Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula is home to some of the most sought-after culinary ingredients in the world and at the top of the list is the white truffle. Istria’s olive oil has been repeatedly ranked among the tippy-top, and its wines, made from the malvazija, teran, and muskat grapes, pair excellently with the local Mediterranean cuisine (they are a good value, too, most ranging $10-$30.)
Giancarlo Zigante put Istria’s white truffles on the map when he found the world’s largest, weighing in at 2.88 lbs, in 1999. It had the appearance of, and was roughly the same size as, a human brain, and today, it remains the largest white truffle ever found. Instead of selling it abroad, he sold it locally, prompting truffle aficionados from around the globe to visit Istria.
The Zigante Truffle Days festival, which is free to attend, was bustling when I arrived on a Saturday. It typically runs every weekend in October and the first half of November. Artisans were selling liqueurs, cheeses, fresh porcini mushrooms, and other local, seasonal cooking ingredients in giant white tents; there were truffle-hunting demonstrations with dogs and planted truffles and steaming pots of white truffle–infused goulash. For just 20 kunas (roughly $3.60), you could have all the wine you could drink, and everyone walked around with a glass. Furiously fast chefs presented cooking demonstrations, and well-dressed announcers described preparation methods over blaring PA systems. They said things like “now he’s plating the pasta” and “now he’s shaving white truffle over the pasta.” Illuminating stuff. At the end, the chefs handed out free samples, and it took my breath away to see full servings of fresh white truffle and linguini given away with the carelessness of rock show fliers.
Over 1,500 truffle hunters are registered in Istria, and many sell their truffles at the festival, but the largest stands were reserved for Zigante truffles. The Zigante name appeared everywhere. I felt as though I were at a Disneyland for food lovers, the Zigante name standing in for Mickey Mouse. Instead of grabbing a plate, I waited for lunch: a four-course truffle tasting menu at Restaurant Zigante, which is located in the center of the festival grounds. The meal began with a crumbly black truffle and sheep cheese mousse served with a balsamic reduction, toasted pine nuts and almonds, and dried fruit. The waiter explained that to make a dish that focuses on fresh white truffle, you need to begin with a good base; potatoes, eggs, and pastas are the best.
The next dish was my favorite: a simple linguini with a light cream sauce, finished with shavings of white truffle. I told the waiter that I needed more photos just so that he’d continue to shave truffle onto my dish. I couldn’t help myself. The aroma was a powerful combination of mushroom, garlic, and almonds enveloped in je ne sais quoi. When I took a bite, the flavors eluded me, and the more I used my taste buds to capture them, the more elusive they became. The most satisfaction came through simply breathing in the scent of the dish, or lightly breathing in as I took a bite. The meal ended with one of Istria’s most famous truffle dishes: white truffle ice cream. The ice cream itself was too rich, reminding me of half-melted French vanilla ice cream. However, the white truffle flavor was exceptionally potent—so potent that the table was divided as to whether or not the dessert was any good. It wasn’t the most elegant, but it made me feel as though the elusive flavor was finally within my grasp.
Before leaving, I had to go truffle shopping (a friend and one-time chef at San Francisco’s Delfina wanted me to send him a fresh truffle), and I learned a few tips for buying white truffles. A small truffle, roughly the size of a ping-pong ball, would cost 25 euro. A truffle that size was enough for two-four plates of pasta. I couldn’t believe that the price was within my reach. Then came the bad news: it would stay fresh for a maximum of seven days. Herein lies the dilemma for truffle lovers. Truffles are seasonal, and you need to visit truffle-growing regions at the right time of year and be prepared to eat truffles on the spot. It’s a great excuse to rent an apartment and cook lavish truffle dinners, using Istria’s extra virgin olive oil and pairing it with a bottle of Teran wine.
In two weeks, I would visit the white truffle festival in Alba, Italy, the most famous place in the world for procuring white truffles. I couldn’t wait to compare the experiences. But now I was headed for Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, for the last day of the Gastro Croatia press trip.
Hotel Recommendation in Buzet (near the Zigante Truffle Festival):
Vela Vrata Hotel – $$-$$$
This place made me feel metropolitan cool, even in the country. Located in the hilltop town of Buzet, the small hotel comes with incredible views. Carefully decorated, the rooms combine country charm with highbrow interior design. The in-house restaurant serves traditional local dishes. Spa, Jacuzzi, and free WiFi.
Follow our own “Ravenous Traveler”, Mattie Bamman, as he eats his way through Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.
Written by and photos by Ravenous Traveler Mattie Bamman for EuropeUpClose.com