On the truffle Trail

Truffles. Just the word sounds delicious and exotic. ANDREW BROWN tracked down the legendary white truffle in Istria, the truffle capital of Croatia

By Andrew Brown

My trip to Istria, the northern most part of Croatia, was brief. However, I had time to explore the beautiful coastal town of Rovinj over a few days. The old town, the clear aquamarine waters of the Adriatic, and the seriously delicious food on offer at the many and varied restaurants kept me busy from dawn until late. I could easily have spent more time here. But
the lure of learning more about truffles, especially those found in the interior, was the primary reason for my trip.

Leaving Rovinj by bus to explore Buzet, the self-proclaimed capital of the Istrian truffle industry, I was treated to stunning views as we wound our way through the countryside. Thick coastal forest gave way to hills, valleys and vineyards. Now and then I would catch sight of people and dogs on river banks and flood plains, searching, I later found out, for elusive white truffles.
Buzet, a small town surrounded by villages with the intriguing names of Roc, Hum, Vrh, Livade and Sovinjak, has a history that can be traced back to Roman days. The old town is situated within fortified walls on top of a hill, with stunning  360-degree views of the surrounding countryside.

The infrastructure around Buzet is slowly recovering after communism and the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the local tourist board is actively promoting the area for visitors. Cycling and hiking paths have been established, and make for some of the most scenic trails I have experienced. Buzet is a prize destination for paragliding enthusiasts from around Europe,  travelling here to use the cliffs north of the town. But it is the truffle industry that is most highly valued in this area.My afternoon was spent exploring both the old and new town, where I came across the local Zigante Tartufi shop and spent an hour tasting a wide range of local truffle products and wines. Giancarlo Zigante is credited in the Guinness Book of Records as having found the largest truffle in the world in 1999, a 1,31kg monster of a white truffle. He cashed in on his fame by claiming himself Istria’s truffle king, and now has a chain of shops and a renowned restaurant in nearby Livade.
The next day I met up with Sanja who had organised a visit to a local truffle business. A scenic trip over a range of hills, through the oddly named village called Vrh, ended at the Karlic family business, dedicated to hunting, processing, marketing and exporting truffles, truffle products and olives. For those who would like to explore the area and stay a few days, they own a luxury guest house overlooking the Istrian countryside.

We were joined by an Australian couple and the ice was broken with strong, tasty, chilled shots of homedistilled sour cherry, mistletoe and honey rakija. Radmila Karlic took us through the history, nature and finer details of the truffle, while giving us tasters of truffle-infused prosciutto, cheese and cottage cheese. This was followed by possibly the tastiest omelette I have ever eaten. I was beginning to understand the hype behind the truffle, which after all is only another form of the mushroom!

I learnt that the two most common truffles in Istria are the black and white truffles. The winter black is more common and is found under a variety of trees, especially in forest regions. Generally harvested from November to March, in both aroma and taste they are superior to the summer black truffle. With a ‘sexy’ and somewhat subtle aroma, the taste can be described as an earthy chocolate. Black truffles, both summer and winter, are best cooked with the dish being prepared as this brings out the flavours and frees the truffle aromas. This was evident in the infused cheeses and hams.

The white truffle (actually faintly yellow in appearance) differs from its black cousin in two ways: it has a smoother texture and a stronger, more intense earthy, musky aroma. These truffles have a garlicky flavour, not too dissimilar to that of shallots. The disadvantage of white truffles is that, although their longevity is greater than that of the black, the aroma fades fairly quickly, more so when cut, sliced or cooked. So, when using white truffles, it is best if they remain uncooked, and are shaved or sliced over the finished dish, ensuring the wafting aroma will envelop the dish.
I enquired about the price of truffles, knowing that they are not cheap, but was quite staggered by the answer. White truffles can fetch between $13 000 and $20 000 (R119 000 – R182 000) per kilo, the price varying on their availability. White truffles are unpredictable in terms of growth and harvesting, being very susceptible to extreme weather conditions.
Black truffles are hardier and more common, hence their lower price of $880 – $1 300 per kilo (R8 000 – R12 000). This is still pretty pricey by most standards and raised the question of organised crime. Radmila said she had heard of this, but so far it appeared to be limited to Italy, France and America. She admitted though, that the locations of each hunter’s prolific truffle-gathering areas were jealously guarded as the industry attracted more and more players. Good truffle-hunting dogs are worth their weight in, well, truffles! Occasionally a top dog would be dognapped.
We ended the visit by going into a forest with the star of the show, Crnko, a champion truffle-hunting dog. Within 10 minutes he had sniffed out a few black truffles, all of which were rescued before they became dog treats. On enquiring about the whereabouts of white truffles, I discovered they were only found some distance away, in the vicinity of rivers and waterways, usually under the roots of oak trees. Unfortunately, a hot, dry summer meant they were rather scarce, so no doubt the price would go sky high.

