Have you ever heard of the Eggs of the Lightning Bird? Don’t be disappointed if you have not. Not everyone knows that Kalahari or desert truffles go by that name.
Nearly every year Namibians go a little crazy during April and May. It has nothing to do with the moon. It has a lot to do with rain, and it has everything to do with truffles. Desert truffles to be exact; Kalaharituber pfeilii if you are a truffle nerd; and !nabas or omatumbula if you are a local foodie.
Truth is our beloved !naba is not exclusive to our part of the world. Terfeziaceae, or desert truffles, is a family of truffles that are endemic to the arid and semi-arid areas of the Mediterranean Region, North Africa, and the Middle East, and Southern Africa.
Desert truffles should not be confused with the more illustrious European truffles (Tuber). Of these, black (Tuber melanosporum) and white (Tuber magnatum) truffles are most treasured among gourmands.
Terfeziaceae has been consumed by humans for millennia and in North Africa records of human consumption date back to at least 300 BC.
Three species of desert truffle are found in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia, Botswana and Northern Cape Province of South Africa. These are Kalaharituber pfeilii, Eremiomyces echinulatus, and Mattirolo-myces austroafricanus. The latter two species of truffles are rare and harvested infrequently.
Desert truffles fruit only when there had been sufficient rainfall. In Kuwait, this occurs with rainfall of at least 180 mm distributed from October through March. Unfortunately, no such data exists for Southern Africa or Namibia. Therefore, it remains a mystery exactly when !nabas will occur.
Despite these conditions of scarcity and unpredictability, our truffles remain relatively affordable compared to the European truffle. All desert truffles contain a large number of large, inflated thin-walled cells that is integral to spore dispersion. These cells absorb large amounts of water that causes the truffle to swell and provides moisture that is needed for spore formation.
The subterranean swelling of the truffle causes first little mounts of soil on the surface, which dry out and crack leaving distinctive visible clues as to where truffles are to be found. If left as is, the sand will eventually be blown away exposing the drying truffles to more wind and sand erosion. The inflated cells dry completely to form a powder that eventually becomes airborne.
Kalahari truffles are both delicious and nutritious. They contain protein, fat, crude fiber, carbohydrates and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). It also has high levels of potassium and phosphate and fair amounts of iron.
Attempts to cultivate these truffles have been unsuccessful. Thus, for the foreseeable future we’ll await each !naba season with great anticipation.
Maybe that is not entirely a bad thing, as food-wise the month of May has very little else going for it in Namibia. Something as exotic as !nabas should not be eaten too frequently for it may corrode the joyful mystery attached to one of nature’s true culinary gifts.
!Nabas harvesting is lowest in areas with large concentrations of livestock. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, as little research has been done thus far. The state of the Kalahari truffle is currently under review by the Global Fungal Red List Initiative. Their quantities have deteriorated due to livestock farming and increased commercial harvesting. This means that an important natural complement of the local diet is being endangered.
Cooking with Desert Truffles
Desert truffles are quite versatile ingredients. The most common way that Namibians prepare truffles is to pan-fry them with butter. To this, they may add onions and a little bit of garlic and perhaps some soft herbs such as thyme and sage. This is popularly served on toast. Older folks used to boil the truffles in salted water, which seems a waste of good truffles.
Truffles can also be eaten raw; served as carpaccio with some good olive oil or herbed oil or a soft herbal vinaigrette. It goes well with a good quality hard cheese such as Parmesan or Pecorino.
Other popular uses for desert truffles include cream of truffle soup and various pasta sauces. These sauces can be oil- or cream-based and truffles are a great addition to Macaroni and Cheese. !Nabas are a great addition to pies, especially chicken pies.
You can extend the truffle season a little longer by first cleaning the truffles before drying or freezing them. They need to be vacuum-sealed in bags before they can be frozen. This works well although you should not expect them to last indefinitely. Some people blanch the truffles before freezing them, but I do not see the need. As long as they are vacuum-sealed. Also, clean and peel them before vacuum sealing them because you do not want to force gains of sand into the truffles.
Cleaning them properly is a real pain in the neck, but hell you only have to do this once a year. Be thankful for receiving the Eggs of the Lightning Bird and make the effort to keep them properly.