Lola races ahead, darting around and sniffing the base of oak trees.
I watch the three-year-old cocker spaniel as we tread deeper into Croatia’s dense Motovun forest, which is now shedding its greens for the yellows and burnt oranges of autumn.
It is a cool October morning, prime season for white truffles, hunted mainly between September and November.
Lola barks wildly and begins clawing the ground frenetically.
“Pokaze!” Mr Valter, our truffle hunter hollers repeatedly. “Pokaze, Lola!” (Show, he is saying in Croatian.)
We quicken our pace. Mr Valter restrains Lola and her trailing one-year-old puppy with one hand, adeptly excavating the moist, dark soil with the other using a small shovel.
“This is like fishing, but in a forest,” remarks a fellow traveller.
Truffles grow underground and their scent is detected by specially-trained dogs.
“White truffle,” Mr Valter proclaims as he uncovers a walnut-sized bulb. “Small but whole.”
The truffle, I cannot help but think, looks like something the dog excreted, rather than discovered.
Then I catch a whiff of the fungus – pungent but sensual, sulphurous, musky and highly intoxicating.
The white truffle – or tuber magnatum pico, prized and priciest among truffles – is what has drawn me to Istria, a heart-shaped peninsular in the north-western corner of Croatia.
While the Istrian truffle is recognised to be of a superior grade, the culture here is more down-to-earth than that of more renowned markets such as Alba in Italy or Perigord in France.
Croatia is famous for its alluring coastal cities by sapphire waters, such as Dubrovnik, but over the next three days, I will realise the wonders of straying beyond the beaten track to discover Istria’s hilly, wooded interior.
And it is much more than truffles. Istria has been likened to “Tuscany 50 years ago”, and I can see why.
The peninsula offers a wealth of scenic rolling landscapes, mediaeval towns surrounded by thick stone walls perched atop hills, as well as high-quality wines, esteemed olive oils, and certainly, truffles – locally considered its “gastronomic diamond” – all of which are raising Istria’s profile as a gourmet destination without the crowds, for now.
HILLS AND HAMLETS
“A feast for the eyes, isn’t it,” remarks Mr Zlatko, the driver for this trip, as we travel through Istria’s bucolic rolling hills, patchwork of fertile plains and babbling streams that cut through lush valleys.
He says his English is not good – although I beg to differ – and shares that he grew up speaking the Istrian dialect, which is heavily influenced by Italian and bits of German.
Istria’s history is complex and fractured, with much of Europe’s culture – including the Roman, Slavic and Germanic kingdoms – having traversed Istria for more than a thousand years.
A local later illustrates the point perfectly: “I have friends born when this region was part of Yugoslavia, while their parents were born under Italian rule and their grandparents, under the Austro-Hungarian empire.”
We approach Motovun, the jewel of Istria’s mediaeval hilltop towns.
Resembling a fortress with a double ring of thick, defensive walls, turrets and gateways, Motovun sits majestically above a medley of vineyards, wheat-fields and newer houses that have settled along the leafy-green slopes.
The scenery is relaxing, but gazing at the town’s remnants of fortification systems, it is easy to imagine how elevation was crucial given attacks by conquerors in the past.
Today, Motovun is a quirky amalgam of Romanesque and Gothic buildings, housing restaurants serving typical Istrian dishes – including fresh, homemade pasta (particularly fusi istriani), cold cuts such as prosciutto, scrambled eggs and bean soup – and a cluster of artist studios.
The godfather of Croatian native art, Krsto Hegedusic, was one of the first painters to set up shop in the 1960s.
I head to another hilltop town, Buzet, and check in at Vela Vrata, a family-run boutique hotel offering rooms at about €120 (S$195) a night.
Historic stone arches from the 16th century, Mala (small) and Vela (large), welcome visitors who enter the tranquil town in the heart of the Mirna Valley.
I wander around tiny but charming Buzet by foot, weaving through mediaeval buildings in diverse stages of ageing and refurbishment.
Children are playing around an old cistern with baroque ornaments at the town’s central square.
A trio of girls smile bashfully when asked if I can photograph them amid the grey stone buildings.
Most of the town’s residents, I learn, resettled at the foot of the hill in a new part of town long ago.
Today, Buzet is a confluence of culinary, historical and adventure enthusiasts, for whom it is an ideal base for mountain biking, parasailing, horse-riding and fishing.
Every second weekend of September, Buzet draws travellers for a popular festivity that marks the start of truffle season – an enormous omelette, comprising 2,000 eggs and 10kg of truffles, is cooked in a giant pan.
WINES AND OLIVE OILS
At Kabola Winery, an inviting stone farmhouse with terracotta roof-tiles and cerulean shutters stands at 275m above sea level.
The sky is cloudlessly azure today, enhancing the views of the Dolomites on one side and lush greenery leading to the sea on the other.
