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Hunting For Truffles In Istria, Croatia

Isabel Putinja

Contributor

What's knobbly, smelly, grows 25cm underground and is one of the most expensive foods in the world? The answer is white truffle. This highly-prized tuber has a high price tag because it grows in very few regions of Europe. One of these is Istria, a peninsula tucked in the Adriatic Sea and Croatia's westernmost region. In this land of many gastronomic delights, the white truffle is a local delicacy that's celebrated.

A Gourmet Specialty

Its Latin name sounds fancy: Tuber Magnatum Pico. But the white truffle looks like a small knobbly potato and its pungent smell and aroma is reminiscent of damp earth, rotten wood and some even say smelly old socks! Its taste is definitely one that's a bit surprising and even strange at first, but once it etches itself into your culinary memory, you'll be craving this smelly tuber. In Istria, it's a local speciality that's on almost all the menus of its traditional taverns, called konoba, where it's generously grated on dishes of fresh pasta or mixed into soft cheese. Epicureans also swear that it's perfect with vanilla ice cream, and you can even find truffle-infused products like chocolate, olive oil, honey, pasta and even crisps.

Istrian cheese with truffle

Credit: alchen_x

Elusive and Expensive

The truffle is a tuber or a type of mushroom that grows underground in very specific climatic conditions. It can only be sniffed out and unearthed by specially trained dogs. While the black truffle can be found year-round, the more elusive white truffle is only available for a few months at a time: generally from September to January which is the height of the white truffle season. The fact that it's so difficult to find and only available for a few months a year is what determines its hefty price tag which can go up to 2000 Euros per kilogram. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest white truffle was found in Istria in 1999, weighing 1.31 kg and valued at over $5000 at the time. The record holder, Giancarlo Zigante, runs a well-known truffle restaurant in the village of Livade, as well as a shop where truffles and all kinds of truffle products can be sampled and purchased.

Credit: Colours of Istria

Hunting for Buried Treasure

The white truffle grows in dense forests at the foot of hazelnut and oak trees but also linden, poplars and willows. In Istria, they grow in the thick woods surrounding the hilltop towns of Motovun, Buzet, Buje, and Gračišće. Hunters need a special permit to hunt for truffles and without the tweaked noses of their trained dogs, it would be impossible to find them. Hunters also have to be in good shape to walk for hours in very hilly terrain in search of this hard to find delicacy.

Credit: Colours of Istria

A Truffle Taste Experience

In Motovun, where the forests at the base of this picturesque hilltop town are the breeding grounds for this gourmet speciality, the husband-wife team at Miro Tartufi invite intrepid foodies on a gastronomic adventure. During their three-hour 'truffle experience', Mirjana Kotiga provides an introduction to black and white truffles, and facts on where they grow, and how they're scavenged. Her husband Miro then takes guests to the nearby woods accompanied by his dogs Bela and Nera who are always keen to show off their truffle-hunting skills. The hounds sniff the ground until they detect a truffle waiting to be discovered up to 25cm underground. Miro then takes over with a small spade and digs up the potato-like truffle. After the hunt, Mirjana serves up local dishes prepared with the expensive tuber: handmade pasta, scrambled eggs, homemade sausage and cheese infused with truffles, and for dessert, a chocolate cake topped with fine shavings of black truffle.

White truffle shaved onto fresh pasta

Credit: Colours of Istria

Celebrating the Truffle

Many autumn fairs and festivals in Istria celebrate the truffle. Come here between September and November and you'll find plenty of opportunities to sample both black and white truffles prepared with a variety of local dishes, watch cooking demonstrations with the truffle as the star ingredient, take part in demonstrations of truffle-hunting, and shop for all kinds of truffle products including flavoured oils, pastes, cheeses and pasta. 

Each first Saturday of September at the Subotina Festival in Buzet, a giant omelette is prepared on the town's main square. Last year it was made of 2019 eggs and 10 kg of truffles in a huge 2.5-metre-wide pan. This kicks off two months of truffle-focused festivities, including Zigante Truffle Days in Livade on every weekend until mid-November. In Motovun on 19 October, the Teran and Truffle Festival is an opportunity to taste white truffles paired with Teran, an Istrian red wine. While on the weekend of 19 and 20 October in Livade, there will be cooking shows by celebrity chefs, a truffle auction, and truffle hunt demos at Tuber(food) Fest. And finally, on the weekend of 2 and 3 November, there's the Truffle Weekend in Buzet offering more opportunities for tastings and cooking shows, with a 'truffle hunt race' as the highlight.

Motovun, Istria

Credit: Istria Tourist Office

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