The waiter waves the offensive-smelling nugget under my nose with a flourish. In his white-gloved hand, it looks like a small knob of ginger root, but the intense smell gives it away as a white truffle, the prized and pricey fungus that foodies rhapsodize about while debating how best to describe its disagreeable odor. Dirty socks?
I proposed “a bouquet of over-ripe cheese with a big hit of musk” to my dining companions as more accurate — and more apt — given the snobbish appeal of this rare delicacy.
We were at the 12th annual truffle festival in the small village of Livade on Croatia’s Istrian peninsula, where it was impossible to take truffles too seriously when we had a fun-filled afternoon ahead with food and wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, a truffle-hunting demo and a truffle auction.
But first, I wanted a proper introduction to the infamous fungus, and there’s no better place in Croatia — or perhaps the world — than Restaurant Zigante. It was restaurant owner Giancarlo Zigante who found the world’s largest truffle in 1999, confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records, according to my guide. The truffle was a beefy 2.8 pounds. His restaurant specializes in serving fresh truffles year-round.
And freshness is imperative. On the restaurant’s exterior wall a bronze plaque states Tartufo vero, or “fresh truffles,” signifying Restaurant Zigante’s status as one of a recognized group of restaurants in the region that offers fresh truffles. The ones we enjoyed probably had been picked the night before, but truffles can be kept for seven days if stored in a paper bag in the fridge.
White truffles — Tuber magnatum Pico — are also best eaten raw, which explained why our waiter grated the cleaned, but otherwise unprepared, truffle over the plate of venison carpaccio in front of me.
He used a special tool that creates wide but paper-thin slices that meld beautifully with the meat. The next dish, grated truffle over fresh tagliatelle with melted butter, couldn’t be simpler, yet tasted extravagant.
Each course of our four-course menu featured white truffles, with the last dish the most surprising: vanilla ice cream with truffles. It was, well, different.
“You either like them or you don’t,” explained Tanja Prodanovic, marketing manager for Restaurant Zigante, adding that “the truffle has to be the king” with other ingredients playing second fiddle.
After lunch, we wandered to a grassy field to watch a truffle-hunting demonstration. A middle-aged man with a large paunch stood with two midsize dogs. When he gave the command, they immediately started sniffing the ground. A truffle had been “planted” earlier, and within seconds the older dog, Jackie, was digging at the precise spot.
The hunter rewarded her with a biscuit, then dug up the truffle for himself.
Hunters go out at night, explained my guide, Antonio Giudici, when the scent of the truffles is most intense. Because of the prices white truffles command — more than $4,000 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) last October — hunters are secretive.
“A hunter will never tell you where he found truffles or how many he found,” Giudici said, “and the dogs don’t talk!”
Under the festival’s big white tents, people sipped wine — the region has three main varieties of grape: the white malvazija, red teran and sweet muscat — and dipped cubes of bread into extra virgin olive oil. Truffles of various sizes were displayed in baskets or behind glass. I asked if I could hold one; it felt stone-cold and heavy for its size.
Other agricultural products were displayed, too: cheese, honey, prosciutto and lots and lots of olive oil, some mild, some spicy. The Istrian peninsula is agriculturally rich; Istra Gourmet, the annually updated guide to the wine and gastronomy of the region, lists 136 olive growers and 110 winemakers. It’s easy to take a self-guided tour if you have a car; oil producers and wineries open to the public are well marked on roadsides.
“Istrian olive oil is now second in the world to Tuscany’s,” local journalist Sandro Petruz told me proudly when I toured Rovinj, a medieval town on Istra’s west coast.
At the festival’s auction, an attractive blonde paraded a single truffle, about the size of a walnut and weighing less than one ounce, on a silver platter. The auctioneer started the bidding at 100 kuna, about $20. After a short but intense bidding war, it sold to a man from Slovenia for 300 kuna. He beamed and invited everyone to his country for an upcoming sausage festival.
That night I stayed at the Hotel Kastel in the ancient hilltop town of Motovun, overlooking Livade. From there, I could see the thick green forest that hugs both sides of the Mirna River and is home to most of the region’s truffles.
Early the next morning, the sky was a lovely pink as I strolled the town wall. Suddenly, the pre-dawn peace was broken by the barking of dogs from the direction of the forested valley below. No doubt, some were returning from a long night’s work. For gourmands everywhere, I hoped it went well.
Suzanne Morphet is a freelance writer who lives in Victoria, B.C., Canada.
Know & Go
Why truffles stink
According to “Wild About Mushrooms” (www.mssf.org/cookbook/truffles.html): “The flavor of the truffle is directly related to its aroma. The chemicals necessary for the odor to develop are created only after the spores are mature enough for release, so they must be collected at the proper time or they will have little taste. This is the only sure indication that the mushrooms are ready to be harvested. That is why animals have proven to be the best means of assuring that the fungi collected will be flavorful.”
Truffles are harvested in Europe with the aid of truffle dogs. According to “Wild About Mushrooms,” pigs were originally used because “The female pig becomes excited when she sniffs a chemical that is similar to the male swine sex attractant. The use of pigs is risky, though, because of their natural tendency to eat any remotely edible thing. For this reason, dogs have been trained to dig into the ground wherever they find these odors, and they willingly exchange their truffle for a piece of bread and a pat on the head.”
Getting to Livade
Livade is about a three-hour drive from Zagreb, Croatia’s capital.
The annual Livade Days of Truffles Festival begins the first weekend in October and continues every weekend until Nov. 3-4. See http://tinyurl.com/ccr55tr.
• Restaurant Zigante. The menu changes with the seasons, but the white truffle is available fresh from mid-September until January or February. See www.restaurantzigante.com.
• Also, great food and views are to be had at Restaurant Puntalina, where seafood is the specialty but not its only fare. A starter of melon and Istrian-style proscuitto ham was spectacular. Reservations highly recommended. Phone: (385) (0) 52-813-186.
Where to stay
• Hotel Kastel is a charming 18th-century hotel in the even older (12th and 13th centuries) hilltop town of Motovun with views over the Mirna River valley. It boasts an indoor swimming pool, sauna and steam room. See www.hotel-kastel-motovun.hr.
• The town of Rovinj, on the west coast of the Istrian Peninsula, is about an hour’s drive from Livade.