We can trace the story of truffles back to the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, and Egyptians, but it was the Romans who started widely using this subterranean fungus. They studied and classified different varieties and assigned them aphrodisiac properties. A Roman myth says that the god of sky and thunder, Jupiter, created truffles after he had struck an oak tree with lightning. You can judge whether this is why the oak forests of Istria are blessed with truffles, but it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that Istrians started using truffles in their cuisine.
Truffles grow in only a few areas in the world and it is close to impossible to cultivate them. Experts have tried to replicate the conditions which seem to be the key, but all the attempts to farm truffles on a commercial scale so far have failed or had at best moderate success, however that doesn’t stop people trying! What we know for sure is that they grow underground, at a depth of four to twelve inches in damp soil, usually near rivers. The valley of the River Mirna and the lush Motovun Forest in Istria, seem to have what it takes for these delicacies to flourish.
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The scent of truffles dominates every dish they grace, but some truffles are more aromatic than others. We can simply divide them into black and white truffles. The white truffle, known as the premium truffle, grows between September through January. A a single pound of white truffle can cost more than $1,700. White truffles might look to the untrained eye like a small potato or a stone, but as you can see, these fungi can be very valuable. The second-largest in the world was found in Istria, weighing almost three pounds! The truffle’s powerful scent is often described as the smell of garlic and matured cheese. It is usually served raw, grated over pasta, meat, or fish.
Black truffles are more common and you can buy them throughout the year, due to three different variations that have adapted to different seasons. Although the exterior of the truffle is hard, black and diamond-patterned, the insides are also white. The black truffle is usually much less expensive than the white truffle. It is characterized by a milder, earthy aroma and with the smell of garlic. The black truffle is typically cooked briefly, so it usually comes in the form of a sauce.
Hounds or Pigs?
Besides the fact that we can’t cultivate them easily, truffles are difficult to find. In the past, people in Istria used pigs to find and dig out truffles, but pigs would often eat them as they could not resist these gastronomic delights. Once again, the dog proved to be man’s best friend, and specially trained (and expensive) truffle hounds are commonly used. You can even send your dog to truffle dog university in Piedmont, Northern Italy.
Truffle hounds are trained to want doggie treats in return for the truffles they find. They are happy to simply point out the location of the treasure for the truffle hunter to dig it up. Pigs are far more stubborn, though they have a keener sense of smell. Thanks to their excellent olfactory abilities they are able to detect truffles at a much larger distance and deeper underground. Pigs are still used in some parts of France, but perhaps truffle hunters there enjoy arguing with the pigs. For as long as truffles have been harvested, the process of finding them remains a real treasure hunt.
Want to go truffle hunting?
Book your trip with JayWay Travel and our local expert truffle hunter will take you on an adventure near Lake Butoniga. This gorgeous landscape in the middle of the Istrian peninsula is rich in truffles. You will look for truffles, relying on the dogs’ precision-perfect sense of smell, combined with the truffle hunter’s knowledge of the area. Afterward enjoy a delicious meal with truffles.
Attend Istria’s Annual Truffle Fest
The traditional festival, Istrian Truffle Days, starts every year in mid-September and ends in November. This event takes place at various locations throughout Istria. You can participate in truffle auctions, culinary workshops, truffle hunting, and taste or buy truffles along with various authentic Istrian products made from truffles.
Truffles in Istrian Cuisine
Istrian cuisine, in general, is based on simple dishes that are turned into luxury gourmet delights by adding truffles. A popular homemade dish is the fuži or pljukanci (both known as traditional Istrian pasta) that is made with a truffle sauce or beefsteak in truffle sauce. There are many small shops in Istria selling different types of products with truffles; such as tartufata (truffle and button mushroom sauce), cheese, and dried meat with truffles, truffles combined with premium olive oil, cheese, and many other delicacies, including sweets.
Originally from a small town in northeastern Croatia, Sanja’s life was changed when she went to Poznan in Poland as an exchange student. Surrounded by students sharing their cultures from around the world, Sanja set about visiting her new friends as much as she could, once she returned to Croatia. Unsurprisingly, she picked up the addiction to travel we all share! A licensed tour guide in Zagreb with Master’s degrees in both English and history under her belt, Sanja’s itchy feet naturally brought her to JayWay, instead of to a classroom job. With her previous experience organizing travel for American premed students, we found Sanja to be a perfect fit, and are sure you will too.