In the springtime, the arid lands of northern Iraq undergo a dramatic transformation. Winter rains have made the undulating landscape a verdant green. Between sandstone outcrops, farmers till unfenced fields of wheat and barley, and hillsides blossom with wildflowers. Hidden beneath the loam, a mysterious treasure blooms.
It’s early March, and a bath-warm breeze blows across the countryside east of Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city of one million people in northern Iraq. Men roam the hillsides in a meandering fashion, strolling slowly and changing course often in response to unseen signals. They walk pensively, arms clasped behind their backs, holding narrow trowels or long screwdrivers. They contemplate the ground, studying its nuances. Hidden next to low shrubs, covered by grass clumps or nearly obscured by the impressions of goat hooves, they seek the faint mound and tell-tale crack that reveals a desert truffle pushing its way to the surface.
Cheaper and considerably more abundant than their distant European cousins, desert truffles are part of the genus Terfezia, found throughout the Middle East and Africa. They invoke a no less fervent passion among fanatical fungus foragers here than does the Tuber magnatum. In Iraq, men have lost their lives in search of these truffles; others spend their lives in obsessive pursuit of them.
Retired Kurdish school teacher Ali Mohammed forages in the same area every year, near the village of Bawa, where his mother was born. This year, he’s brought his son Aram, an engineer in Kirkuk, and his nephew, Khogir, who works for a think tank in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. While the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have shielded Kurdish regions from worst of the violence currently plaguing Iraq, a war against Islamic State militants is stretching toward its third summer, the economy is imploding, and tens of thousands of young Iraqis are leaving the country for Europe. Aram is looking for a way out, while Khogir is still on the fence. A day out truffle hunting provides a welcome distraction.
Retired school teacher Ali takes time out from truffle hunting for his lunch time prayer. Photo: Campbell MacDiarmid
Ali is an eagle-eyed hunter, completely fixated on unearthing the subterranean fungi. Aram and Khogir adopt a more leisurely approach, taking the time to elucidate on some of the finer points of truffle hunting. As we walk, they spin tales of successful expeditions, interweaving their anecdotes with snippets of local lore. Beyond their flavor—less pungent than the European variety—desert truffles are prized for their medicinal properties. A saying of the Prophet Mohammed suggests that when cooked as a soup, truffles make an effective remedy for ailments of the eye. Men also believe that eating truffles will enhance their potency and performance. “I don’t know, though,” says Khogir, a bachelor. “I’m not yet performing.”
As with their European counterparts, these truffles form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of specific plants and grow only in certain types of sandy soil under the right conditions. That makes cultivating them extremely difficult and predicting where they will grow in the wild more art than a science. Prize spots can be closely guarded secrets and hunters do not share all their techniques for finding truffles. Local legend holds that heavy thunder causes the spores to germinate, leading to expectations of poor harvests in years during which there are no lightning storms.
“Here, look.” Khogir plunges his trowel beneath a scarcely noticeable bulge in the ground. As he carefully lifts the mound upward, the soil cleaves apart to reveal a dark object the size of a small potato. Bowing our heads as if in prayer, we carefully wipe off the dirt to inspect it. It’s light but firm and has a slightly musty odor.
“Now we find his cousins,” says Khogir. Where one is found, others are likely to be discovered nearby.