2021 Istria, Croatia: Mark and I set double alarms to ensure we did not miss our opportunity to learn about truffles in Istria. We laced up our boots and met our Eat Istria guide, Goran. Hopping into his car, we headed north towards Motovun with great anticipation.
Istrian Food and Wine Culture
As we drove, conversation flowed as we discussed the food and wine culture of Istria. Goran helped us understand the importance of Boškarin beef, lavender, asparagus, olive oil, grapes, and, of course… truffles! Suddenly Goran pulled into Caffe Bar, which offers stunning views of the historic hill town Motovun.
As we stood together, taking it in, Goran explained why he chose to take us to that particular overlook. It offers an exceptional view of Motovun in the distance with all the layers of lavender, olive trees, vineyards, and forests, which yield the truffles. These elements represent the essential culinary traditions of Istria.
He showed us how to crush lavender blossoms and use them as a natural mosquito repellent. Then he pointed to the vineyards and explained the varietals. Next, he shared how Istrians prioritize high-quality olive oil production over high yield. Finally, we talked about the forests and how truffles flourish and multiply under the oak, beech, hazelnut, willow, poplar, and hornbeam trees. With that, it was time to head on to our truffle experience.
An Introduction to Miro Tartufi
As we pulled into Miro Tartufi, the property featured a delightful stone gathering space with its glass face thrown wide open. The shaded tables welcomed us, and I couldn’t wait to get a closer look at the wood-burning stove and demonstration kitchen.
Goran introduced us to Miro and Mirjana, the owners of Miro Tartufi. To our delight, Mirjana invited us to enjoy an early morning brandy. I opted for Rakija s 14 trava (brandy with 14 herbs), while Mark opted for the Montovunska Biska (bitter with mistletoe). Now that is how to start a morning!
Hunting Truffles with Miro
We kicked back our shots while watching Miro load the back of his car with his two truffle hunting dogs, honey-colored Bella and black-as-night Leila. And we were off to experience hunting truffles in Istria!
Arriving at the forested area, we eagerly disembarked from our cars and took in another stunning view of Motovun. Then Miro explained his planting of young oaks to our left, and how he treated their roots with black truffle spores. He hopes it will eventually promote additional black truffle harvest.
Suddenly, the dogs took off! Taking the path to the right, Bella sprinted for a tree base and started digging. Miro quickly intercepted her before she could scratch, break, or eat the truffle. Success! That truffle was larger than a walnut and beautifully shaped. What an exciting start! Throughout the rest of the hunt, Bella found at least a half dozen of various sizes, shapes, and conditions. Lela, although enthusiastic, found just one because she is young and still in training.
Training Truffle Hunting Dogs
Bella and Leila love truffles. Why? Not because they are bred to be a truffle-hunting dogs. Rather, Miro trains them as pups, hoping to grow their love for truffles. How does he do this? By allowing them to eat truffles!
But then Miro must substitute a new reward for the truffles. Amazingly, he always uses bread. In his early years, he took good homemade bread with him and hunted throughout the night, offering it as a reward to his dogs and eating it himself when he got hungry.
It was amazing to see how excited Bella and Leila got the moment we reached the woods. If we talked too long in one spot, they became impatient in their eagerness to be off finding more truffles. With each find, they jumped excitedly up on Miro’s leg, begging for their bread treat in his right-hand pocket while he loaded truffles into his left. All the while, Miro pats them on the head and talks to them in Italian as he urges them on and praises their success.
The Rythm of Truffle Hunting
Miro says it is essential to take your time walking the forest to give the dogs plenty of opportunities to sense the truffles. Each time the dogs found something and started to dig, Miro sprinted over, praising Bella and Leila but nudging them aside. He said he had to do this quickly because the truffles are only 1 to 2 centimeters beneath the surface, and the dogs can easily scratch them with a nail or succumb to the desire to eat them. Miro gently brings truffles to the surface with his 2-ft specialty spade with its tiny blade.
Unmarked, unbroken truffles are highly valued, and so the rhythm of the hunt swings between slow and steady with bursts of energy to intercept the dogs when they find something.
After forty-five minutes in the forest, we returned to Miro Tartufi.
Eating Truffles with Mirjana
Returning to the stone demonstration kitchen, Mirjana welcomed us with long tables spread with truffle-based appetizers. Goran kindly introduced me as an author, and Mirjana joked, “Ah, now I am a little bit nervous!” To which I quickly responded, “No, no… I am the student!” With that, we smiled at each other and felt an instant connection.
Mirjana explained our plates. On the first platter, truffle salsa mixed with cream cheese topped little slices of bread. Truffle salsa is a rough paste of champignons (button mushrooms), porcini mushrooms, black summer truffles, salt, and pepper. A hint of anchovy imparts the treasured umami flavor, and olive oil covers it all for assisting preservation. The second platter was this salsa, unmixed with any other ingredients, and Mark and I instantly fell in love. We quickly laid plans to purchase some for our continued Croatian Journey.
The third platter featured truffle cheese. The first was a slightly aged cow’s milk, and the second a younger sheep and cow’s milk blend. Then came the Boškarin sausage (with truffles, of course). Boškarin, as Goran explained, are traditional Istrian long-horned, white-grey cattle and a symbol of the region.
The final plate featured truffle pate, a smooth combination of white truffle, butter, parmesan, and a little cream. Goran suggested tossing it as a creamy sauce with pasta.
All along the way, there was plenty of Malvasia wine and Mirjana’s chilled water infused with elderflower syrup, with slices of lemon and orange, along with a festive sprig of mint. Sometimes Mirjana substitutes the citrus with cucumber, and I made a mental note to try both versions during our travels.
Cooking with Truffles
Mirjana made us Fritaja s tartufima, which is scrambled eggs with truffles. She starts with a generous combination of oil and butter, heated together. Next, she adds several twists of sea salt and mounds of freshly grated and shaved truffles. After a brief sauté to bring out the aromas, she adds lightly whisked eggs and Parmigiana. Then she gently, gently cooks them while constantly but leisurely stirring. This patient approach yields an exceptionally creamy, rich texture.
As if this wealth of flavor is not enough, Mirjana garnishes each platter with a generous combination of two truffles shavings. Both black by definition, but one with a richer cinnamon-colored interior. And so, she let them fall in attractive, contrasting cascades.
Garnishing with Truffles
Our truffles in Istria experience culminated with a slice of chocolate cake with cream filling topped with grated shaved black truffles and olive oil. The combination was exciting and new with the nutty earthy flavor of the truffles shining through.
Goran pointed out that the plate reads “Okus koji se pamti,” which means “A taste to remember.” What a beautiful day of learning and new experiences with our new Istrian friends Goran, Miro, and Mirjana.