It’s Truffle Day in Istria

Waking up in my cozy, cavelike apartment, buried deep in the winding streets of Rovinj, I have a special spring in my step. Today I’ll be touring the hill towns of Istria. And you know what that means: Today is Truffle Day.

The Istrian Peninsula — a wedge-shaped appendage dangling from the northwest corner of Croatia — has some of the world’s richest truffle deposits. Truffles love the damp floor of the oak forests that fill much of the Istrian interior. In 1999, a local entrepreneur unearthed a nearly three-pound white truffle. And ever since, Istria — and Croatia — have exploited their connection to these pungent, earthy, delicious little nuggets of flavor.

Truffles are tough tubers that grow entirely underground, virtually undetectable — except for their distinctive scent, which can be picked up only by the trained snout of a dog or a pig. Strolling through an Istrian hill town, you pass paddocks of noisy dogs…not pets, but working dogs, who help provide this region its livelihood. Truffles have been harvested in Istria since antiquity, and in more recent times of hardship, they’d be eaten as a stomach-filling substitute for meat. But these days, they represent a significant chunk of the local economy — and of the emerging Croatian culinary identity.

On my first visit to Istria, researching the first edition of my Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia guidebook a decade and a half ago, I knew little about truffles…and, to be honest, wasn’t even sure if I’d ever tasted one. My local guide — who seemed to take it as a personal challenge to pry open my culinary blinders — brought me to a high-end restaurant (owned by that lucky giant-truffle discoverer) where every dish on the menu involved truffles. It was an education.

We dug into a tasting menu that included truffle-embedded hard cheeses and salami, truffle-infused pâté and tapenade, truffle frittata, handmade pasta grated with fresh truffles, vegetables sautéed in truffle oil, and truffle ice cream.

To this day, every time I start sketching out an itinerary to Croatia, when I get to Istria…my tongue tingles with the phantom flavor of truffle. And this morning, as I set out to explore the countryside, I already know that today will be my best “food day” of the trip.

Driving inland from Rovinj, I exit the Y-shaped “upsilon” highway and quickly lose myself in back roads, lacing together fine vistas and sleepy hill towns, stopping off at rustic rural hotels and restaurants, and driving past hardworking vintners — just preparing for the harvest — and the characteristic stone farmer huts called kažun. Istrians brag that their fertile soil comes in three colors — white, black, and red — which dictate the nuanced characteristics of local wines and produce. And on this September day, the hillsides are striped with colors.

Finally, it’s time for lunch. From Livade — the hub of the local truffle industry — I follow winding country lanes about 10 minutes to reach a middle-of-nowhere konoba I have been wanting to try. Pulling up the gravel driveway into Konoba Dolina (“Valley Inn”), I’m greeted perfunctorily and seated at a table with a polyester pink tablecloth, still stained by whoever just ate here. This place is nondescript and purely functional — not even charming enough to qualify as “rustic.” You’d never know this humble place was any good, if it weren’t for the happy hum of diners who fill the terrace.

Virtually every menu item highlights truffles. Knowing I’ll have pasta later, I choose the “pork loin with truffles.” It’s a simple but perfectly grilled slab of pork served on a bed of roasted and lightly smashed potatoes, delicately dusted with a generous layer of fresh-shaved black truffle. The dish is perfectly seasoned and outrageously good — and just 100 kunas (about $15).

As I eat, I notice that the jovial, fiftysomething Germans at the next table keep glancing over at me with a knowing smile — clearly enjoying how much I’m enjoying my food. When I get up to leave, one of them lifts his glass in a silent toast, one truffle aficionado to another.

Totally stuffed — and feeling the most blissful (and most sluggish) post-meal high of my trip — I waddle back to my car and drive across the valley, then twist up, up, up like a corkscrew along the slopes of Motovun — the ultimate Istrian hill town.

I park near the base of the cobbled main street and trudge 15 steep minutes up to the main square. I take my time, enjoying the tranquility, the refreshing breeze, and the peekaboo views of the gentle Istrian countryside: vineyard-draped hills over oak tree-dappled valleys.

Nearing the summit, I pass the restaurant I’ve already preselected for tonight’s dinner: Mondo Konoba. The problem is, it’s only been about an hour since my filling lunch. Normally I hope to get through my work as quickly as possible. But deep down, I’m secretly hoping that Motovun slows me down a little today…juuust enough to recover my appetite.

For the next few hours, I attend to my guidebook-research rounds in Motovun. Much hasn’t changed, but some things have. For example, the only hotel in town has opened an endearing town history museum, which I enjoy touring. I always knew that racecar driver Mario Andretti grew up in this traffic-free little burg. But it was fun to see an interview of him getting a little emotional talking about his hometown. (We love wee Motovun so much that our Rick Steves’ Best of the Adriatic Tour spends two nights here…and you can be sure that our tour members taste some local truffles.)

Sure enough, my to-do list is completed just in time for the opening of Mondo Konoba…and my next truffle feast. Mondo Konoba is run by a Sicilian-Istrian family who inject a little southern Italian pizzazz into their dishes. I sit on the little patio and peruse the menu.

I think I’ve made my selection — homemade ravioli with black truffles — when my server turns the page. “But did you see the white truffle menu? We have some of the first white truffles of the season.” Ah, the elusive “Queen of the Truffles,” freshly unearthed by some clever Istrian mutts. The menu is basically identical to the black truffle menu, but each price is around $8 to $10 higher. That’s a lot to spend on fragrant fungus. But how can I resist? After all, it’s Truffle Day. Homemade ravioli with white truffles it is.

As the sky fades from pink to deep blue, the plate of pasta arrives, and a precious lobe of white truffle is grated on top, before my eyes. The ravioli is stuffed with a mix of spinach, celery, and cauliflower, and if anything, it’s a little underseasoned. But this may be intentional: The preparation allows the truffles to really take center stage. These white truffles are noticeably different from the black truffles at lunch: Extraordinarily earthy, almost nutty. Subtler, yet somehow also more pungent. Like a fine Belgian praline instead of a Hershey bar.

After the meal, I roll down the hill to my car and drive through the inky Istrian night back to Rovinj. It’s been a very, very good Truffle Day indeed. But, if I’m being honest, when I head to Slovenia tomorrow…I may be ready for a little truffle detox.

2 Replies to “It’s Truffle Day in Istria”

  1. Love this entry. In my next life, I’m coming back as you, Cameron. Or Rick. How do you guys eat such exquisite delicacies so frequently on your travels, yet both manage to keep your..uh..boyish figures? I could watch an entire show about European culinary delights, highlighting the best of the best from country to country. But if I ate that heartily every night and sampled the wine everywhere I went, which I’d love to do, I couldn’t waddle up hill and dale to soak up everything else these enchanting destinations have to offer, especially hiking, as well as devouring other aspects of local culture. There has to be a trick for making room for it all.

    1. First of all, nobody has ever accused my figure of being “boyish.” However, I would really tip the scales if I weren’t spending most of my day hiking around town to update our guidebooks. On this trip in particular, I averaged about 10 miles a day–much of it up and down steep hills. That certainly helps make more room for truffle pasta and gelato. The real problem comes when I get home from a trip, and my European appetite becomes reacquainted with my American sit-at-a-desk-all-day lifestyle. Time to hit the road again…

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