Exploring a region through its food and wine is an experience like no other, a sensory journey that takes us on a cultural adventure through history, traditions and geography. When it comes to Istria, this statement could not be more accurate. Istrian cuisine is a blend of Mediterranean and Central European influences, resulting in a unique gastronomic experience that cannot be found elsewhere. And there is one ingredient that stands out above all others – the truffle. Dubbed the “diamond of Istrian cuisine,” truffles are a prized delicacy that grow in the local forests and are used in a wide range of traditional dishes. Istrian truffles are highly sought-after for their unique flavor and aroma and make a perfect match for the region’s fresh, fruity wines. Discovering Istria through truffles and wine is a unique opportunity that should not be missed.
Today, the Croatian peninsula is one of the largest producers of truffles in Europe but for a long time the world wasn’t aware of the fact that truffles have been grown in Istria for thousands of years. They were considered a delicacy by various civilizations who inhabited the region down through history like the Illyrians and the Romans. After Istria became part of the Venetian Republic in the 16th century, truffles became a status food for the ruling class in Venice. In Istria, truffle hunting developed into an occupation, and the coveted fungus was bartered for other goods and services.
Unfortunately, many of Istria’s truffle forests were abandoned during the political unrest that plagued the region in the 20th century. Until one November day in 1999 when truffle hunter Giancarlo Zigante made a discovery that put him in the Guinness Book of Records. Led by his dog Diana, Zigante unearthed a white truffle weighing a spectacular 1.31 kg – the largest ever found to date. The hunter gave it the name “Millennium” and had a bronze replica made of it before serving it as the main course at a public feast attended by around a hundred guests. At this point the news that Istria was a hotspot for truffle hunting quickly spread across the globe.
Over the past 20 years, Istrian truffles have seen a renaissance. Truffle hunting once again became a popular profession and the region has become one of Europe’s leading producers, prized by connoisseurs around the globe.
Currently, four major truffle species can be found on the peninsula. Croatia’s two-time top sommelier and F&B manager at Plava Laguna, Emil Perdec, describes the differences between the four types: “Tuber Brumale and Tuber Aestivium are black on the outside and white on the inside. These are simple types of truffles that can be cultivated and are widespread around the world. They pair well with various types of food. Tuber Melanosporum is black both on the outside and inside and is less widespread in Istria. It makes the perfect match for pasta and meat dishes. And then there is, of course, the queen of truffles – Tuber Magnatum Pico, the most highly valued truffle in the world and a special delicacy that can be paired with pasta, fish and meat dishes.”
When matched with the local wines, the truffles become a culinary delight equally appreciated by tourists and natives. The earthy, nutty flavor of the tuber pairs perfectly with the rich, complex flavors of Istrian wines. In fact, winemakers often create special blends that are designed to complement the flavors of truffles.
The fresh and fruity Malvasia makes a good match for dishes that feature white truffles. The strong acidity and minerality of the native Teran is a great complement to the earthy flavor of the black tuber. And because in Istria truffles are used even in deserts, these are typically coupled with sweet Muscat.
The highly sought-after truffle is an integral part of many classic Istrian recipes. “Typical Istrian truffle dishes combine homemade pasta called fuži and pljukanci with all types of truffles”, recounts Emil Perdec “As neutral, warm ingredients that bring out the flavor of the white truffle, ‘frittata’ and ‘sunny side up’ eggs with white truffles make popular traditional specialities. Of course, meat dishes such as beefsteak or lamb chops also pair perfectly with truffles. And when it comes to desserts, chocolate soufflé with white truffle is a must.”
The only way to truly appreciate truffles, beyond just sampling them in a restaurant, is to go on a truffle hunt. Truffle season provides unique insight into the centuries-old hunting traditions of the local population. Autumn, namely between the months of September and December, is prime season for truffle hunting in Istria. During this period, the truffles are ripe and may be easily detected by trained dogs. It’s also the time when the weather is cooler and damper, making it ideal for the growth of truffles. They thrive in the wet, grey soil and plentiful oak woodlands of Istria. In general, black truffles are located in the hills, while the whitest, most precious versions are found in the valleys.
“The epicentre of truffles begins in the damp Motovun-Montona Forest constantly moistened by the Mirna River flowing through its woods”, describes Denis Ivošević, managing director of the Istrian Tourist Board. “Truffles are mainly spotted around Oprtalj-Portole, in Livade, in the village of Motovun and in the area of Buzet which has been renowned as the ‘Town of Truffles’. This area stretches south to the Pazin region and ends around the river Raša”.
In the towns and villages of Istria’s truffle region there are many restaurants offering truffle-themed menus and wine pairings. One of the more popular ones is Zigante, located in Livade. The restaurant is known for its truffle-based dishes and extensive wine list featuring local wines. Another good choice is San Rocco situated in the village of Brtonigla. The restaurant offers a fine dining experience with emphasis on local ingredients, including truffles and wine.
Additionally, there are several truffle festivals held throughout the year in Istria, which offer opportunities to taste and buy truffles, even outside of the main hunting season. These include the Truffle Days festival in Buzet, the Truffle Festival in Livade and the Istrian Gourmet Festival in Porec.