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Case Studies

Desert truffles
- Middle East and Mediterranean

Truffles are found in the dry lands of all the world's continents except Antarctica. The truffles found in such areas, often collectively called desert truffles, are not the same as the well-known gourmet truffles of Europe. Nevertheless they are eaten by various peoples. Possibly the most widely documented desert truffles are those of the lands around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East (with Terfezia and Tirmania being two common genera) and desert truffles have appeared in texts over several millennia. In the Sumerian myth of the Marriage of Martu the nomad Martu wishes to marry Adjar-Kidug the daughter of a city god. One of Adjar-Kidug's girl friends, aghast, goes through a long list of derogatory comments about Martu and his people. Here is part of the girl friend's diatribe:

He is clothed in sack-leather...lives in a tent, exposed to the wind and rain, cannot properly recite prayers. He lives in the mountains and ignores the places of gods, digs up truffles in the foothills, does not know how to bend the knee, and eats raw flesh...

The diatribe had no effect for Adjar-Kidug replied to her girl friend: "I will marry Martu!", so perhaps it was the truffles that did the trick. Martu (or Amarru in the Akkadian language) was the eponymous god of the Amorites who, in the early Sumerian texts, were recorded as a nomadic people living to the west but they did settle and build a kingdom. About 4,000 years ago Zimri-Lim was the last Amorite ruler of the city of Mari, now Tell Hariri in modern day Syria, near the Iraqi border. An abundance of clay tablets with cuneiform texts has been unearthed from Zimri-Lim's palace and this has shed much light on the life of the time. One of Zimri-Lim's officials was Yaqqim-Addu, the governor of Saggaratum north of Mari and near the confluence of the Khabur and Euphrates rivers. In one of his letters to Zimri-Lim Yaqqim-Addu had written:

Ever since I reached Saggaratum five days ago, I have continuously dispatched truffles to my lord. But my lord wrote to me: "You have sent me bad truffles!" But my lord ought not to condemn with regards to these truffles. I have sent my lord what they have picked for me.

Zimri-Lim also received truffles from Kibri-Dagan, the governor of Terqa on the Euphrates and a little to the north-west of Mari.

Truffles, including desert truffles, were known to the Greeks and Romans. Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.) wrote extensively on botany and he noted some truffles including one called misu, which grew near Cyrene in modern day Libya. A number of Romans also mentioned truffles and Pliny the Elder (23-79) wrote that the most highly valued came from " Africa". To the Romans of Pliny's time "Africa" denoted roughly the Mediterranean littoral of modern day Tunisia, north-eastern Algeria and western Libya.

Various later travellers have thought desert truffles worthy of mention. The Tangier-born Ibn Battuta (1304-c.1370), in his account of a journey through part of the west African Sahara, noted that truffles were abundant there. Between 1502 and 1507 the Italian Ludovico di Varthema (c. 1470-1517) travelled widely from the Middle East to South-east Asia and published an account of his travels (Itinerario de Ludovico de Varthema Bolognese) in Rome in 1510. He wrote that in Damascus...

... is sold a great quantity of truffles: sometimes twenty-five or thirty camels arrive laden with them and in three or four days they are sold. They come from the mountains of Armenia and Turkey.

Those words come from the English translation by John Winter Jones, edited by George Percy Badger and originally published for the Hakluyt Society in 1863. In a footnote Badger commented:

Truffles (Arab. Kama) are found in large quantities, at certain seasons of the year, along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris, and are transported by the Bedawîn long distances. The price at Mosul and Baghdad varies from one to six shillings the 'okkah of four pounds.

Words similar to kama are still in use today as names for desert truffles. For example in Bahrain two truffle names are Al-Kame Al-Baidah and Al-Kame Al-Souda, meaning "white truffle" and "black truffle", respectively. The kama group of words has a long history. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary gives kam'atu as a word for truffle in the Akkadian language and in the entry for that word gives two illustrative quotations which I have copied into the references below. Other modern Semitic language common names for truffles are faq'a and its variants. Kama is based on a root meaning "covered" or "hidden" and the faq'a group of words, which are also used for mushrooms, are derived from a root with a sense of "bursting forth".

