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
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.
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
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).
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!”
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.”
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