Israel’s culinary landscape has often been praised for offering a multicultural flavor palette and adventurous food combinations. Over the past several years, Israeli researchers have been cultivating a rare desert treat to add more widely to the local cuisine.
In the dry lands of the Negev, researchers at the Ramat HaNegev Desert Agriculture Center have cultivated a unique desert truffle, known as Terfezia Leonis fungus, a known delicacy across the Middle East and North Africa. These desert truffles were especially popular among the ancient Jewish communities from the region, who served them either boiled and salted or in a well-known lamb stew traditionally for Passover Seder, according to references in the 2014 book “Desert Truffles: Phylogeny, Physiology, Distribution and Domestication.”
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But in Israel supplies are unstable and costs unpredictable, making the rare fungus a hard-to-come-by ingredient. The JTA reported last year that market prices for the truffles reached $120 per pound, “slightly less than the cost of silver and four times that of uranium.”
“Today, the fungus you find in the market is there because of the Bedouins,” explains Professor Yaron Sitrit, who is head of the research project which aims to commercialize the cultivation of desert truffles in Israel’s south. Sitrit, an associate professor at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is also one of the editors of the “Desert Truffles” book.
“The Bedouins know the host plant, can track the mushroom down and sell it in the market. But it’s collected in the wild, and the yield is heavily influenced by the rains. This year, for example, the rain patterns were very bad, so you can find almost no fungi in the markets, and the prices are very high. People can buy the fungi today, but they are dependent on rain, God, and the Bedouins who will collect and sell it to them,” he tells NoCamels.
This is about to change. In a long-term research endeavor, the researchers managed to decode the intricate relationship between the fungus and its host plant Helianthemum sessiliflorum, commonly known as the Desert Trap, in a successful experiment first unveiled last year in Israeli news daily Ynet. The experiment was a joint cooperation between the Ramat HaNegev Desert Agriculture Center and Sitrin.
Both the fungus and the host plant require little water and no fertilizer, making it potentially a very cost-effective agricultural crop. The plant grows in the dry dunes of the Mediterranean desert lands, but despite all adjustments, is unable to absorb phosphor by itself.
“The fungus does that much better,” explains Sitrit. “It transfers the phosphor it absorbs to the plant and in return gets sugars and other nutrients from it that can only be produced through the plant’s photosynthesis, nutrients the fungus needs to be able to grow underground.”
The challenge was to keep the conditions stable enough for both the plant and the truffles to grow, but also to keep their intricate symbiosis necessary, in the experimental field.
In the beginning, about 30kg (66 pounds) of truffles were farmed per hectare (2.4 acres) – not enough to make the endeavor profitable. “So we came up with more ideas, and over the last three years, we jumped from 30[kg]to 130 (286 pounds), 140 (308 pounds), and 150kg (330 pounds) per hectare, so we are getting closer and closer to commercialization,” says Sitrit.
According to his calculations, approximately 300kg (727 pounds) per hectare would be needed to make truffle-farming marketable in Israel, a goal that seems attainable.
But the professor’s dreams are bigger than just making the delicacy available for Israeli foodies all year round. For him, the truffles also present an excellent opportunity to give Israel a new touristic feature.
Much like families can go cherry-picking or harvest strawberries on a sunny Saturday, truffle-hunting could become the next attraction. The truffles grow especially well in areas near Egypt’s Sinai region, which are usually not very popular travel destinations. “But in the villages here, there is room for tourists. They can come with their families, take them to the fields, go truffle hunting – that’s nice for kids and adults.”
Perhaps in a few years, we will not only be able to pop by the market to spontaneously get some desert truffles for dinner but will also take our families on a desert trek for some fungus.