Gourmet cuisine today is unthinkable without the King of the couture plate – his Majesty, the truffle. Luckily this smelly yet fantastically great underground mushroom with potato-like body called tuber found its home in the Istrian grey soil. Not only the highly prized white truffle, but also three other valued black truffle varieties that altogether grow in Istria all year long.
Istria, with its two primal types of soil: the red around the coast and the grey in the inland is the ultimate truffle paradise for all truffle aficionados. Truffles were appreciated by the Romans – in the years B.C. they were believed to have grown as the result of God Jupiter throwing a lightning to an oak tree and since Jupiter was known for its access sexual activities, truffle has been regarded as an aphrodisiac ever since. The Savoi noble family introducing it to the European courts during the Middle Ages while in the 18th century Giacomo Rossini called it the „Mozart among the mushrooms“. More recently, it was first around the Italian city of Alba in the northern province of Piedmont that the truffles started their global journey onto the finest gourmet plates. Thanks to Giacomo Morra, a restaurant owner from Alba who prepared the truffle dishes for which he was named the truffle king by the London times in the 1933. The white truffle of Alba is still highly valued but Istrian varieties are equally if not even more prized by the experts for their exquisite quality.
Today however it is Istria that has it own truffle king – Giancarlo Zigante, the owner of the Guinness World Records for the heaviest ever found white truffle. It was in 1999 that Zigante and his dog Diana found the world’s largest truffles weighting of 1.310 kilograms in the Istrian truffle region – the forest of Motovun. Motovun forest is located in the central northern part of Istria around the medieval town of Motovun sitting charmingly on a hill top and overlooking the forest below with the stretching Mirna river valley. The soil here is damp and the forest vegetated with different types of oaks which make it an ideal living space for the truffles.
The truffles grow symbiotically with trees – oak and hazel most commonly, in wet grounds, usually near the rivers. Because of that, it has been almost impossible to grow them artificially – and the reason why they are appreciated and highly priced when found with specially trained dogs. Some say pigs were used first to dig out the truffles but used to eat the findings unlike dogs who are trained to find them and lead the truffle hunter to excavate carefully the precious tuber by a special hoe.
The fine white truffle called Tuber Magnatum Pico is the most cherished one and the priciest among the crowd. Of uneven shape and pale yellow or gold color, with the aroma described as „intensive, aromatic and garlic resembling“, the white truffle grows from September between January – and that is the best time to taste it in Istria. It is regarded as the „king of truffles“, eaten fresh usually shaved over hot steaming pasta, meat or fish. For this couture gastronomy treat get ready to pay a heavier price tag – it all depends on the weight, the quality, the season.
Tuber Melanosporum is the fine black truffle with the smell often described as „the rotten strawberry“, grows from January till spring and is regarded as the best among the black varieties, quite popular in Istria. This truffle is the priciest among the black varieties
Tuber Aestivium is also a variety of the black truffle that grows throughout the year, has a lighter smell and taste and the price is significantly lower than the Tuber Melanosporum’s. The Tuber brumale variety is also black and grows in the winter time and also less expensive than the Tuber Melanosporum.
Giancarlo Zigante started hunting for truffles in 1971. “It is hard work but you also have to have a little bit of luck” he says while we sit in his restaurant Zigante in the village Livade below Motovun and the center for this truffle hunting region. His restaurant is a gourmet hot spot for all truffle aficionados that he opened in 2002 with his family. The posh interior – a combination of the traditional Istrian konoba made fancy – is the place where 300 kilos of truffles – Tuber magnatum pico, Tuber melanosporum and Tuber aestivum – are eaten each year. The menu is seasonal having dishes combines with the region’s best seasonal products such as asparagus and fresh fish from the Adratic sea. One of the signature deserts is the truffle ice-cream. Next to the restaurant, there is the Zigante shop packed with the delightful truffle based products: white and black truffle paste, truffle honey, butter, cheese and olive oil… The Zigante brand is very familiar in Istria and the rest of Croatia and exported to the EU countries and beyond. The fresh truffles by Zigante you will find in best European and North American restaurants, says Giancarlo.
Zigante also established an annual event – the Truffle Days taking place each October and November in Livade. The event that attracts tourists from all over includes demonstrational truffle hunt, electing the most prettiest and the heaviest truffle along with the fair of typical homemade Istrian products (honey, cheese, the extra virgin olive oil..) . And hunting for truffles can be a very hard job to do – training dogs is a long lasting process and hunting is quite time consuming. The trained dogs are very valued and truffle hunters are very protective of their dogs – quite understandable since serious money can be made finding the highly valued Tuber Magnatum Picor or Tuber melanosporum.
To celebrate the valued truffle and its importance in the gourmet cuisine, Istrian government established the Real truffle – Tartufo vero label of excellence that is awarded to the selected restaurants in Istria for preparing the truffle according to the highest gourmet standards. So when entering a locale, be sure to check for the Tartufo vero sign at the door – it means you’re at the right gourmet spot.
This gourmet tourism has become serious business not only to Giancarlo Zigante but Istria as a region as well. To boost the gourmet scene and its tourist potential, Istrian tourist board organizes the Golden truffle annually – the idea is to share the know-how in preparing the truffle dishes having top chefs from Istria, Italy, Slovenia and Austria coming together. The Golden Truffle event has proved to be a great hub for new ideas on how to prepare and serve the gourmet delicacy.
Here is the video from the 2009 Golden truffle.
Truffles in Istria are prepared quite simple: by thinly slicing it over a hot dish be it fritaja (scrambled eggs), pasta, meat or fish. My favorite places to have truffles are the agritourism Toncic near Zrenj: the owner Sandro hunts for the truffles himself with several hunting dogs. Their cuisine is simple but with typical Istrian dishes: my favorite is truffle over pasta. I also love when truffles are combined with shrimps – there are several dishes to recommend at San Rocco gourmet restaurant & hotel in Brtonigla run by the Fernetich family.
Istria Gourmet Festival that starts on Thursday July 21 as part of the ATP Croatia Open in Umag opens the festival with the grande Istrian gourmet there – the truffle. The dishes will be prepared by the Zigante restaurant chef and paired with the best Istrian wines.