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Dig for truffles in the Istrian peninsula and discover seaside towns that’ll have you coming back for more
It’s hard to believe this small, dirty nugget resembling a knobby potato dug out of the ground by a dog named Betty is worth a fortune. But then I take a whiff. How can I describe the heady aroma? Is it earth, musk, garlic, honey, hay — sweaty sock? Whatever, it’s intoxicating. We’ve discovered the illusive “white gold” of Istria (istra.hr). And the hunt has just begun.
Four foodie friends and I have rented a villa in the medieval hilltop town Motovun the first week of October to coincide with the truffle season and its festivities. Nowhere is truffle worship more fervent than in the northern Croatian region of Istria. Croatian truffles aren’t as well known as those from Piedmont, Italy and parts of France, but they are recognized as being just as good by international gourmands. Istria also produces some of Croatia’s finest wines, honey and award-winning olive oils. It’s been called the best-kept food secret in Europe.
Giancarlo Zigante, a local caterer and truffle hunter, and his dog, Diana, dug up a “joker” — the term for humongous truffle — weighing 1.31 kilograms on November 2, 1999, not far from Motovun. Guinness World Records listed his find as the largest in the world and helped put Istria on the map as a truffle mecca.
Seductive and mysterious, white truffles were thought to be an aphrodisiac by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Their exorbitant price — up to $6000 per kilogram based on availability and quality — is due to their unpredictable growth habits and the fact that no one has been able to cultivate these rare and illusive fungi that grow in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of oak, hazelnut and poplar trees.
In Istria, the fungus-hunting season is celebrated with a plethora of rural festivals. We literally followed our noses to the annual Tuberfest (October 24 and 25 this year) in the neighbouring hamlet of Livade as the unmistakable truffle aroma wafted out of the entrance of a large tent. Visitors pay a small admission fee for a wine glass and an afternoon going from stall to stall sampling Istrian wines, brandies and all sorts of products made with truffles from olive oil to pasta to chocolate to ice cream. As much as I adore truffles, I found the truffle ice cream a bit of a stretch.
Local chefs put on cooking demonstrations and truffle hunters submit their entries in the white truffle contest. The winning tuber is the largest and most beautiful.
In the normally sleepy town of Buzet, virtually everyone who is anyone in Istria gathers on a mid-September weekend to celebrate the Festival of Subotina (September 12 and 13 this year). As evening approaches, thousands of locals queue for a slice of the world’s biggest truffle omelette, fried up in a mind-bogglingly large pan in the town’s main square. Last year they cracked 2014 eggs; this year the egg count will be 2015 to which they’ll add about 10 kilos of truffles. The festivities end with folk dancing, fireworks, alfresco pop concerts and large quantities of biska, the local mistletoe-flavoured brandy.
The hunt is on
Our group had pre-booked a truffle hunt with the Karlic family (karlictartufi.hr) in Paladini. First we gathered at an outdoor picnic table where Kristina explained about the illusive tubers. Her family has been in the truffle business since 1966. She offered samples of truffle-spiked cheeses and sausages washed down with homemade wine. In order to fortify us for our upcoming truffle hunt, Kristina whipped up an amazing omelette, albeit smaller than the one in Buzet, but absolutely oozing with black and white truffles both inside and shaved raw on top.
After lunch we trekked into the nearby forest with Kristina’s brother, Ivan, and his two dogs, Betty and Candy. Just as the fungi and tree roots have a special relationship, so do Ivan and his adorable mutts.
It takes about three months for winter white truffles to mature at which point their spores release that addictive aroma from beneath the earth. Often the truffle hunter and his dogs have their best luck early in the autumn evenings when the cold air keeps the perfume close to the ground.
Ivan explained that he starts training his dogs when they’re about three months old. The breed is Lagotto Romagnolo from Italy, known for their faithful happy temperament, keen sense of smell and work ethic. By giving a pup some truffle bits it acquires a taste for them and comes to associate that taste and smell with food. Ivan then teaches his dogs to fetch truffle pieces or bits of bread coated in truffle oil buried about three centimetres deep. At first the canine unearths whole truffles with its snout since it hasn’t yet learned how to dig with its paws. Every time the dog finds a truffle, it gets a treat. This is clearly an example of Pavlov’s dogs in action.
Eventually, the truffles are buried deeper in the woods and dogs learn to use their paws. In the final training stage, a pup accompanies a more experienced truffle dog in the woods. When the older dog sniffs out a truffle, it is distanced from the hole and the pup is brought in to dig it up. Judging from their wagging tails, Betty and Candy seem to love their work.
Every once in awhile when we were hunting the dogs got super rambunctious and started sniffing and pawing at the soil. It was Ivan’s job to grab the truffles before the dogs devoured them. After a couple of hours, we found two black beauties that we purchased and took back to our villa.
To say that our group binged on truffles would be an understatement. Usually, we’d start the day with some truffles shaved on scrambled eggs. Then, after a bit of sightseeing or a dip in the pool, we’d hike almost 300 metres to the top of Motovun where the main cobbled street is lined with truffle shops offering free tastings of oils, sauces, cheeses, pasta, sausages and chocolate all spiked with the white or black gold nuggets.
We discovered Konoba Mondo, a terrific Old World restaurant where you can have your white truffles liberally shaved on all sorts of dishes from soufflés to steak. They even infuse honey with truffles and use it in a panna cotta desert. Konoba Mondo was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s travel food show No Reservations.
But one cannot live on truffles alone. Along with its hill hamlets and forests, Istria also has some appealing coastal towns and beaches. We took day excursions to the seaside towns of Rovinj and Porec in search of fresh seafood.
The Italianate port of Rovinj is postcard-perfect. Boats bob in a harbour of pristine blue water and fishermen mend their nets. Shops and houses, painted in a palette of Italian watercolours that seem to have ripened in the sun, line the cobbled streets around the main port. From the Venetian-style campanile of Rovinj’s crowning glory, the Church of St. Euphemia, named for the town’s patron saint, the views are marvelous.
At Monte restaurant, near St. Euphemia, we sampled shrimps in a buzara sauce of sautéed onions, garlic, parsley, tomatoes, white wine and olive oil. For dessert, I tried the fennel ice cream — much better than the truffle recipe.
The ancient Roman town of Porec, though less of a beauty queen than Rovinj, is not without its charms. The sixth century Euphrasian Basilica, a World Heritage Site and one of Europe’s finest intact examples of Byzantine art, is a must.
In nearby Kukci, we discovered the outdoor terrace of Marina restaurant where it’s best to forget the menu and have your waiter bring on a parade of Piscean platters paired with chilled crisp Malvasia white wines from the region.
All in all, the trip was a huge success. The prices for the villa rental, truffles and truffle meals in Istria were more reasonable than in Piedmont and the quality was fantastic. (Note that prices for truffles fluctuate with supply and demand, but a first-class white specimen weighing about 100 grams sells for about $200.) Most Croatians speak English and are very hospitable.
But, alas, all good things must come to an end. When your burps start to taste like truffles, you’ve probably had enough.
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