Truffles discovered in Southern Africa

South Africa’s first black diamond truffle discovered

Discovery on plantation ends farmer’s nine-year quest to cultivate one of the most expensive delicacies in the world

Farmer Cameron Anderson was about to give up for another season but decided to go out to the orchard for one last look. Beside an oak tree his dog, Shammy, a nine-year-old weimaraner, sniffed pointedly at something so Anderson dug it up. There in his hands was tuber melanosporum, or what experts are describing as the first South African Tuber Melanosporum

For Anderson it was the end of a nine-year quest to cultivate one of the most coveted and expensive delecacies in the world.

“I was elated,” he recalled on Tuesday. “The future of the project was hanging by a thread at that point. It’s not assured yet but this motivates you to push a hell of a lot harder.”

Wild truffles have previously been identified in South Africa but the race for commercial production began about a decade ago. The discovery of a black truffle on Anderson’s plantation of 500 oak trees near Dullstroom in Mpumalanga province has ended the nervous wait and sparked excitement among farmers hoping to turn the fungal equivalent of caviar into an industry worth millions.

Anderson, 34, first got the idea during a trip to New Zealand and decided to investigate when he got home. The effort required much patience and, even after Shammy’s find – “I trained her myself with artificial truffle oil and wasn’t sure if it would transfer to the real deal,” – he had to wait a few more months for scientific tests to prove it was the genuine article.

The historic truffle is not destined for posterity in a museum. Anderson ate a chunk after asking the head chef of the five star Michelangelo hotel in Johannesburg to cook it. He damaged another part because he was unsure how to store it.

“It was negligence on my part and I freely admit it. 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.”

The black truffle was put under a microscope and DNA tested by agricultural scientist Neil van Rij, who then sent it to Italy for a second opinion that also found it authentic. He has a sample in his freezer.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Van Rij, 41, who has been inoculating truffle fungi on to the roots of oak trees for years.

“I’ve been telling people that it would grow in South Africa but a lot are not willing to invest money on a venture that has not been proven. Now we know it’s actually possible and there will always be a market for them.”

The discovery has been welcomed by the fledgling industry. Volker Miros, 74, founder of Woodford Truffles SA, said that while wild truffles had recently been found on the chalk downs of the southern Cape, Anderson’s truffle should be recognised as South Africa’s first.

Miros, who works with farmers and landowners across 50 hectares for commercial production of black truffles, added: “It’s absolutely fantastic. 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?”

The fungus, which has a symbiotic relationship with trees, holds a special place in the public imagination as well as haute cuisine, he continued. “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.”

Last month a white truffle from Italy, said to be the biggest in the world, sold to a Taiwanese buyer for $61,250 (£40,363) at auction in New York. White truffles are found in certain parts of Italy from October to December. South Africa is focusing on black truffles, the second most valuable species.

Leon Potgieter, mycologist and co-owner of African Truffles, said he believes South Africa’s soils are more suitable than those of Europe and its climate, with a combination of sun and frosts, is also ideal. Asked if he was confident a new industry would flourish, he replied: “Yes, of course it’s going to happen. In 10 years you will see chefs from all over the world coming here for the truffles.”

Potgieter, 37, believes others may have already succeeded in growing them but are reluctant to come forward. “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.

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