Al-Hassan Ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan (better known in the English-speaking world as Leo Africanus) was born in Granada in the 1490s but his family soon moved to Morocco. He travelled widely and in the 1520s, during his period in Rome, wrote a general account of Northern Africa. Leo's manuscript was first published by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in Venice in 1550 as La Descrittione dell'Africa. Ramusio's work was translated into several languages within a century of its appearance. The first English version appeared in 1600 but this was based on a Latin translation rather than the original Italian. Here, from that English version, are Leo's observations about truffles:

Terfez is to be called rather by the name of a root then of a fruit, and is like vnto a mushrom or toad-stoole, but that it is somewhat bigger. It is enclosed with a white rinde and groweth in hot and sandy places. Where it lyeth, it may easilie be perceiued by the swelling and opening of the ground. Some of them are as bigge as a walnut, and others as a limon. The phisicians, which call it Camha, affirme it to be a refrigeratiue or cooling fruit. It groweth in great plentie vpon the Numidian deserts, and the Arabians take as great delight in eating of the same as in eating of sugar. This fruit being stued vpon the coles, and afterward made cleane, and sodden in fat broath they esteeme for great dainties. Also the Arabians seethe it in water and milk, and so eat it. It groweth likewise plentifullie in the sandes neare vnto the towne of Sela.

That extract is from Robert Brown's edition of The history and description of Africa and of the notable things therein contained / written by al-Hassan ibn-Mohammed al-Wezaz al-Fasi, a Moor, baptised as Giovanni Leone, but better known as Leo Africanus; done into English in the year 1600 by J. Pory. Brown's edition was originally published by the Hakluyt Society in 1896 and was reprinted by B. Franklin, New York in the 1960s. Leo's words, from Ramusio's edition, appear below in an appendix.

In volume 2 of Damascus and Palmyra: A Journey to the East, published in London in 1838, Charles Greenstreet Addison observed:

There is a wonderful and bountiful provision of nature for supplying food to the Bedouin Arabs in the spring. After the heavy rains, a species of vegetable somewhat similar to the mushroom grows in immense quantities in different districts of the desert. The whole desert country between Damascus and the Euphrates is in places celebrated for its abundant produce of these mushrooms; the Bedouins collect them at the stated season, and for weeks subsist on them; they are boiled, and eaten either with buttermilk or melted butter. Loads of them are, I am told, collected in sacks and brought home on the dromedaries. Many are dried in the sun and sold in the towns and villages. They are esteemed a great delicacy by the Arabs.

Though Addison didn't use the word truffle there can be no doubt that he was referring to desert truffles. Whereas the European gourmet truffles are used sparingly in cooking, as a garnish or flavouring, desert truffles are used in bulk. As you've already seen from the extracts above, desert truffles often appear in great numbers and they are a seasonally significant food. It has been reported that in some of the Arabian Gulf areas the truffle crop was claimed by the royal families during abundant seasons. The truffle lands would be patrolled until most of the crop had been harvested, after which others could collect.

At one point in her Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates, published in 1879, Lady Anne Blount wrote

They brought, too, some desert truffles they had grubbed up; and Hánna, thus encouraged, has surpassed himself, giving us a dish worthy to be served by M. Henri himself, the fat head-waiter at Bignon's. These truffles are white and much softer than the black sort. They look like potatoes, and, though not so well flavoured, are much more practically useful than the others.

In a footnote Blount gave the local word for truffles, Kemeyeh. Elsewhere she noted that truffles were very common and at one place noticed sliced truffles that had been put out on tent roofs to dry. She told the tale of one tribe, plundered by Turkish soldiers and left with barely a pot in which to make coffee. They had no bread, just dates and truffles, but as the chieftain said "the kemeyehs are our bread just now, and better than the bread of towns".

Desert truffles have been widely eaten and have at times been viewed as valued gifts but there has also been at least one instance of restrictions placed on their use. The oasis of Ghadames is found in Libya, near the meeting point of the borders of Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, and was long an important caravan staging point. For some centuries the inhabitants of the oasis followed the Ibadi form of Islam, which frowns on extravagance. A document from 1834 records a regulation by the council of elders of the Banū Dirār (a subclan within the oasis), which aimed to limit or prohibit the subclan's use of costly items at weddings. The listed items included not only delicacies such as the expensive sweets that had to be imported but also desert truffles.

