Thumbs Up For Croatia’s Secret Truffle Harvest

Motovun, Croatia

Motovun, Croatia

 

Joji Sakurai The New York Times/ Australian Financial Review

“Go Nero!”

Truffle hunter Nikola Tarandek urges on his black Labrador, who scratches furiously at the moist soil of Motovun Forest in Croatia.

We are in the hinterlands of Istria, a diamond-shaped peninsula that juts into the Adriatic Sea, exploring one of the richest grounds for premium white truffles – long overshadowed in fame but not quality by the truffle mecca of Alba in the Piedmont region of Italy. Nero has caught the scent at the roots of an oak, sending up clumps of dirt as Tarandek twists a spade into the black earth.

The commotion yields only a tiny tuber not even worth taking back to town. Other truffles that Nero sniffs out turns up spoiled. But it is just the beginning of the season, and within weeks Tarandek, who runs a side-business taking visitors on truffle-hunting tours, will be bringing fist-sized truffles home to market.

Truffles are considered an expensive delicacy in some places, but that is not the case here. And while the Istrian truffle is premium grade, its culture is free of the snobbery, intrigue and astronomical prices found in Piedmont or in the Perigord region of France.

Nikola Tarandek & Nero Photo: NYT

Nikola Tarandek & Nero
Photo: NYT

It’s as if Istrian truffles have been a well-kept secret, ripe for discovery. And that’s beginning to happen with stronger efforts to promote them. The international food world is starting to take notice and visits to Istrian truffle country are increasing every year.

It may seem surprising that a delicacy associated with Italy and France is found in Croatia’s dense oak forests, but truffles have been sought here for centuries. Istrian truffles have maintained a low profile largely because those from Alba enjoy such cachet.

Notovun Truffles Photo: uniline.hr

Motovun Truffles
Photo: uniline.hr

And there’s another reason: Croatian truffles have for decades made their way to the Italian market and been sold as Alba truffles. Locals say that has translated into little incentive to make their product famous, since hunters earn so much supplying Italy in a shady trade made possible by Istria’s proximity to Piedmont.

That’s been changing in the last decade. The night before my truffle hunt I dined at Mondo Tavern in the village of Motovun, which commands spectacular views on a hilltop overlooking the truffle forest.

Mondo Tavern, Motovun, Croatia serves pasta with truffles Photo: NYT

Mondo Tavern, Motovun, Croatia
serves pasta with truffles
Photo: NYT

The owner, Klaudio Ivasic, said locals are awakening to the benefits of keeping truffles at home. Until recent years, Motovun’s tourist season ended in August. As truffle fame has grown, the season is extending through November. “People are coming for the truffles,” Ivasic said proudly.

For travellers, the attractions of an Istrian truffle tour are plentiful. Istria’s rolling landscapes evoke Tuscany; its beaches are among the Mediterranean’s most beautiful; cliffs are dotted with fairytale villages – and a truffle meal won’t burn a hole through your wallet.

At Mondo, a man starts shaving a white truffle over my plate of Istrian “fuzi,” short pasta. I expect him to stop after a couple of seconds, but he keeps going. A heavenly aroma fills the room. The flakes drift down until my pasta is buried in a white truffle mantle. This dish, which in Milan would easily cost €40 ($60) (and in New York or London don’t even think about it), is priced here at a reasonable 155 Croatian kuna ($30).

Croatian/Istrian Pasta with Truffles

Croatian/Istrian
Pasta with Truffles

Ivasic, himself a truffle hunter, says the dry summer and rainy September have been ideal for white truffles, and that this season could be the best in a decade, although “truffles are a mystery”. In the morning, Tarandek is less optimistic, and it’s understandable. He’s been seeking truffles for two hours, to no avail. “Too early in the season,” he mumbles.

Suddenly Nero starts barking frantically by the roots of a poplar. His owner drops to his knees, cutting at roots so his dog can dig deeper. “Come down close to the hole,” Tarandek beckons, “and smell!”

I get down on hands and knees, sinking my face into a muddy crater – just like a truffle-hunting dog – and a blast hit my nose. Is this the jackpot? Tarandek shakes his head. “Oh no, it’s a small truffle,” he says, “but a good one.”

He cuts at roots to extract the puny but precious truffle – and stops. A stream of invective pours from his lips. The yellowish fleck poking from the dirt was only the tip of a much larger prize.

“I have destroyed the truffle,” he groans, displaying the chunk he has broken off. “Ohhhhhh my God. That was sooooo big a truffle!”

Motovun Truffle Photo: NYT

Motovun Truffle
Photo: NYT

Hunters command top dollar only for intact truffles. With one careless flick Tarandek has lost up to €300. But soon he’d seen the brighter side of things, for this meant truffle season was starting in earnest.

“Lucky day,” he says. “Now I have motivation.”

_________

Bon appétit or as Croats say: “Dobar Tek”,  everyone!

 

Comments

  1. I had no idea that truffles were found in the forests of Croatia! Wonderful learning about this 🙂

    Like

  2. Truffle oil is prohibitively expensive

    Like

  3. Ahhhh, a story that brings a smile! YUM

    Like

  4. Hi Ina
    I spent time getting the layout of the site. You’ve done an admirable job for you country. I found two books that look good on the surface,
    Stepinac:
    His Life and Times
    Robin Harris
    &
    In Memoriam – Mojmir Damjanovic
    Have a great weekend.
    :)M

    Like

  5. Brilliant post, a picturesque town and hidden treasure!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
    WHO KNEW—AND DOGS RATHER THAN PIGS AS TRUFFLE HUNTERS? BET THE EAT FEWER TRUFFLES THAN THE PIGS WOULD! 🙂

    Like

  7. Yum, Ina!

    Like

  8. Guess Italy and France now have competition for truffles from Croatia… 🙂 The same could be said for wine!

    Like

  9. wow visste inte att det fanns tryffel hos er ❤ ❤ ha en fin helg nu kram Mella och Sverige ❤

    Like

  10. Great post Ina just had to share on Ace Food News … Here http://bitly.com/2h55wCo

    Like

  11. Love truffles! 😀

    Like

  12. i’ve not eaten truffle b 4.

    Like

  13. perhaps one day
    i’ll try one!
    enjoy 🙂

    Like

  14. wow, there are truffles. Love reading this. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  15. Reblogged this on IdealisticRebel's Daily View of Favorites and commented:
    I never knew there were Truffles in Croatia. This was an excellent post. Hugs, Barbara

    Like

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  1. […] Thumbs Up For Croatia’s Secret Truffle Harvest // Croatia, the War, and the Future […]

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