(Reuters.com) - In 1999, Giancarlo Zigante and his dog Diana were walking amongst the dense forests of Istria, Croatia, when they stumbled upon a world record-breaking 1.31 kg white truffle.
Situated just south of Trieste along the Adriatic coast, Istria is known for its lush green valleys and charming hilltop villages. But this small peninsula in northern Croatia is also starting to attract adventurous foodies in search of one of the world’s most sought out delicacies.
While France and Italy are most known for truffles, these noble mushrooms have been cultivated in Istria for centuries. Roman and Greek Emperors as well as French and Austro-Hungarian aristocrats knew about Istria’s prized fungus and were enthralled by their outstanding taste and alleged aphrodisiac characteristics.
Soon after his discovery of the massive white tuber, Zigante opened a specialised truffle store in Livade, followed by an eponymous restaurant.
“We finally started to appreciate what we had here,” says Zigante. Over 300 kg of fresh truffles both black and white are consumed annually in the restaurant, where everything on the menu takes second place to the tuber.
Specialities include fresh sea bass carpaccio with black truffle, duck breast served with white truffles and even truffle-infused ice cream.
“We have guests from all over the world who come to Istria just to have our truffles,” Zigante adds.
And that’s just the beginning of the truffle obsession in Istria. Travellers hoping to work up an appetite can also embark on truffle foraging trips which involve spending time outdoors with a hunter and his dogs. Although truffle hunters are very secretive about their hunting spots, many are still willing to have guests accompany them.
“Since there were many families involved with truffle hunting, we decided to offer truffle hunting tours for tourists,” local operator Zdenka Majcan told Reuters. “Going on a hunt is a very special experience. There’s nothing quite like it.”
Tours are seasonal with spring to summer devoted to black truffles, autumn to winter to white truffles.
Truffles are found two to eight inches below the ground near the roots of trees with which they live in symbiosis. As they evaporate they give off an odour which lasts for a limited period of time and can only be detected by the assistance of well-trained dogs and experienced hunters.
“Finding truffles is not easy. Sometimes you have to walk miles and miles just to find one,” explains Majcan, “but the result is very rewarding.”
Istria is marked by a plethora of rural festivals dedicated to the prized mushroom. The most famous being the Buzetska Subotina (Buzet Saturday) in which an enormous truffle omelette is cooked in the main square and shared out among thousands of visitors.
There is also Tuberfest in which gourmands can sample white truffles, as well as see demonstrations on how ingredients are sourced and attend truffle auctions.
The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own. Editing by Peter Myers