The American plant physiologist Benjamin Minge Duggar included a section about desert truffles in his book Mushroom Growing, published in 1915 by the Orange Judd Company of New York, and the following photographs are from that book. The photo on the top left shows the habitat near Ain Sefra, in the Atlas Mountains of north western Algeria, where Duggar collected Terfezia under Artemisia herba-alba and the photo on the right shows a truffle and a host plant. On the lower left is a truffle hunter at work and that is how the photo appeared in the book. I haven't cropped the man's feet.

Here are Duggar's words, those of a tyro terfas hunter:

In hunting for terfas neither dogs nor pigs are used. A native Arab is required to point out the favourable regions, and then careful observation is all that is needed. When the terfas are nearly mature they doubtless absorb water more abundantly through the mycelium, thus increasing rapidly in size, and this expansion causes a slight bulging and breaking of the soil around the roots of the plants under which they grow. By this means they are easily located, yet there are many false alarms, caused generally by little ant hills. With a sharp stick, alpine stock, or trowel, the fungus is readily removed, for it is seldom more than one or two inches beneath the surface.

While Duggar records Artemisia as the plant genus associated with his desert truffles, the genus Helianthemum is a more commonly recorded plant associate. The cracking soil above a mature desert truffle is a give-away sign and several writers report that truffle hunters would search for truffles either late or early in the day. A low sun makes it easier to spot the cracking soil. Duggar noted the truffles as no more than an inch or two below the surface but they are also often found protruding above the ground on short stalks. Many desert Bedouin are said to believe that the dug out truffles are better than those that appear above the surface. A proposed explanation is that the latter lose volatile, aromatic compounds more rapidly than the former.

John Feeney, a New Zealand-born film maker who spent several decades in Egypt, noted one of the truffle hunting perils in Egypt and Libya. In 2002 he wrote: "Large areas of the coastal desert were mined in World War II, and more than one truffler has been injured in an encounter with unexploded ordnance". However, Feeney added that Egyptian truffle gatherers were still active and that there is a well-organised export trade, with many Egyptian truffles very quickly finding their way to the markets of the Gulf States.

Spring (and remember that's around March-May in the Northern Hemisphere) is the desert truffle season and a good truffle harvests require good rainfall in the preceding autumn, a dry January and then some light rains. There is also a widespread belief in North Africa and the Middle East that truffle development is influenced by thunderclaps. Given that thunderclaps are associated with lightning there could be some basis to this idea. Lightning storms can generate good amounts of various water-soluble nitrogenous compounds, which any accompanying rain brings to the ground. Experiments on nitrogen metabolism in Terfezia and Tirmania have shown the truffle mycelia to be active and efficient users of nitrates and the truffles themselves showed a relatively high urea content. The mature truffles in these genera have skins (or peridia) from 0.5 to 1.5 millimetres thick. The rest of the truffle, within the peridium, is called the gleba, The two researchers who carried out these experiments suggested that urea accumulation in the gleba would cause the glebal cells to absorb water, by an osmotic process, so causing them to swell. They suggested that the swelling gleba would burst the peridium (the cells of which, they proposed, do not swell). Then as the exposed glebal tissue dries and breaks down, spores would be released for wind dispersal.

Desert truffles have been seen with animal bite marks in them so it is likely that animals also can disperse the spores, as is the case with other truffles from many parts of the world. However, there are also observations of dried, abraded desert truffles, giving support to wind dispersal as well, perhaps if no animal eats them. In connection with drying, it's interesting to note that experiments on the germination of spores of two Terfezia species showed that spores collected from dried truffles generally germinated sooner than those collected from fresh truffles. Terfezia boudieri spores from dried truffles germinated in 7 to 25 days, while spores collected from fresh truffles took 18 to 43 days to germinate. For Terfezia claveryi spores the respective times were 14-31 and 32-47 days.

Apart from being used as food desert truffles have featured in traditional Bedouin medicine. Sterilized aqueous truffle extract has long been used in the treatment of trachoma. In a pilot clinical study truffle extracts proved useful but required a longer treatment time than that of standard antibiotics. Other studies have shown desert truffle extracts to have anti-bacterial properties against a wide range of bacteria. An example of another use, other than as human food, is given by the species Phaeangium lefebvrei. This species of desert truffle is sought out by migratory birds and has been used by Bedouin as bait in bird traps.

