“We’d like one of each please”, Nate told our waiter at Rocka Konoba, pointing to the list of pasta dishes on the “truffle menu”. We had driven six hours to Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula from Split for the weekend, on a quest for all things truffle. Truffles are considered an expensive delicacy in most parts of the world, but not in Istria. While equal in quality to their more famous counterparts found in the Piedmont region of Italy or Perigord region of France, Croatia’s truffle culture is free from the arrogance and outrageous price tags, making it the ideal truffle destination.
Our first stop in Istria was the miniature town of Roc, sitting idylically on a green hilltop surrounded by a Tuscan-like landscape. In the Middle Ages, Roc was known as the center of Croatian literacy. Now, it boasts one of the best Konobas (traditional style taverns) in the area. Rocka Konoba is tucked away on the six-building long main street, and stands out as the town’s only restaurant, next to the town’s only church, hotel, and shop. The cozy dining room holds only six tables, and three more decorate the outside terrace. We sat down at a heavy wooden table in the open air, set under a beautiful trellis of vines and flowers.
An entire section of the menu was devoted to truffles, and we didn’t need to look any further. While we waited for our food, we explored Rocka’s adjoining boutique, selling the family olive oil and large selection of brandies. Soon, the smell of freshly baked bread drew us back to our table, and a basket of thick slices, still warm from the oven, was set in front of us, along with a bottle of spicy secret recipe olive oil. Next came a green salad of local lettuces and vegetables, followed by three heaping platters of handmade pasta: ricotta stuffed ravioli, Istrian “fuzi” in cream sauce, and tagliatelle with bacon and cheese curds, all hidden under a dense layer of fresh black truffle shavings. Seeing our eyes light up, our waiter soon returned with a cutting board piled with truffles, allowing us to admire the evening’s selection.
Too full for dessert, we continued 7km up the road to Buzet, a neighboring fortified hilltop town where we had booked a room for the next two nights. Our decision to base ourselves in Buzet centered around the town’s annual Subotina festival, kicking off the white truffle season, which happened to be that weekend. We were staying in the Boutique Hotel Vela Vrata, located in the heart of the old town just after the entrance gate, where the festival was to be held. For a boutique hotel, it was surprisingly large and modern. We were shown to a sparkling clean but somewhat bland room, and thanks to the earlier copious amounts of pasta, soon fell asleep.
We awoke to a magical landscape and spent the morning gazing out at the clouds nestled in the mountains from our breakfast table on the terrace while indulging in our first truffle dish of the day, a cheese spread flecked with truffles, in preparation for a truffle hunting excursion at lunchtime with Mr Nikola Tarandek of New York Times truffle hunting fame. We were to meet in Livade, a humble town set at the foot of the stunning Motovun, its more famous neighbor. Upon entering Livade, the town’s dedication to truffles was immediately apparent – a statue of a white truffle vaguely resembling a fist dominated the roundabout in the center of the town, with a truffle store and truffle cafe flanking the road on either side.
Nikola soon appeared and we climbed into his old green Rio, heading down the street to a large swath of forest. We exited in someone’s backyard, where Nikola popped the trunk to reveal three wriggling dogs who immediately leapt out, bounding with energy, and took off into the woods with eager anticipating for the hunt ahead. “All the finest mutts – product of a drunken Saturday night”, Nikola joked, “there is no right breed for a truffle dog”. He told us he’d been training them since they were born, developing their love of truffles since day one by rubbing truffle oil on their mother’s nipples while they were nursing. “The key now””, he said, “is to keep it fun”.
Suddenly, Nikola noticed Flokey, a brown curly-haired puppy, frantically clawing the dirt at the foot of an oak. Upon investigation, he turned up a small, rotten white truffle. “This year is too warm, and the white truffles are rotting in the heat”, Nikola said. After an hour, Nikola sighed and told us it may not be our lucky day. Instead, he pulled two potent black truffles out of his pocket and sent us on a mission to hide them anywhere we wanted, to test his dogs’ abilities. So off we went, deep into the woods, until Nikola and his dogs were far out of sight. Then we veered off the path and buried the truffles 20 feet apart and six inches under the ground, feeling a little guilty that they might be too hard to find.
Our worries were quickly put to rest; within two minutes of letting the dogs loose, Flokey had caught the scent, his nose buried in the dirt as Nikola sprinted towards him, every second alone with the truffles adding to the risk that the truffle would be gone before he reached it. After all, he did raise the dogs with gourmet tastes. Despite not finding any of our own, truffles were still the star of a lunch arranged by Nikola, who also pointed out the doors of numerous houses in the village where we could knock and sample homemade honey, wine, and olive oils. This proved to be a great way to spend the afternoon and meet the locals.
In late afternoon we crossed the road to Motovun, a picturesque artists’ community most famously home to Mario Andretti, where we had a reservation at the renound Mondo Konoba. With a few hours left before dinner, or until we could possibly feel hungry again, we hiked the 30 minutes up from the parking lot and wandered the winding cobbled streets, peeking into various boutiques and truffle shops, before settling down with a fresh lemonade for some people watching from the sunny ramparts.
At Mondo we ordered soufflé , prosciutto rolls stuffed with cream cheese, and of course, more pasta. With each dish, our waiter brought out a whole white truffle and, as we watched in rapt attention, showered our plates with thin slices until they were buried in a white truffle mantle. We were nearing the end of our limits, but there was still dessert: a vanilla Panna cotta with truffle honey and yes, more truffles. For this, we could afford to suffer a little. Then, barely able to stand, we slowly made our way back down the road in the warm evening air.
Back in Buzet, the Subotina festival was just getting started. The kick-off event was the creation of a giant omelet made with 2018 eggs and over 10 kilograms of truffles in a 1000 kg pan. This was accompanied by a soundtrack of local bands like Vigor, a balding rocker/polka group, and plenty of beer and merriment lasting well into the night.
In the morning, the festivities continued in front of our hotel. The town’s maze of tiny streets was now lined with townspeople manning booths covered in produce, lavender, traditional foods and crafts, and plenty of beer. “You can see the way life used to be in older times”, the owner of our hotel told us. Passing by an elderly gentleman proudly beaming at his stovetop where a huge pot simmered, the lid held up conspicuously by its contents, it was hard not to wish that life had continued on like this…though maybe in a way it has here in Istria.