The finest truffles come from Périgord, Piedmont and… Pretoria

Turmeric custard tart made with vanilla, lime, coconut and a lovely amount of Mustérion white truffle. (Photo: Supplied)

The scent of truffles, particularly the white ones, is almost troublingly sensual and somewhat swoony. They don’t smell like mushrooms.

A fair and commonly agreed description of the Perigord black diamond’s or black pearl’s pungent aroma is: earthy in an exciting way with cocoa and nutty aromas. The white Alba or Piedmont truffle can be described as: intensely musky with roasted or black garlic. 

Potato flatbread, pecorino, cremezola, spring onions, black garlic and Mustérion black truffle. (Photo: Supplied)

Let’s not forget there are now many places within South Africa that are producing truffles, well, the black Perigord Tuber melanosporum. It all started in Dullstroom and in no time there were truffles also being farmed at Howick, at Underberg, Kokstad, Cederberg and a few other spots in the Western Cape. 

I’m on my way to meet two women in Pretoria who produce that truffle as well as the white Alba. I’m already on the platform, looking forward to a 45-minute Gautrain trip that will whisk me past all the highway traffic. A tall, slightly ungainly man wearing long-shorts and a peaked cap, a mask and a beard walks deliberately over to me. He asks something about what type of card I used to get through the gates upstairs. He is also casually holding a long tree by the middle of the trunk. It’s about three metres of dead tree or at least it bears no leaves or signs of life, but it has branches. I decide not to ask him about it and reckon I’ll move to another part of the platform where I’ll be more unlikely to share a carriage with a tree and its courier. 

As I turn he tells me, “They’re watching us.” He indicates a screen showing commercials and says, “They can see us on the video.” Again I say nothing but smile as unengagingly as possible because I’m sure the platforms are monitored but with cameras less cunningly disguised. 

I want my time on the train to be spent thinking about truffles. I first ate the black Mustérion truffle at a wonderfully unusual country lunch given by Lientjie Wessels that I wrote about here. I promised myself at the table that I’d meet the Mustérion scientists.  

At this time of year some South Africans can and do import Perigord’s black truffles from France and Piedmont’s white truffles from Italy. The truffle season there starts in mid-November and finishes in early March.

Cheese platter with salmon, gooseberry pearls, spekboom and moringa pearls, date-chilli relish with Mustérion black truffle. (Photo: Supplied)

Because our own excellent black truffles are generally only harvested in the southern hemisphere’s winter season, the middle of 2021 (April to August) is the next truffle season. However, here, as in Europe, there are some subseasons for lesser truffles like Tuber aestivum, a lower quality summer harvesting truffle and the Chinese black truffles that create much market confusion.

Larry Shakinovsky used to import truffles from Italy, France and Spain as well as Australia. It made no sense importing from Australia when South Africa’s often much better truffles came onto the market at the same time. Now he only trades South African truffles, especially since the European ones are prohibitively expensive to import. He does insist that his truffle supply business is now “just a hobby”. His Truffle Kitchen website puts out lots of fascinating truffle information and recipes, even if it is “hobby” material.

However, the person responsible for much of the actual truffle farming in South Africa is Neil van Rij of Mushrush. He analyses and gives a report on the soil, gives recommendations about the right aspects. Mushrush provides small or large hardwood trees, generally oaks, that are already independently certified as being mycorrhised with the DNA tested French black truffle, Tuber melanosporum inoculum. It takes seven to eight years in South Africa to produce these truffles but the farming doesn’t require staff really so it can be a very lucrative one-man or -woman alternative agricultural business eventually.

According to Neil, places that have a cold June and July, more than 600mm of rainfall and well-drained soils, as found in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, like Nottingham Road and Underberg, also around Clarens in the Free State or Machadodorp in Mpumalanga and parts of the Western Cape, are best for truffle farming.

Outside the new Pretoria factory of the two women scientists, Dagutat Science, that now includes Mustérion, the relatively new truffle-producing part of the business, the two owners have planted a forest. Pretoria can look very dusty at the south end and the sight of beautifully healthy lavender bushes and flowering white amaryllis plants beneath is breathtaking. Helga Dagutat tells me with a laugh that their well-being has a lot to do with their mushroom feed.

Helga is the microbiologist and Nita Breytenbach the plant physiologist. Their combined business is pretty astonishing in itself. The two scientists have developed biological control solutions for sustainable farming.  Vineyards and maize farms are good examples. Dagutat Science cultivates fungi-based products to address agricultural health problems, pathogens and pests, blights and mites. 

It’s a natural, biological approach, using the mycelium of edible mushrooms to distribute via irrigation systems or even as seed treatment for dry land.   

Mushmush, incidentally, also works with mushrooms but not in a lab environment. They produce specific mushrooms to use for their healing properties in the treatment of human illnesses. 

For Helga and Nita, the two Dagutat Science women, there was nothing to stop them looking into truffles as well. 

Beyond the floral forest is a fire burning, despite the crazy-hot day, in a cross-shaped pit. It is their giving of thanks for what they have been able to achieve.

We wander around the very new factory. The staff have the day off but have come in to receive their new sage-green Dagutat Science uniforms that have just arrived. There are nine women who also sing together and Helga persuades them to give us a taste of their talents there in the clean, new space. They sing a mighty professional gospel thanksgiving number and then a song for me, called “Marie-Lais”. I have never had anything like that happen before and am goosebumpily touched. 