Appendix: Leo Africanus on truffles – in Italian

Here are Leo's words from Ramusio's edition:

Questo si può dire vie piú tosto radice che frutto. È simile alle tartufole, ma è piú grossa e ha la scorza bianca, e nasce nell'arena in luoghi caldi; si conosce dove ella giace al gonfio del terreno un poco rotto. Alcuni sono grandi come le noci, e alcuni piú grossi come le melangole. Secondo i medici, che la chiamano camha, è frutto rinfrescativo. Ne nasce in gran quantità ne' diserti di Numidia, e gli Arabi lo mangiano cosí volontieri come s'ei fusse zucchero. E invero che, delicatissimo: gli Arabi lo mangiano boillito in acqua over in latte. Se ne truova ancora in gran quantità nell'arena vicina alla città di Sela.

This extract is taken from Giovanni Battista Ramusio'sNavigazioni e viaggi. Volume primo: La decrizione dell'Africa di Giovan Lioni Africano, edited by Marica Milanesi and published in Turin in 1978 by Giulio Einaudi editore.


Alsheikh, AM & Trappe, JM. (1983). Desert truffles: the genus Tirmania. Transactions of the British Mycological Society, 81, 83-90. [This paper reports the royal family claims to the truffle crop.]

Alsheikh, AM & Trappe, JM. (1983). Taxonomy of Phaeangium lefebvrei, a desert truffle eaten by birds. Canadian Journal of Botany, 61, 1919-1925.

Awameh , MS & Alsheikh, A. (1980). Ascospore germination of Black Kamé (Terfezia boudieri). Mycologia, 72, 50-54.

Awameh , MS & Alsheikh, A. (1980). Features and analysis of spore germination in the Brown Kamé (Terfezia claveryi). Mycologia, 72, 494-499.

Black, JA; Cunningham, G; Ebeling, J; Flückiger-Hawker, E; Robson, E; Taylor, J and Zólyomi, G. (1998-2006). The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (, Oxford. [The Marriage of Martu is text 1.7.1]

Dalley, S. (1984). Mari and Karana: two old Babylonian cities. Longman, London & New York. [Mentions the truffles sent to Zimri-Lim from Terqa.]

Ewaze, JO & Al-Naama, MM. (1989). Studies on nitrogen metabolism of Terfezia spp. and Tirmania spp. New Phytologist, 112, 419-422.

Feeney, J. (2002). Desert Truffles Galore. Saudi Aramco World, 53 (5), 22-27.

Haarmann, U. (1998). The Dead Ostrich: Life and Trade in Ghadames ( Libya) in the Nineteenth Century. Die Welt des Islams, 38, 9-94. [Truffles are mentioned on page 56 but for some useful Ibadi background start reading on page 52.]

Kagan-Zur, V & Roth-Bejerano, N. (2008) Desert Truffles. Fungi, 1(3), 32-37.

Mandeel, QA & Al-Laith, AAA. (2007). Ethnomycological aspects of the desert truffle among native Bahraini and non-Bahraini people of the Kingdom of Bahrain. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 110, 118-129. [Mentions the medicinal use of aqueous truffle extracts, the preference for buried truffles, gives some etymology and describes the rainfall requirements for a good truffle season.]

Oppenheim , AL (editor-in-charge).(1971). Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, Volume 8: K. Oriental Institute, Chicago. [The entry for kam'atu is on page 120 and the illustrative quotations, which contain the grammatical form kam-a-tim, are also given in English translation: (1) ... now I am having those truffles sent to my lord... (2) ...the one case of truffles and the one tablet which PN sent me, now I am sending the case and the tablet which they brought me on to my lord, both under seal... These extracts are quite distinct from Yaqqim-Addu's plaint that was given above. The letters PN indicate a personal name occurs there.]

Sasson, JM (1984). Thoughts of Zimri-Lim. Biblical Archaeologist, 47, 110-120. [Gives Yaqqim-Addu's plaint.]

Shavit, E. (2008). Truffles Roasting in the Evening Fires: Pages from the History of desert Truffles. Fungi, 1(3), 18-23. [This paper includes comments about the etymologies of kama and faq'a.]