The Truffle Puppies of Istria
Is there anything better than a puppy? Yes! An Istrian truffle-hunting puppy. There are many reasons to visit the Balkan beauty of Croatia. Game of Thrones fans see the stone-walled medieval city of Dubrovnik. Oyster enthusiasts want to feast right on the shores of the many spectacular Adriatic islands. And off the traditional tourist path is Istria in the north. Nestled between Slovenia and Italy, the region is one of the largest producers of truffles in the world.
The truffle, or tartufi as they call it in Croatia, the a unique underground fruiting part of a fungus with knobby potato-like shape, is considered the highlight of Istrian cuisine. They cost thousands per pound. Known for the highest-quality truffles —especially the white truffle— the Istrian variety often rivals those of Alba and Piedmont regions in Italy. The fine white truffle is the most valued, and grows from September until January.
Their flavor and aroma rank high on any culinary bucket list. Enthusiasts shave white truffles over pastas and meats. Infuse everything from cheeses to chocolate and honey.
What makes Croatian truffles so expensive and rare? They cannot be farmed. They grow wild and only at the base of European hazelnut trees in this region. White truffles only stay fresh for 5 days and black truffles for about a week. After that, they begin to lose their flavor. In theory, to get the best experience, you want truffles served straight-out-of-the-ground fresh. In Istria, you’ll find three varieties of black truffles, as well as the much rarer white truffle.
Actually—it’s usually the truffle pups who do the finding.
Most of Istria’s truffles are harvested in the legendary Motovun forest, where they are buried under a thin layer of soil, and next-to-impossible to spot.
Unless, of course, you’re a well-trained truffle dog.
Istrian farmers train puppies to love the taste and scent of these mushrooms. They are trained by letting them smell ripe truffles and then burying truffle-scented tubes under ground. Dogs are rewarded when they learn to swipe the ground when they smell truffle aroma. While dogs of all breeds are used – every hunter has his favorite breed — Lagotto Romagnolos come with cache, as they were known for centuries in northern Italy as truffle dogs. The breed almost went extinct in the 20th century, but they are making a comeback. In Croatia, dogs might be spaniel or terrier mixes.
At the height of truffle season, between October and January, thousands of dogs – breeds and mixes of all sorts – scamper the steep forest floor looking for the homely, dirt-caked nuggets.
Fall is also the season when kitchens and restaurants throughout the hill town of Motovun are stocked with truffle salami, truffle cheese, honey with truffles and other regional specialties. Truffles are used in traditional fritaja od tartufa (egg omelet with truffles) or local fuži pasta. All the restaurants around Motovun have truffles on the menu. Many visitors learn that Anthony Bourdain visited Motovun and dined at Konoba Mondo. Because of his visit and its central location within the hill town tourists flock to this restaurant.
Truffles are found outside of Croatia – in areas of France and Italy. The subterranean fungus needs rocky ground and an arid Mediterranean-like climate to thrive. They nestle among the roots of certain trees including oak, alder, beech, horn-beam and hazelnut.
Fall may be the best time to enjoy the truffle country. Although certain black truffle varieties grow year round—making truffle hunting possible in all seasons—Istria celebrates its truffles from mid-September to early November by throwing them big parties. The Zigante Truffle Days festival is held in the little village of Livade and lasts about seven weekends with cooking demonstrations and tastings of truffle-related products including oils, breads and salami. Add in Croatian wines, olive oils, cheeses, honey, and grappa—and it’s a culinary adventure not to miss. The festival’s namesake is Giancarlo Zigante, a local Motovun hunter who found an enormous white truffle weighing 3.5 pounds. It was cast in bronze and entered into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest ever found.
October is a month of many truffle festivals. Tuberfest in the nearby town of Oprtali is another fabulous opportunity to go truffle hunting in Croatia. The festival brings together hunters, producers, chefs and truffle connoisseurs from around the world. And Motovun’s one-day celebration, TeTa, celebrates two of Croatia’s most eminent products – truffles, or tartufi, and Terran wine. Terran is a traditional Croatian wine, robust with hints of raspberries. It’s a fabulous companion wine for prosciutto, truffle-inflused pate, wild game and spicy meat dishes.
St Martin’s Day, known locally as Martinje, is celebrated every year on November 11 with an Istrian festival of Muscat and truffles. Hosted by the town of Momnjan, the festival celebrates the pairing of white truffles and the golden-hued Momjan Muscat wine that is unique to Momjanština.
Learn more about our 8-Day Croatia food tour and explore Croatian culture through its cuisine.