Postcard from Saudi Arabia – The Redemption of the Truffle Hunters
One of the charming aspects of the local media in Saudi Arabia is how often a story hits the front page, and you wonder what it did to deserve its lofty prominence. The other day the Arab News ran a short news item about truffle hunters.
Apparently, up on the border with Iraq the magical fungus abounds. Not quite the same as the European variety – they’re known as desert truffles. They appear early in spring, after the winter rains and before things start hotting up. Like their counterparts in Europe, you can find them around the roots of trees. But while in the Perigord and Tuscany you have to snuffle around decaying vegetation and rotting tree stumps, desert truffles are so named because, yes, they grow in the desert, where trees are sparsely dotted around and dead leaves are quickly blown away. You can recognize them from the tiny cracks they create in the sandy soil as they grow. More on the desert truffle here, from the archives of AramcoWorld, the oil company’s wonderful in-house publication, with a beguiling recipe thrown in.
The problem is that people who search for them sometimes wander into prohibited areas close to the border. This is not a good idea. Borders in the Middle East are dangerous places – hence intruders sometimes find themselves arrested and imprisoned for their pains.
Until I read the story, I was unaware that the truffle played any part in the Saudi diet, other than as imports used by the sumptuous French restaurants in the hotels of Riyadh and Jeddah. But it appears that the local variety flavours numerous dishes. Unlike in France, though, the locals use their sharp eyesight rather than the noses of a species that is distinctly unwelcome in the region – the pig.
So the big news was an announcement by the Crown Prince that those currently in jail for their truffle-hunting misdemeanours will be released from prison. According to the Arab News under the heading of Noble Royal Gesture:
Vice Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Mohammed bin Naif has ordered the release of people arrested for straying into prohibited border areas searching for truffles.
According to the directives, the guilty parties would have their period of detention considered as their penalty for violating border regulations.
Col (Marine) Samir Mohammed Al-Harbi expressed hope that the noble royal gesture would encourage people to comply with the law.
I’m sure it will, although you would have thought that such an eminent figure would have more pressing issues on his mind than the activities of a few Bedouin risk-takers. But when you consider that there have been a number of incursions across the northern border by Daesh fighters that have ended up with casualties on both sides, you can imagine that incursions into the border area might have fatal consequences. That would undoubtedly be the case in some parts of the world I can think of.
But front-page news? Well, this is Saudi Arabia, a country full of contrasts, where acts of mercy by those on high often outrank weightier stories. And that’s why I love scouring its media. As the ineffable Forrest Gump once said, you never know what you’re gonna get.