Putting Israel on the Global Truffle Map

Meet the researchers who are trying to tame the highly prized fungus to grow in the sunny Negev and in the rocky Galilee.

David Bachar

Local farmers and researchers who have been trying for years to crack the “code” to growing truffles hope their recent breakthroughs in the field could put Israel on the global culinary map as a new source for the most expensive and sought-after mushrooms in the world.

There are numerous species of truffles, which are the edible fruits of fungus that grows underground in symbiosis with the roots of certain trees. While certain types of truffle are more highly prized than others, they share a powerful, earthy aroma that is unique to these tubers.

Researchers at the Ramat Negev Desert Agro-Research Center, in southern Israel, are focusing their cultivation efforts on the desert truffle Terfezia boudieri, which is considered a great delicacy in North Africa and the Middle East. It grows in symbiosis with the roots of the Helianthemum sessiliflorum bush (known as Shimshon yoshev in Hebrew), and is gathered by Bedouin in the early spring.

In the Upper Galilee, meanwhile, attempts are being made to acclimate two species of black truffle that are native to France: the Burgundy and the Perigord, which grow in summer and in winter, respectively. If both could be successfully cultivated here, it would give Israeli farmers the possibility of growing and selling truffles year-round and to get a jump on the later European harvest season.

At a recent open house sponsored by the Agriculture Ministry, both centers displayed a generous selection of locally grown truffles that drew many curious spectators, as well as impassioned pleas to receive a chunk for their holiday menus. After reading information on display, one man approached Yaron Sitrit, a researcher from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research. He asked to smell the desert truffle on display, saying, “So, you just put a planter with some Shimshon yoshev in the sun and wait for the truffles?”

Sitrit laughed: “Well, it’s not that simple. The Helianthemum sessiliflorum supplies the fungus with sugars from photosynthesis and in return the fungus helps it absorb water and phosphorus and nitrogen ions from the ground. Just watering the plot is pretty tricky, because if the plant has good conditions, it doesn’t need the truffle anymore. The plant only needs it when it gets in dire straits.”

“Research whose chief purpose is to develop truffles as a commercial crop has been under way for many years,” Sitrit says. “Prof. Varda Kagan-Zur and Prof. Nurit Roth-Bejerano began studying the topic in 1982. They amassed a lot of knowledge but weren’t able to produce a crop. The lack of results led to a big decline in funding for this kind of agricultural research. They retired and I carried on their work, with their collaboration. Our research could provide the scientific understanding necessary to develop the truffle as a new agricultural crop that needs very little water and is very profitable, in a region where the number of crops is limited due to the difficult desert conditions. Farmers in the region are desperate for new crops,” Sitrit said.

“In the beginning we started a plot without knowing much, and against all odds, it yielded something. In the last few years, we’ve succeeded in connecting Helianthemum sessiliflorum with the desert truffle and been able to determine which subspecies has a chance of becoming an agricultural crop. Over the years, we’ve bought more than 700 fruiting bodies from the Bedouin for research purposes, and in drought years the price went as high as 800 shekels (over $200 per kilo). Later, using advanced technology, we developed a special system, we planted the plants in the field and monitored the fruit’s growth. In recent weeks, we’ve discovered the most effective host out of the three types of Helianthemum sessiliflorum. Now we need to figure out the optimal growing conditions and the processes that lead to the creation of the fruiting bodies, in order to establish a continuous and stable crop.”

The director of the Ramat Negev Desert Agro-Research center, Zion Shemer, confesses that he is not personally a big fan of truffles, “but when I bring it to my parents they’d be willing to pay a fortune for it, and to eat it without even cleaning off the sand. When it comes to taste, to each his own I guess. “During the rainy season the desert truffle sells for 250 shekels a kilo, and in early spring the price goes up to between 300 and 500 shekels a kilo. It has an unlimited market. No one has yet succeeded in cultivating it, but we think that in two or three years, we’ll be ready to demonstrate this crop to farmers,” Shemer said.

The director of the Agriculture Ministry’s Agricultural Research Organization, Prof. Yoram Kapulnik, stops by the booth and says: “The researchers working on desert truffles are creating a new branch of agriculture, hopefully for export, for areas where other kinds of agriculture cannot develop and at a time when other agriculture sectors disappoint. The breakthrough is the result of 30 years of research using state-of-the-art methods,” Kapulnik says.

The importance of the truffle is recognized throughout the world. Sitrit relates that a few years ago he was invited to join a project to sequence the entire genome of the desert truffle, a very ancient fungus that he says is much more interesting, biologically speaking, than its European counterparts.

Ofer Danai, the director of the Migal Galilee Technology Center’s Mushroon Project, leads a time that is evaluating the possible introduction of black truffles as a new crop in the region. The research is focused on two model fields in the Upper Galilee, planted 20 years ago. The team is also trying to obtain funding for more fields. As in the south, the experiments have only recently begun to produce results.

“Until 2009, we couldn’t prove that mushrooms could be grown here,” says Danai. “That was when we finally saw that it was possible to grow truffles in the Galilee and we trained dogs to find them. We recently acquired an “electronic nose” we’re trying to use to harvest the ripe truffles. Dania says truffles could be an important crop to add to the mix in the Galilee, given the saturation of its main sectors, apples and wine grapes.

Asked why it’s worth to put such a big effort into developing the desert truffle, which is considered inferior to its European counterpart, Sitrit says, “Because it’s our truffle. You want to eat an expensive European truffle? Go to Europe. This truffle is the most delicious thing there is. It’s known and loved all over the Middle East. Five years from now, we want people to be able to buy truffles at a reasonable price, and for them to be grown successfully in the desert soil by Israeli farmers.”