food & drink

Your truffles or your life

The Spanish truffle-collecting season has just finished, but the relative lack of rain was a hindrance to the hunters and their excited dogs (they don't use pigs here, this being a French tradition). Many an early-riser returned home with an empty basket. Not a high price to pay for the disappointment, above all when the compensation prize is a clear morning with views up and down the coast. They were reasonably lucky. In other countries truffle hunting can be terminal.

Shortly before hostilities ceased entirely the other week, two Kurdish friends, Khogir and Goran, struck out into the no-man's land between the front lines of the Peshmerga and Islamic State, not far from Kirkuk. They wanted to find 'desert truffles' to trade for some other commodity hard to obtain in the war zone. It was nearly the last thing they ever did. With their gazes fixed firmly on the ground and absorbed in their task, they were easy prey to the figures that crept up unawares and captured them without a struggle. They became prisoners numbers 44 and 45 of Isis this year. But luck was on their side. Because they were Sunnis, they were set free after a ransom of around $10,000 had been paid by their families. Had they been Shiites, within hours of their seizure they would have been decapitated - not for truffle hunting but for being apostates. Money doesn't enter into the matter in such circumstance.

Anyway, the poor-quality truffles they were looking for are worth pennies not pounds, and like other so-called luxury items, their value appears to be based on dubious claims about mythical aphrodisiac properties. No chef is about to grate the rare tubers onto some delicate dish. They are cooked and consumed as kebabs, boiled to make a weak soup, or fried with raisins and rice. In fact, nothing to write home about, even if you are a captive of Isis at the time, and certainly not worth risking your life for.