Desert Truffle

Manna: White Truffles in the Sand

The belief echoed by the Prophet Muhammad that the White Truffle (Tirmania nivea, zubaydiya) is the manna given to the Israelites to sustain them the desert is supported by the descriptions of the biblical manna. Biblical descriptions of the manna and the manner in which it should be prepared bear strong resemblance to the descriptions and customs of Bedouin collectors.

Many theories have sought to answer the question, “what is manna?” Some suggestions rely exclusively on translations of the Bible, basing their theories on misinterpretations. A good example of an unfortunate translation is the name “manna” itself. It was translated from the original “man hu” which means “what is it?” A strange term to use in reference to an object. It is like giving the name ‘whatisit’ to a newly encountered object.

An unsuccessful translation of Exodus, 16:31, reads, “And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna.” The actual translation of this biblical verse is: “and the children of Israel looked at it and said to one another, “what is it?” (“man hu?”) because they did not know what it was”.

The Israelites left Egypt in spring, which is desert truffle season. During their travels through the desert they came upon the ‘manna’, Exodus,16: 14, “…upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground” (something like a white ball of hail). In Exodus 16:21 it is says, “…they gathered it every morning, every man according to his eating. And when the sun waxed hot, it melted.” The Hebrew word for ‘melt’ can also support ‘disintegrate to a fluid’.

Terfezia from Jean-Louis Benoit-Guyod of Grenoble, France
[The following description is repeated here for reference]
In “The Bedouins and the Desert”, Jibrail Jabbur describes Tirmania nivea as follows, “its skin and pith are both white, its pith is softer, neither as firm nor as round as the brown and black truffle….From a distance I thought it was a rock, since it lay exposed on the surface of the ground, as white truffles generally do when they are fully mature. … if left ungathered, the [white] truffle grows underground by leaps and bounds until it bursts through and appears on the surface of the ground. When it has reached its maximum size, it sometimes rolls out of the mouth of its ‘volcano’ and its skin quickly begins to wrinkle from exposure to the sun”.

It says in Exodus, 16:19-21, “And Moses said, let no man leave of it till the [next] morning. …but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and stank. …and they gathered it every morning…and when the sun waxed hot, it melted”.

Once it is ripe, Tirmania nivea pushes up through the sand and into the desert heat. Its light outer skin turns slightly scaly and bleaches white. It spoils within a few hours in the heat, sometimes filling up with maggots and turning into a stinky slime. All desert truffles are collected in the early morning hours. The main reason is to get them before animals and maggots can get to them first. It is also easier to spot them in the early morning hours, as the dew softens the sand and makes it easier for the truffle to push through it, in the process creating the typical patterns that expert truffle hunters can easily detect. The rays of the morning sum make the crack in the sand more apparent. It is also easier for the truffle hunter to collect before the heat becomes a problem, giving his truffle bounty a chance to get home unspoiled.

In Numbers, 11:8, it is said that, “…the people went about, and gathered it [the manna], and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it…” . In Exodus, 16:31 it says, “…and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey”.

The Israelites prepared their manna in much the same way as the Bedouins prepare their truffles today. Desert truffles are not eaten raw. Traditionally, they are best roasted in the fire, or cooked with camel’s milk. To preserve them, truffles are dried and powdered, then added to the dough of flatbreads. Truffles are often eaten at the end of the meal, like desert, with honey. Maybe we should refer to them as "dessert desert truffles."

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