Kabola, one of Istria’s most well-regarded wineries, is owned by the Markezic family and dates back to 1891. The family is particularly proud of its Malvasia Amphora wines.
I stroll around the estate and see, buried in the ground, eight “amphora”, or terracotta clay-pots, in which the best malvasia grapes ferment for at least six months.
“The grapes are then pressed and aged in oak barrels for one to 11/2 years,” a staff member tells me in the cellar.
“After bottling, the wine is further aged for another one to 11/2 years.”
Malvasia Amphora is an aromatic, amber-coloured wine, with honeyed flavour and fig-like notes.
I also sample the Terano, a ruby-red wine – likened here to the colour of “hare’s blood” – from an indigenous grape variety. The wine is dry, robust and reminiscent of berries and tobacco.
I head to Ipsa, whose extra virgin olive oil was ranked among the 15 best in the world by the Flos Olei Guide, a prestigious list from Italy specialising in top-quality olive oils.
For the third consecutive year, Istria has won the title of best quality olive region in the world.
“In five days, 20 people will harvest these olives,” says Mr Ivan Ipsa, son of founder Klaudio Ipsa, gesturing towards his extensive grove of 3,800 trees planted on neat terraces stretching over 2ha.
In a small tasting room, I sample several oils made from various olives, such as frantoio, bugla and leccino. They are strikingly fragrant and rather piquant.
DIAMOND OF GASTRONOMY
At Restaurant Zigante, a waiter shaves a white truffle over my plate. Paper-thin marbled flakes waft onto my fettucine.
I think he will stop after several flecks, but he continues flaking generously.
Momentarily, I wonder what constitutes table-side truffle-shaving etiquette and if I am supposed to nod or tell him when it is enough. (I don’t, though, mesmerised by the experience.)
When truffles come into contact with hot pasta, they release an olfactory, gaseous intensity that is deeply enrapturing.
Restaurant Zigante is part of, arguably, the most famous estate in Istria.
In 1999, its founder Giancarlo Zigante found a 1.31kg truffle in the Motovun Forest, gaining the Guinness world record for the largest white truffle ever found in the world till then. (This record was broken by a Tuscan truffle in 2007.)
Now, he runs Zigante Truffle Days, a 10-weekend festival that draws travellers globally to taste truffles, wine and other Istrian products such as prosciutto, sausage, honey and cheese.
“It is an open secret,” a local tells me, “that for years, Istrian truffles have been resold in neighbouring countries with premium markets, passing off as their local truffles.”
As such, there was no incentive to market Istrian truffles, as suppliers earned much selling in the black market.
This is changing now, though, as gourmands discover Istria.
Istrian truffle dishes, particularly at konoba – or taverns – are priced relatively reasonably.
A dish of home-made pasta, complete with freshly shaved white truffles, costs about 150kuna (or S$32). Pasta with fresh black truffles, which are less flavourful and cheaper, costs 90 kuna ($19) a serving.
Even desserts, such as the panna cotta at Konoba Pod Voltom (Trg Josefa Ressela 6, 52454, Motovun), feature the ubiquitous truffle.
At the konoba perched on a hill, I enjoy an appetising dish of grilled pork tenderloin in browned sauce, and labinski krafi, ravioli stuffed with grated cheese and lemon zest, topped with white truffle shavings.
Istria hits delectable notes, I think to myself, for those seeking an idyllic destination with gourmet offerings, away from the crowds.
Between bites, I admire the spectacular vista framed by red tiled roofs and apricot stone walls, distant hills and lush valley, which is sliced through with roads on which I count less than seven vehicles.
I travelled to Istria as part of a longer trip to Europe. From Singapore, Qatar Airways flies via Doha, or Lufthansa via Frankfurt, to the capital of Croatia, Zagreb, from which Istria is a 2.5-hour drive.
• I visited Istria from end September to early October last year, when the weather was lovely with highs of 23 deg C in the day and lows of 10 deg C at night. A long-sleeved T-shirt is sufficient in the day, but take a light down jacket for night time.
• The white truffle season lasts from September to mid-January, with the bulk of hunting done by November, while black truffles generally grow all year round.
• Spend at least two nights in Istria. If you have more time, drive to nearby towns such as Rovinj, an old coastal town with colourful houses, and Porec, a Unesco World Heritage site with Venetian architecture.
• A car is recommended for getting around Istria. Road signs are posted in Croatian and Italian. For travellers who prefer not to drive, car transfers can be arranged from Zagreb or within Istria. Illustris Travel customises trips around Istria, including tours, car rental or transfers.
• Most people in Istria speak Italian and English, although some people in smaller villages speak only Croatian. In restaurants, I found no issues communicating in English.
•Truffle hunting experiences can be organised by several family-run outfits, such as Karlic Tartufi, Natura Tartufi and Zigante. A truffle hunt costs about €60 (S$98) a person and lasts three hours.
• Denise Lim, a freelance writer, was hosted by the Istria Tourist Board.
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.