Finland’s Libyan King of Truffles
Tunis - Mention truffles and many people think of Italy and France and of truffle hunters accompanied by dogs trained to sniff the delicacies out from underground. People also associate truffles with sky-high prices. Along with caviar and saffron, truffles can be one of the most expensive foods. A single 15-gram black truffle can cost up to $55.
People are unlikely to associate truffles with Finland, which has a climate much colder than Italy or France. Yet Finland is moving onto the global truffle map thanks to the work of one Libyan.
Salem Shamekh got into the truffle business almost by accident. In Tripoli, he studied food technology at university in the 1980s. Later he became head of the technology department at the technology institute in Brak Al-Shatti in southern Libya.
He wanted to continue his studies so, in 1996, he enrolled in what was then the Helsinki University of Technology (now part of Aalto University) and earned a doctorate in applied food biochemistry. He took an unpaid research and teaching position. After three months, he was hired as a full-time staff member.
In 2005, Shamekh applied for grants for projects on strawberry culture and the use of light-emitting diode (LED) to increase vegetable crop production in greenhouses.
Not getting the grants at first was traumatic, he said.
“I thought our future in Finland was ended,” Shamekh said. “I told my wife that but she told me not to be so foolish. She told me that I should find a place and pray and say Hamdullah (‘Thanks be to God’) and maybe God would open a new door.”
Shamekh did as his wife suggested. He started working on an idea he had earlier put aside: Mushrooms and truffles. Soon he was considering truffles and how they could be cultivated in Finland.
The idea was triggered by a conference on the European black truffle in Uppsala, Sweden, where they were being grown.
“It was the first time I’d seen them but I thought if they can be grown in Sweden, they can be grown in Finland,” he said.
Shamekh and five colleagues started producing black truffle mycelium in a university laboratory.
The roots of oak tree saplings are inoculated with the mycelium and, about seven years later, decent-sized truffles can be harvested.
It seemed a promising venture so Shamekh’s team started looking for funding for the research and a place where they could grow truffles in field experiments. The city of Juva, 270km north-east of Helsinki, offered about $110,000 for the project.
Local farmers expressed interest in the potential new crop and, in 2006, the first truffle farm was established in Juva. By the end of the year, there were ten truffle farms in the area, each with about 200 inoculated trees.
“People said that it was too cold for the saplings, which came from France, that they would die,” Shamekh said, “but in April 2007 we saw the first buds coming out. In September that year, we checked the roots and the mycelium was still there. I was the happiest man in the world. Many said it could not work, that it was a waste of money but they were wrong.”
There are now 33 truffle farms in the district, with more than 20,000 inoculated trees, making Juva the truffle capital of Finland.
In 2010, recognising the significance of the project and its value to farmers, then Finnish President Tarja Halonen asked Shamekh to plant inoculated oaks at the president’s official summer residence. Last year, he was asked to return to the estate with a dog to hunt for the truffles.
“A dog is an important colleague in the business,” Shamekh said. “Without a dog, you cannot succeed.”
The Lagotto Romagnolo breed from Italy is considered the best truffle finder but the dogs do not come cheap. A puppy can cost more than $1,400 but with farmers in Finland getting about $330 a kilo — and sometimes more — for black truffles, it is not only a necessary investment, it is a relatively inconsequential one as well.
Apart from providing farmers with the oak trees and the knowledge, Shamekh and his team test the soil and help choose the best land for planting. There is a nursery in Juva growing saplings, which last year produced 5,000 young oaks.
The news about Shamekh’s work has spread. Farmers across the Baltic in Latvia contacted Shamekh and truffle farms were established there. There are two farms in Lithuania where Shamekh was welcomed by the country’s president for helping sustainable agricultural development. Another farm is to start in Estonia this June.
There are inquiries from Russia and Arab countries.
The first European truffle orchard in Qatar has been planted, with 350 oaks from Finland. A nursery has been established. “It’s a major challenge,” admitted Shamekh, referring to the heat in the Arab country.
The saplings were planted outdoors in March 2016 in Al Khor. They survived the summer, when temperatures of more than 50 degrees Celsius were recorded. This spring, new leaves appeared.
There are plans to introduce truffle farms in Tunisia and establish a nursery “and hopefully soon in Libya as well,” although that ultimately will be up to the politicians, Shamekh said.
He said he dreams of truffle woods in eastern Libya’s Green Mountains. Libya and Tunisia have great potential, he said, because “the climate is much better than Finland or Qatar.”
There is another truffle — the white desert truffle — found in Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. It is an altogether different fungus. However, it has stirred Shamekh’s interest. He said he plans to publish the gene map of the three Libyan truffle species that have never been analysed.
In Finland, black truffles are not just a new cash crop for farmers. They are also making money in another way: Truffle safaris. Fascinated Finns and others are paying to become truffle hunters for the day.
It is, as one Libyan political figure put it, “a beautiful story.”
Shamekh is investigating other uses for the truffle, not just as something that can turn a humble omelette or a simple pasta into a dish fit for a king.
“Our new research shows that the polysaccharides of the truffle can act as an anti-diabetic agent, which will be developed as a product. We are also working on the sterols that we found in truffles to use them in a new biotechnology product for human fertility treatment,” he said.