THE ULTIMATE ISTRIAN TRUFFLE EXPERIENCE
“Presently, we were aware of an odour gradually coming towards us, something musky, fiery, savoury, mysterious, -- a hot drowsy smell, that lulls the senses, and yet enflames them, -- the truffles were coming.” - William Makepeace Thackeray(1811-1863), “Memorials of Gourmandising”
The morning is chilled air and powdered sunlight as we enter the forest. The ancient village of Motovun gleams in the distance, but slowly disappears as the slim trunks of the trees enfold us. These are not ordinary trees, though. Their roots are magic. Underground, something mysterious and wonderful is happening - they are budding with one of the most prized culinary gifts in the world: truffles.
Lila and Bela, the truffle dogs, have been let out of the car and they’re running about excitedly, their noses to the ground. They’ll pick up sticks and rocks and leaves and chew them frantically before tossing them into the air and chasing each other in circles. They are eager for the hunt to begin.
We are with Miro, from Miro Tartufi, and this is his enchanted forest. He has brought us up here from the estate he shares with his wife, Mirjana, at the base of Motovun, overlooking the Mirna River Valley.
‘She is a good dog...When she wants to be,’ Miro gestures to Bela with a wry smile. ‘And Lila is only just 4 months, so she is still learning, but she has a strong desire to hunt. She really wants to find the truffles.’
The relationship between Miro and his dogs is special to watch. They look at him adoringly and bounce at his pockets, where they know he keeps their rewards (crostini, of course) for finding the buried treasure. Bela and Lila can detect truffle aromas from far away and deep under the ground; as we set off, though, it is clear they are not the calm ‘sniffer dogs’ we’ve all seen trotting obediently around the airport. They are boisterous and playful. They dash through the dappled forest floor, sometimes in different directions, snuffling wildly in the leaf litter, the grins on their faces matched by their master's - and of course, all of ours, who have come along for the ride. Sometimes we have to run to keep up, because if they start digging and Miro’s not there, they’ll gobble up the truffle straightaway: they love them as much as we do.
The first truffle is found by Lila, the hunter-in-training, and it happens almost straightaway. Miro sees that she is focused on a patch of ground below a tree, indistinguishable from any other. She circles and snorts in the dirt - then she begins to dig: her little black paws like whirlwinds. When she reaches the roots, Miro nudges her out of the way and uses his tiny spade to gently dig. He cuts carefully through the roots, and then we see it. The dirt falls from its knobbly exterior like rain, and there in his gloved hand is a perfectly imperfect truffle. Lila gets her crostini reward, a pat on the head, and the truffle is passed around. It is quite something to hold and smell a truffle that is fresh from the earth.
The hunt continues. Bela has disappeared for a while, and then we spot her standing proudly, a truffle in her mouth. Miro catches her just in time. We chase him, chasing the dogs, slipping over pine needles, our hands brushing the soft fronds of the moss on the tree trunks. The excitement is catching. We circle back to where we began, and this time Bela finds another truffle. It obviously wasn’t ready to be found before, but now it has released its fragrance and Bela helps it come into the daylight.
After about an hour or so, we head back to the Miro Tartufi estate, where Mirjana is all brightness and bustle, wiping her hands on her burgundy apron in between filling the tables with platters of truffled cheese, salami and crostini alongside carafes of fresh elderflower juice and malvazija.
‘Please have an aperitif!’ Mirjana says. ‘Sweet or bitter?’
We opt for one of each. It is rakija. Home-made brandy. Delicious.
‘But where are your truffles?!’ she exclaims suddenly.
Miro has forgotten to hand them over, and just continued on with his day, a pocket full of black gold. She finds him in the garden and returns with a chuckle, popping the truffles in some water to clean and soften them. They will be used later.
Mirjana gives us an explanation of the smorgasboard of truffle delights before us. As well as the aforementioned platters, we are given a basket of bread and a bowl of salad each. On each table are a selection of truffle oils and balsamics. The scent in the air is soft and musty and earthy and sweet.
We are encouraged to indulge.
If you’ve ever seen the film, Chocolat, you might understand what happened next. There is a scene, at Armande’s birthday party, where Vianne serves the guests a chocolate feast. The guests are silent. Their world slows down. They are lost in the world of the flavours before them. They seal their lips around each mouthful, smiling sheepishly at one another, and mop every last morsel from their plate with the crust of their bread. At Miro Tartufi, we are exactly the same.
But it doesn’t end there. After tasting the Miro Tartufi products, Mirjana shows us how to prepare the truffles that Bela and Lila found in the forest: ‘our’ truffles. We gather around while she grates them into a pan of butter and oil, then adds a dozen eggs and stirs until we have the best scrambled eggs you’ve ever seen - or tasted. Just when we think we can’t possibly fit any more food in our bellies, it’s time for dessert: soft chocolate cake with a layer of cream in the middle, drizzled with truffled honey. While we eat and slip into a truffle-induced coma, Mirjana explains more about the world of truffles.
No one is in a hurry to leave their table. We are all still chatting and it’s 3:30pm - our hunt started at 10:30. Before we leave, though, some of us head into the little house to make purchases, while others stay back to enjoy marvelling at the basket of enormous white truffles Mirjana has brought for us to see - these beauties are only found in Italy and Croatia and fetch insane prices.
‘Hold them! Smell them!’ Mirjana insists. We are acutely aware that what we hold in our hands is probably worth more than both our cars at home combined (although anyone who has seen what we drive will know this isn’t really saying much), but it is clear that to Miro and Mirjan, the pleasure of seeing others enjoy truffles is priceless.
You can find out more about Miro Tartufi and their hunts and products (they have a shopfront in the centre of Motovun too) from their website.
If you’re looking for the perfect experience during your stay in Istria we can’t recommend this one enough.