Made In Africa: Will Truffles Be South Africa’s Next Luxury Export?

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Written by Dana Sanchez

In the past, concerns about theft may have hushed public disclosure about South Africa’s truffle industry, but that could change with the discovery of a black Perigord truffle on a farm in the Western Cape.

The first black Perigord Truffle was found on a farm Altima owned by winemaker Anthonij Rupert near Villiersdorp, TimesLive reported Aug. 17.

Coenie and Hanene Van Dyk‚ managers at Altima‚ have been trying for six years to grow truffles, Woodford Truffles South Africa said in a statement. Their truffle-hunting Jack Russel terrier, Clyde, sniffed out a 200-gram (7.05-ounce) truffle in an inoculated oak tree.

It’s not the first South African black truffle find this year to get media attention.

The Guardian reported in January that Farmer Cameron Anderson and his truffle-hunting dog, Shammy, a 9-year-old weimaraner, found a black truffle on Anderson’s plantation of 500 oak trees near Dullstroom in Mpumalanga province. This generated excitement among South African farmers hoping to get rich.

Anderson has been trying for nine years to cultivate one of the most expensive delicacies known to man, according to TheGuardian.

The fungal equivalent of caviar, South African fresh black winter truffles could fetch about 22,000 rand ($1,672US) per kilogram, Bloomberg reports.

Leon Potgieter, a mycologist and co-owner of African Truffles, said he believes South Africa’s soils and combination of sun and frosts are more suitable for growing truffles than Europe’s, according to TheGuardian.

Could truffles be South Africa’s next luxury export?

A new truffle industry in South Africa will flourish, Potgieter predicted. “In 10 years you will see chefs from all over the world coming here for the truffles.”

Potgieter said truffles may already be growing successfully in South Africa but growers don’t talk about it. “We don’t encourage our farmers to go out and exhibit because this is a third-world country and as soon as you can say this is valuable like gold, you’re going to get people coming to rob your orchards,” he told TheGuardian.

“We’ve had some people robbing our orchards already,” Potgieter said. “I think some discretion and modesty is called for.”

Wild truffles have recently been found on the chalk downs of the Southern Cape, but the Mpumalanga truffle is considered South Africa’s first black diamond truffle find — at least according to Volker Miros, founder of Woodford Truffles.

Miros works with farmers and landowners trying to produce truffles commercially on 50 hectares (123 acres). “It’s absolutely fantastic,” he said, describing the find. “We’ve been working for about five years now. I’ve got 150 people who are forever asking: ‘Are they going to grow?’ They want to know, are we going to invest in truffle orchard?”

Truffles have a symbiotic relationship with trees and hold a special place in the public imagination as well as haute cuisine, Miros told TheGuardian. “It’s the mystique. It’s an amazing taste and you would always like to taste it again. It’s the elusiveness. It’s special. I think it’s the most expensive agricultural product in the world.”

Anderson had the head chef of the five-star Michelangelo hotel in Johannesburg cook part of his truffle for him, TheGuardian reported. He damaged another part of because he wasn’t sure how to store it.

“It was negligence on my part and I freely admit it,” Anderson told TheGuardian. “But the important thing is it’s proved the theory that it’s commercially viable. It’s still very early days but I’ve got high hopes it will go somewhere. I’d like to believe we are going to see more.”

Black truffles are the second most commercially valuable kind after white truffles. Macau casino owner Stanley Ho paid a record $330,000 for a pair of white truffles, including one weighing nearly a kilogram — one of the largest found in decades — in 2010, BBC reported.

One of the wild South African truffles that’s been getting some attention lately is the rare Kalahari Nabba which appears erratically, once every four years or more, between April and May, IOL reports.

Known as !N’abbas in the Nama language, this truffle is endemic to the Green Kalahari region and has found its way into a new, locally produced gin.

Cruxland gin, launched by KWV is made from grape spirits infused with “nine exotic signature botanicals, including the rare Kalahari N’abbas,” according to IOL.

Kalahari truffles only grow in the Kalahari after the first rains, forming a distinctive crack in the earth in the form of a cross when the truffle swells after the rain, said Master Distiller Pieter de Bod. Only the very experienced truffle hunter can spot where to start digging, De Bod said.

The cross in the ground inspired the Cruxland name — Crux means cross in Latin, according to IOL.

Experts say gin is undergoing a revival, due in part to unusual flavors — like truffles — which are adding vitality to the category.