Helga and Nita designed their new premises when they found it was on the market and it smells of fresh paint and newness. About 50 new doors are shut and I imagine spores going crazy in those little labs. The offices are upstairs. We reach a point where Helga says, “From this point on now, it’s Mustérion, the truffle side of things.” 

The doors here are still closed but I can again imagine truffles growing silently, some in petri dishes, some resting in their mossy containers as fully developed truffles. With the move, the two have only a few full-grown ones at present and want to get the amount up quickly. We pass a rather lovely new kitchen for testing truffle dishes, something both women do on Friday evenings. We move on up the stairs. 

If I think “truffle”, I’m afraid the picture is of food on a plate rather than pigs and dogs rooting around oak and nut trees in Europe’s countryside. I’ve not experienced the excitement of a truffle hunt and may never need to do so now, I suspect.

A prosecco toast with scientists Nita Breytenbach and Helga Dagutat. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Upstairs over prosecco in gorgeous unfluted champagne glasses, we talk about the magic that they are growing, in both Dagutat Science sections. 

On the Dagutat side, the world is conspiring with them because SA’s agricultural exports are no longer allowed chemical spraying and treatment. So the Dagutat women have the products which I believe work better in any case. They say that the huge Zeiss microscope they use for this, that can look at the eyeball of an insect like a red spider mite, was the price of a magnificent holiday home at the coast, but Helga can’t help smiling when she admits it’s already paid for itself. We toast that.

Mustérion truffles are the black ones found in Perigord. (Photo: Supplied)

Mustérion truffles are the exact same black ones found in Perigord, the so-called black diamond, Tuber melanosporum. There are just no pigs or dogs involved and they’re not grown 20cm below the ground. They can be grown to different sizes and are not limited by the seasons. 

Almost unbelievably, they are also growing and have grown the Piedmontese white Alba truffle, the Tuber magnatum. It’s not a truffle that can be grown agriculturally in South Africa. It is the one I love more than the dark one, as much as I’ve been able to tell in the limited tastes I’ve had of any truffles. Helga and Nita succeeded with it early this year but will only release their white truffles after they’ve done so with the black truffles. None of the truffles has actually been launched in a marketing sense. 

White Mustérion truffle generously dusted over myrtle chocolate truffles with plain dark chocolate. (Photo: Supplied)

They’re planning that and we chat about getting Gauteng’s chefs to come in stages for a cook-off. They are building some stock for such events. Nita  grumbles that everyone wants to make scrambled eggs with their truffles and I once made a black truffle omelette so I suppose I’m as guilty. Though, as Larry says, truffles were just made for dairy combinations.

The omelette uses eight eggs for four people and as much of a truffle as you can lay your hands on. For three days you keep the eggs and the truffle in one sealed container. The egg absorbs that sumptuous aroma and taste. You fry little strips (eight or even 16?) of the truffle in butter (or goose fat I am told) for a minute only and keep them aside as you make a very soft, classic omelette in a very large pan, or 2 small pans, of butter, after whipping the eggs with a balloon whisk and adding salt and some black pepper. Black pepper is supposed to compete negatively with the pepperiness of heated truffles but you’d be silly to overdo it like that. Flop the omelette/s over and divide them between 4. Shave some of the remaining truffle over the helpings and serve quicksticks. 

Here’s how the white Piedmontese truffle was used to make something for me and a friend by a chef in a Italian restaurant in Johannesburg. It was awfully late one night and was a very special favour, one of those “bests” I cannot ever forget. The simplicity of the dish with a real white truffle and surprise of the meal are all probably part of it.

The chef used her own freshly made and eggy pasta cut a bit thinner than tagliatelle, more as taglierini, cooked in simmering water, of course, for a few minutes. She used some of the cooking water to splash into a pan with the pasta and then turfed in quite a heap of cold, hard butter squares from the fridge and stirred till they melted, added salt. She told me she often adds sage at that point but gave it to us full of white truffle shavings, stirred in and also shaved on top. That was it. She shut the doors of the restaurant, told us to enjoy ourselves, opened for us a new bottle of wine and went home, advising the night guard to let us out when we were finished.

So I’ll never, ever forget the taste or the very sexy scent but I still sort-of hoped for a glimpse of one in its moss container at Mustérion. I don’t know why. They’ve just moved factories and they know I’ve seen and tasted the black one at Lientjie Wessels’ lunch. 

After one more toast to the brilliant, truffle-studded future of Mustérion, I leave, finding no men with trees on the platform at Arcadia. 

When Neil from Mushrush hears about our scientists developing truffles in laboratory conditions, he quietly says, “Impossible. It’s just not possible.”

There will still be truffle hunting in autumn next year in South Africa, as with Neil’s charming black rescue dog, Captain Coal, that’s adept at finding and not damaging truffles. Part German wire haired terrier and possibly part setter, he’ll be digging among the roots of the trees. 

However, Mustérion truffles are not attached to that hunting season as they are not attached to any trees. DM/TGIFood

Truffle Kitchen

Mushrush 064 904 4618 

Mustérion [email protected] Instagram musterion_craft_truffle  Helga Dagutat 082 788 1141, Nita Breytenbach 082 574 3560


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