All too soon I was back in town, saluting the end of another wonderful day with dinner (most courses, unsurprisingly, included truffles), a bottle of red wine, and the great view from the Stara Oštarija restaurant in the old town.

Visit www.istra.hr/en/home for more information. The main tourist season is from June to September and prices increase over this time. The main truffle hunting season is from September to December.

THESE ARE A HANDFUL OF TRUFFLE RECIPES THAT I WAS FORTUNATE ENOUGH TO GET WHILE I WAS IN ISTRIA. REMEMBER, THE WHITE TRUFFLE IS FAR HARDER AND MORE EXPENSIVE TO OBTAIN THAN THE BLACK. IT IS ALSO MUCH STRONGER IN FLAVOUR AND TO THE NOSE, SO LESS IS REQUIRED IN DISHES. THE DISHES ARE FAIRLY
SIMPLE AND VEGETABLES MAY BE ADDED AT THE CHEF’S DISCRETION.

Baby beef fillets with minced black truffle
Serves 4 EASY 15 mins

40g (4 tbsp) butter
salt and freshly ground black
pepper, to taste
800g baby beef fillets
200ml fresh cream
90g black truffles, minced
black truffle olive oil (optional)
roast potatoes, to serve
seasonal vegetables, to serve

1 Heat butter in a frying pan and add seasoned beef steaks. Fry for about 3 minutes on each side and set aside.
2 Add the cream and minced truffle to the remaining butter, season and cook for a short time. Reintroduce the steaks to the sauce and cook for another 2 minutes per side.
3 Add a few drops of black truffle olive oil (optional) and serve with roast potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

Tagliatelle with truffles and olives
This requires bottled truffle and olive mix, which may not be available locally, in which case mince fresh truffles and a few black olives together
Serves 2 EASY 15 mins

120g cherry tomatoes
80g black olives, pitted
olive oil, for frying
80ml ( cup) vegetable stock
240g tagliatelle
80g bottled or minced truffles
salt and freshly ground black
pepper, to taste
fresh rocket
black truffle olive oil

1 Chop cherry tomatoes and olives and flash-fry in olive oil over medium heat. Add vegetable stock, bring to a boil and simmer until medium thick, 5 – 6 minutes.
2 Boil tagliatelle until al dente and drain.
3 Pour the olive and tomato sauce over the tagliatelle, add the bottled or minced truffles, seasoning, rocket and a few drops of black truffle olive oil. Toss gently and serve.

Truffle scrambled eggs and mushrooms
A very simple yet tasty breakfast or brunch dish that I was served in Buzet.
Serves 2 EASY 15 mins

50g button mushrooms
cherry tomatoes
black truffle olive oil
butter and oil, for frying
4 eggs
shaved black or white truffle
salt and freshly ground black
pepper, to taste
ham (optional)

1 Put the button mushrooms and cherry tomatoes in a roasting pan, lightly drizzle black truffle olive oil over them and place
under the grill. While they are grilling, put the butter and oil in a frying pan.
2 Scramble the eggs, add a few drops of truffle oil (optional) and cook until ready (preferably soft).
3 Remove, plate and top the eggs with truffle shavings. Remove mushroom and tomatoes from the grill and add to the plate. Season, add thinly sliced ham (optional) and serve.

Mashed potatoes with preserved black truffles
If preserved truffles are unobtainable, mince fresh truffle. This makes a great side dish
Serves 4 – 6 EASY 40 mins

1kg potatoes
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
100g butter
40g preserved (or minced) black truffle
truffle olive oil

Peel and slice the potatoes and boil in salted water until soft. Drain, mash, season, add butter, truffles and a few drops of truffle oil. Serve immediately.

COOK’S TIP
This can be replicated using polenta or couscous and in both cases is equally as tasty.

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