Desert truffles are Libyans' 'white gold'
Braving the cold and hostile Libyan desert, Milad Mohammed scratches the ground to extract what he calls "manna from heaven" -- white truffles coveted as a delicacy at home and abroad.
The fungus, known locally as "terfas," is the only thing besides some wild grass that grows under the desert sands nurtured by the combined effect of rain and cold temperatures at night.They have been consumed since Roman times for their delicate taste as well as their nutritious and medical properties and are sold to Gulf countries as a luxury food item.
Mohammed harvests the white truffle as a hobby. Each year before spring he treks through the desert region of Hamada al-Hamra, south-west of Tripoli, to look for them."I don't earn my living from this. It's a passion," said Mohammed, a retired civil servant in his 60s from the western city of Zintan.
"It's like a therapy, a way to purify myself from the chaos of the city," he added as he smoked a cigarette outside a tent he pitched in the desert after a day's work. "It's a beautiful place and rough and you feel so isolated here."
He wanders across the desert for hours by foot or in his pickup truck, covering dozens of kilometres and stopping several times to scratch at the sand with his hands or a cane in search of white truffles, which are usually buried deep underground.
"There is nothing more satisfying than to use your bare hands to dig into the sand and extract these delicious truffles," Mohammed said. "They're manna from heaven."
Searching for this white gold in the oil-rich North African country that descended into chaos after the fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in the 2011 NATO-backed uprising is no easy task.
Libya has been gripped by unrest since the revolt, with various groups vying for control of its oil wealth and cities and the desert has become a hornet's nest for jihadists and criminal gangs.
Unlike hunters of black truffles, who use dogs or hogs to search for the prized delicacy, Mohammed only trusts his eyes to spot the place where they grow.
He said white truffles, scientifically known as a rich source of protein, have health benefits and their juice is used to treat eye diseases.
Truffles are in great demand in Gulf markets.
Over the past few years the price of white truffles tripled to 130 dinars ($93) a kilogram, a merchant said, as harvesting, the fungus became more difficult because of Libya's unrest and unfavourable weather conditions.
This year the harvest was good because of abundant rain but that meant that the cost per kilogram dropped to $57.
Wholesale transactions often take place at a tent erected on a road near Zintan that leads to Hamada al-Hamra. It is there that pickers Mohammed and Khaled Abdelwahed sell truffles they found in the desert.
"We endured very cold weather but the merchant is offering us a fraction of the price," said Abdelwahed, as he negotiated a deal for the 8 kilograms of truffles he collected after four nights spent in the desert.
"The merchant's making a better profit than us and all that time he keeps warm in his tent" while truffle pickers do the hard work, he said
Khalifa al-Sahraoui, a buyer from neighbouring Algeria who travels to Libya each year for truffle season between November and March, disagreed.
"We buy the truffles and sell them to other merchants," he said.
Abdallah Miloud, another truffle merchant, said the harvest is sold to middlemen who "sell them to clients abroad."
The Libyan white truffle is "of excellent quality" and "prized in Gulf countries,” he said.
There are no official figures for the export of Libyan truffles but, Miloud said, revenues from sales have "rescued several families" from financial hardship.