A Scent to Swoon Over
A ball-shaped candy often coated with cocoa? (That's what Webster's says about the truffle.) Think again. Such truffles are a dime a dozen compared to the real thing—namely, the sort of record-breaking, 1,310-kilogram (2,882-pound) truffle Giancarlo Zigante unearthed on November 2, 1999, with the help of his sharp-nosed dog in the village of Livade, near Motovun. What he found was—as attested to by the 100 guests he served in an effort to promote the cause of the Istrian truffle—the most delicious fungus you are likely to find.
For one thing, truffles grow underground, in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of oaks and certain other trees. As such, they cannot readily be seen. It is their scent that gives them away—a swoon-inducing scent. Sows were once the truffle hunter's favored companion, as truffles smell a lot like male hogs. (To be fair, the earthy aroma and pungent taste of truffles, which has also been likened to garlic, is prized by gourmands the world over.) These days, dogs are the truffle hunter's best friend.
For another thing, truffles are extremely rare. Most efforts to grow them domestically have failed, not least because you first need to grow a forest full of trees whose roots are just right for truffles. The white truffle, prized for its superior scent—the "white diamond," it's often called—sells for upwards of $1,000 a pound. This was the sort unearthed by Zigante, whose family owns a chain of truffle-oriented shops in Istria. In addition to the white truffle, Istria is also home to three sorts of black truffle, which sell for a mere $300 to $500 a pound.
In Istria truffles have been extracted since ancient times. Even Roman emperors and Austro-Hungarian aristocrats had a taste for truffles, not least because of the aphrodisiac qualities attributed to them. Truffles were once consumed and gathered like potatoes—that's how plentiful they were. That was in the 1800s. No longer, of course. Still, their fine shavings impart an unforgettable, earthy aroma and an irresistibly pungent, vaguely garlicky taste to pastas, salads, omelets, beef specialties, sauces, and more.
Economics and truffle scarcity being what they are, the Istrian truffle has become a hot commodity indeed. These days, for example, much of what is sold by Italy as Italian white truffles actually comes from Croatia—not least, from the moist woods around Motovun, near the river Mirna.