way off. We've managed to do quite a bit, but commercially it's going to take another good three years," Cole says.

Press him for details, and Cole gets a faraway look, cagey about the exact nature of the research on cultivation, changing the subject and finally mumbling into silence.

One fear he has is that cultivating truffles may create a viable industry for large commercial farmers and bypass small-scale, threadbare farmers.

If cultivation and commercialization remain a distant dream, the chance to try a Kalahari truffle in the here and now was irresistible.

After coming to Namibia to find the Kalahari truffle, picking them up, sniffing them, quizzing people about them and leaning curiously over many cooking pots, it was time to taste them.

In Bess Steenkamp's barn of a kitchen, a huge meat saw stands at attention on one side, with an old metal table in the center, large enough to perform an autopsy on a bull. She starts work on her immense pile of truffles.

She peels a raw truffle and offers it with some salt. The texture is firm, the flavor nutty, buttery, earthy.

Steenkamp smiles encouragingly, letting me know it's just the beginning of a perfect truffled evening.

She fills a pan with a prodigious quantity of butter, tosses in handfuls of carefully peeled, thickly sliced and boiled truffles, and with careless abandon pours in a river of rich cream, all the time a mysterious smile playing on her face at the joy of introducing another newcomer to the Kalahari truffle. Given the scale of her kitchen, quantity and quality go hand in hand.

"I'm going to cook a lot tonight."

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