Truffles in Istria

November 2, 1999, in the village of Livade near Motovun, Giancarlo Zigante and his sharp-nosed dog unearthed a record-breaking, 1.31-kilogram (2.89-pound) white truffle. What he foraged—as attested to by the 100 guests he served in an effort to promote the cause of the Istrian truffle—was the most delicious fungus you are likely to find.

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.

Truffles are extremely rare. Most efforts to cultivate them domestically have failed, not least because you first need to grow a forest full of trees whose roots are just right for truffles. Prices fluctuate, but the white truffle, prized for its superior scent—the "white diamond," it's often called—sells for up to $10,000 a pound. In addition to the white truffle, Istria is also home to three sorts of black truffle, which sell for a mere $1,500 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.

Karlić Tartufi. The Karlic family has been truffle hunting for over half a century, and a visit to their estate in Paladini near Buzet is a must for aficionados of this rare fungus. The family offers truffle-hunting tours followed by truffle-inspired meals, and their shop sells a variety of truffle products, such as fresh and frozen black and white truffles and truffle-infused olive oil, honey, and various tapenades. Paladini 14, Village Paladini, Buzet, Istarska, 52420. 052/667–304; www.karlictartufi.hr. From €65.

Istriana Travel. If you'd like to join a truffle hunt, reserve a spot on a truffle-hunting excursion that departs from the village of Vrh from April to December. Accompanied by an English-speaking guide, you’ll meet a truffle hunter and his trained truffle-sniffing dogs at the hunter's house, spend 45 minutes hunting in the woods, and enjoy a light lunch or dinner. Vrh 46/3, Buzet, Istarska, 52420. 052/667–022; 091/541–2099; www.trufflehuntingcroatia.com. From €55.

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