A previous version of this article gave the wrong weight for a truffle listed in Guinness World Records. The correct weight is 3 pounds. The error has been corrected below.
Falling in love with truffles on Croatia's Istrian peninsula
Friday, November 19, 2010; 10:23 AM
It's a warm afternoon in the hills of Istria. I'm munching on a sweet tartufone - a potato dumpling filled with chocolate, covered with a bechamel-chocolate sauce and topped with shavings of fresh white truffle - and wondering: Am I starting to feel a little frisky (you know what they say about truffles), or is it just the high Fahrenheit factor at work?
"Whoever says truffle, pronounces a great word, which awakens erotic and gourmand ideas both in the sex dressed in petticoats and in the bearded portion of humanity," the famous French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in his "Physiology of Taste" in 1825.
It's a couple of centuries later, and I'm not wearing a petticoat, but each bite of the delicious concoction is awakening all sorts of lust-filled ideas. Dora Sinkovic makes the most incredible tartufone I've ever tasted - sweet, musky, earthy, pungent, intense, comforting, all rolled together.
I'm in the courtyard of San Mauro Agrotourism, a farm and restaurant in northern Istria, a heart-shaped peninsula in the northern Adriatic region of Croatia. And I've just seen the light.
I've never cared for truffles, the smelly subterranean fungus that grows in the dark forests here. I just didn't get what all those people have raved about for centuries, describing truffles as "black diamonds," putting them on gastronomic pedestals, paying astronomical prices for a handful of these gnarly wrinkled tubers. Their taste left me cold. Until my first taste of tartufone, my moment of conversion.
As I savor the delicious dumpling, I chat with Dora and Libero Sinkovic, the owners of San Mauro. Two pigs, their pets and guardians, laze nearby. Jack, a 12-year-old Mexican pig, and Gigi, a 4-year-old Vietnamese sow - cultural diversity is alive and kicking in Croatia's countryside - have recently retired from their truffle-hunting careers. Until not long ago, they roamed the forests of Istria, sniffing for truffles that no human can espy.
Truffles, which grow underground, emit an aroma that sows in particular are very sensitive to, as it's similar to that of a hormone found in boars just before mating. Sows literally become sex-crazed in their hunt for truffles. They get so greedy that they dig as fast as they can and try to devour the fungus before the hunter can pick it. Libero and Dora tell me that many a hunter has almost lost fingers trying to contain the sows' excitement. That's why truffle-hunting pigs are often tethered to ropes, to control their urges and make for more successful foraging.
These days, to avoid these difficulties, dogs are more commonly used for truffle hunting in Istria. Truffle-hunting dogs, called breks, are mostly mongrels who begin training at 2 months. Training is a tricky job, so only a fraction of breks go on to have full-fledged careers as truffle trackers.
What they're on the lookout for in Istria are three varieties of black truffle as well as the magnificent white truffle (tuber magnatum pico), the king of the underground fungi. These fungi grow in the gray, clay-like soil of Istria's interior, in the damp forests around the medieval hilltop towns of Motovun and Buzet. The earth here is constantly moistened by the Mirna River, which runs through the woods, making the ground particularly fertile for truffles. The gold prize is a white truffle, a fungus that rakes in top dollars abroad. It's often described as having a haunting, slightly garlicky aroma and an intense taste.
It was in Istria, on Nov. 2, 1999, that Giancarlo Zigante, an avid local truffle hunter, and his dog, Diana, found the largest truffle ever discovered. The nearly 3-pound tuber magnatum pico made it into Guinness World Records and still holds the throne.
Soon after, Zigante opened a truffle store in the Istrian village of Livade, in the valley below Motovun, followed by an eponymous restaurant. I've walked into the elegant dining room of Zigante many times while on various assignments. I've studied their truffle-infused menu and chatted with the chefs, but I've never had the time to actually sit down for a full meal. I still dream of treating myself to a truffle feast at what is repeatedly named one of Croatia's top restaurants.
On my last visit, I was intrigued by the handmade ravioli filled with shrimp tails served in a white truffle sauce with port wine and pumpkin mousse. And the lamb filet on roasted polenta cubes with white truffle. There's even black truffle ice cream. I wonder whether it would surpass the tartufone at San Mauro, my first truffle love.
While black truffles are harvested in Croatia all year, the white truffle-hunting season starts in September and typically lasts through January. During this period, at least 3,000 people and up to 12,000 dogs wander the forests searching for truffles. Visitors can book a truffle foraging trip at Zigante. Spend an hour out in the woods with a hunter and his dogs, dig out a few truffles and then return to the restaurant to savor the very truffles you've just picked: from forest to table. More affordable truffle-hunting excursions are offered by the friendly Karlic family, who live in the village of Paladini near Buzet. Their forest outings include a cheese and truffle tasting.
Istria even has "the city of truffles," as Buzet has dubbed itself. An annual event here marks the start of the white truffle season: the Festival of Subotina on the second Saturday in September. The highlight is the preparation of a massive truffle omelet (with more than 2,000 eggs and 22 pounds of truffles) made in a 2,200-pound pan. And that's just the start of the truffle fun. In early November, Buzet hosts Truffles Weekend, featuring a fair with local and homemade truffle products.
When in Istria, look for the restaurants marked with a Tartufo Vero certificate. My favorite restaurant on the entire peninsula - a tall order in this foodie central - is Toklarija, in the hamlet of Sovinjsko Polje. At this slow food haven, high up in the hills above Buzet, owner Nevio Sirotic serves homemade Istrian fare in a converted 600-year-old olive mill that his grandfather bought in the 1950s.
Nevio's meals are known to take up to four hours to complete, a well-timed string of delectable courses, each one paired with local wines such as teran and malvazija. The menu changes daily according to both the chef's whim and to what's picked from the gardens or sourced from the surrounding villages. An appetizer of dried Istrian ham may be followed by a wild asparagus salad, followed by handmade fuzi (Istrian pasta) with white truffle shavings, and then a juicy steak of boskarin (a rare and much prized breed of Istrian beef).
The last time I ate at Toklarija, I arrived unannounced on a steamy July afternoon. We had lunched elsewhere, so my friend and I asked Nevio for dessert. In no time, as we relaxed under the shade of tall cedar trees, taking in the views of verdant hills beyond, there appeared before us a chocolate souffle served with three types of jam: dren (a type of local berry), sage and white chocolate. For a second, with my mouth blissfully full of souffle, I thought of tartufone, my truffle love, and wondered whether perhaps I was cheating.
Mutic is a New York-based travel journalist and coauthor of "Lonely Planet Croatia." Her Web site is www.everthenomad.com .