Like Oprah (I wish I could start every sentence this way), I have a major love affair with the truffle and have always wanted to have a try at hunting this coveted culinary delicacy, and like Oprah (YES!), I recently got to check this off my bucket list on a road trip across the heart of Istria in the Croatian peninsula to Karlić Tartufi. Istria’s phenomenal cuisine draws in food lovers near and far—it’s not unusual for inhabitants in neighbouring Italy and Slovenia to make the two and half hour drive to indulge in a meal rich in local Istrian truffles and make it back home before bedtime, cravings satisfied; possibly in more ways than one, as truffles are known to be quite the aphrodisiac.
Istrian Truffles 101
White truffles (Tuber Magnatum) are in season between mid-September and early October until mid-December, and considered the most rare of the bunch, fetching close to $4000 a pound. Compared to that, the $1,200-ish a pound price tag for the black variety, aka the summer truffle, is merely chunk change. So, it’s no wonder that the white truffle is lovingly referred to as “Istrian gold” here; a nickname that was birthed in 1999 when a nearly 2 1/2-pound white truffle was found in the precious grey soil of the thick Buzet forests near the Mirna river valley by Zigante Tartufi.
Arrival at Karlić Tartufi
Although you can stay at the Karlić estate in the gorgeous Villa Maslina, I drove in from my home base for the week, Rovinj, and was met by the lovely Mrs. Radmila Karlić who grew up hunting truffles with her father, Ivan. Ivan established the family’s successful truffle business in 1966 and the Karlić’s have been non-stop since.
Radmilla starts the three-hour truffle tour with delicious shots of welcome grappa and then, an insane offering of truffle cheeses, salami and pâtés, before delving into a quick session on how to cook her famous soft scrambled eggs with black truffles, which of course you get to binge on afterwards accompanied by a selection of white Malvasia and red Teran. With full truffle inspiration under our belt and in our stomachs, my small group of fellow Tuber lovers and I headed to the bottom of the estate to the forests with Radmila’s 22-year-old son, the namesake of her father, Ivan, a third generation truffle hunter who at only 14 years old found a 200 gram “Joker” truffle with the family’s star dog, Blackie.
With the help of three trained and adorable truffle hunting dogs, we briskly walked through the woods in hopes of finding a truffle and as Ivan revealed, “the most important thing is to have very good dogs. You can have the best forest in the world and not find truffles, if you don’t have very good dogs.” Knowing the extremely tight competition of truffle hunting—I had read about truffle “mafias” poisoning other family’s dogs—I asked Ivan if he had any first-hand experiences of the dangers of the trade. “When you go to one forest and then another forest, some people get jealous because they think you’re getting too many truffles, like a few years ago, they slit other people’s tires… But recently, no because you have to have a license to truffle hunt here and the license is about 200 Euros, so you don’t want to risk losing your license. In our forest, everybody know everybody, so there’s no bad business but I heard in France, truffle hunters shoot other truffle hunters when they try to go to a village where they think there are more truffles.” So the key to keeping your truffle stash abundant? “When you find a truffle you don’t put it in the news. You must be ‘shhh.’ Why? Because if other people hear you find big truffle in which forest, then they will come to same forest. You wait ‘til end of season, then you say, ‘I found this truffle.’”
Luckily for us we didn’t have to deflect any competitors during this hunting session—the dogs excitedly uncovered two large red truffles, which are unfortunately inedible. From Ivan’s hushed “shoo shoo” in repetitive singsong to encourage the dogs to roam and sniff, to the instant adrenaline hit that’d come when it seemed like a treasure was about to be unearthed, it was nonetheless an absolutely incredible experience to see the art of the truffle hunt. Like the loving dishes that are cooked from the truffles at Karlić, there is so much love and commitment poured into the dedicated hunt that provides the truffles as well.
On the drive back to Rovinj, there are a ton of delicious pit stops to be made, road signs with marked oil mills and wine cellars making it pretty easy to keep your stomach full. My favorites stops were an enlightening olive oil tasting at the renowned Ipša estate (for the past five years, Flos Olei, a prestigious Italian guide to the best in olive oils, ranked Ipša the second best extra-virgin olive oil in the world), a visit to the god father of the biggest white truffle in the Guinness World Records, Zigante Tartufi, to buy some local truffle honey, jams and spreads for gifts, and a fascinating wine tasting at the gorgeous Kozlovic winery in Buje, just 10 minutes from the picturesque fairytale-like streets of Grožnjan. Once you’ve hit all the essential pit stops, you will inevitably need to end the day with a satisfying dinner. Super close to Kozlovic, I loved stopping by Stari podrum for what was my biggest feast of the entire trip. Expect rustic generous portions of home cooked goodness like buttery potato rösti, creamy truffle pastas and local Istrian beef cooked to perfection by a loving mother and daughter duo.
Now, what are you waiting for, go check that truffle box off your bucket list.