Truffles and Donkey Milk
When we talk about truffles in Croatia, we’re not talking about little chocolates, but instead, small lumps of funghi that grow underground in symbiosis with the roots of hazelnut and oak trees. These “diamonds of the kitchen” can command hefty prices, up to $7,000 a kilo which is why they are so desirable. Buzet, in the peninsula of Israia in Croatia, is the self-described “City of Truffles” and subterranean fungi hotbed, where both black and white truffles are foraged in the woods. Olive oil, fruity and green, is produced here and wine grapes are pressed into an enticing nectar, mostly unknown outside of Croatia.
A Short History
Today, Istria is a proud part of Croatia. But, it wasn’t always that way. The Venetian Empire (Venice is just across the Adriatic Sea and reachable by a ferry ride from Rovinj in the summer) dominated Istria and much of present-day Croatia for 500 years. Istria was also a part of Italy between WWI and WWII. Fascist Italy forced the Italian language to be taught in schools, repressed expression of Croatian culture and punished intellectuals, professionals, and Croatian nationalists with exile or worse.
When Tito’s partisan forces pushed the Nazis out of what later became Yugoslavia (including Istria), the Italians were forced to leave. Estimates have up to 350,000 people, almost 85% of them ethnic Italians (mostly from Istria) fleeing Croatia between 1943 and 1960. Some were fearful of reprisals; others were scared of economic or political sanctions. And they were right to be frightened. Somewhere between 3,500 and 20,000 ethnic Italians were murdered in what was called the foibe massacres, gruesome killings where victims’ bodies were thrown in foibes (mine shafts or sinkholes). Some victims were even reportedly thrown into the foibe while still alive. While some of the victims of the foibe were supposedly members of the Italian Army, many were civilians.
After this, when Istria was part of Yugoslavia, it was relatively peaceful. Then, in 1991, Croatia declared in independence from Yugoslavia and a full-blown war erupted. 6,000 Croatian civilians were killed and 170,000 became refugees. Istria saw no fighting during the war, but thousands of refugees from Bosnia and the hinterland border with Serbia poured into the region.
Today, small populations of Serbs, Bosniaks, and Albanians live with the Croat majority. And, 6% of the population is ethnic Italian, while one in six Istrians speak Italian (which is an officially recognized language.)
Even though Italians are no longer the majority in Istria, their influence is still strongly felt. In fact, many people, when speaking about Istria, compare it to Tuscany forty years ago. This comparison, while far from perfect, is apt in some ways.
For example, Istria is a fledgling wine producing region; much like Tuscany in the 70’s when it was mostly known for cheap Chianti. Istria is also a great producer of olive oil. Trees on the peninsula hang heavy in the fall with ripe fruit which is pressed into a peppery, green and fruity liquid.
Then, there are the truffles. While Tuscany might be ahead of Istria in wine and olive oil production, Istria is in a class of its own for truffles. The Mirna River valley and Motovun forest are renowned for growing black truffles and the rare and exquisite white truffle.
We arrived in Buzet, a 2 ½ hour drive from the capital Zagreb, ready for lunch. With no plan, we drove down the main street looking for a place to eat. Then, we spotted a field with a huge tent in the middle, surrounded by cars. As I drove past, we spot the unmistakable signs that read “Tartufi.” Truffles! I make a quick U-turn and we pull into the grass parking lot.
For an admission of about $5 we are given a wine glass and a cloth wine glass holder to wear around our neck. Inside, traditional Croatian music is playing and the unmistakable scent of truffles fills the air.
Zigante Truffle Days takes place over several weekends in the fall in the nearby town of Livade. The highlight is the marketplace where rare and expensive white truffle specimens are displayed and sold.
The hilltop town of Motuvun adds Teran wine to their truffle celebration in October.
But this is November, so we’re here for the “Truffle Weekend.” Aisles of tables are set up with displays of all things truffle. There are truffles for sale, but also truffle honey, truffle candy, truffle cheese, truffle pasta, and truffle paste.
In the back, workers in a small, open-air kitchen are assembling plates of fresh-cooked ravioli, topped with cream sauce and black truffles. For the price of a glass of wine in most major American cities, you can enjoy the earthy, garlicky, mushroomy, damp leaves scent of one of the rarest foods on the planet.
And, of course, there’s the wine. We were given a wine glass, after all. Wines from all over Istria and greater Croatia are sampled and sampled and sampled some more.
Then, I see him. The donkey milk guy. He’s selling donkey milk. And yes, there are samples. I hang back and wait for others to try, but he’s not doing a lot of business. Then, I circle the tent again, try some more truffle cheese and Teran wine, and end up back at the donkey milk table. He waves me closer and I’m drawn in by the irresistible pull of donkey’s milk. It’s then that I find out that isn’t just donkey milk. It’s donkey milk with the local firewater; rakija. He offers me a glass and I reluctantly take a sip. The milk is sweet with the unmistakable burn of white lightening. Dairy and alcohol. Maybe this is an Istrian version of the White Russian, or Bailey’s. Surely, I don’t know, but I want to meet the lunatic/genius who first concocted this beverage.
Of course, everything on display at the Truffle Weekend is for sale, including donkey milk and firewater. But, you probably don’t want to buy a fresh truffle unless your wallet is flush and you’re planning on eating it that day. Truffles lose their aroma, and thus their appeal, a couple days after harvest. And, you don’t cook with them per se, you shave them over buttered pasta or risotto oscrambled eggs to release their intoxicating aroma.
Instead, truffle novices should buy them in a form that allows them to be stored. Cheeses with specks of truffle are good. The flavor of the truffle permeates the dairy in the cheese, preserving the flavor. Truffle pastes are good, too. Blend with olive oil to make a pasta sauce. Truffles also infuse honey with a wonderful, musky flavor.
Not everyone loves truffles. Sweaty socks and an unventilated locker room are a few of the not-so-flattering descriptions of truffles that I’ve heard. An acquired taste to be sure.
My novel about truffles and Istria!
I, on the other hand, love truffles, especially the rare white truffles foraged in Istria. So much so, that these magical little lumps of fungus inspired me to write a novel “Truffle Hunt.”
If you don’t make it to Istria for one of the truffle festival events, buy your truffle products at one of the dozens of stores selling them year round. Zigante Tartufi is probably the best known. Giancarlo Zigante and his dog Diana found the world’s largest white truffle in 1999. Mr. Zigante became world famous and now has six shops, a restaurant, and is heavily involved in the annual truffle fest.
Make sure truffles are part of your dining out experience as well (as long as you’re visiting when they’re in season). Look for a sign that says “Tartufi,” or just ask. Most self-respecting restaurants in Istria will include truffle items on the menu during truffle season. In fact, one of our best meals in Istria was at a hole-in-the-wall place in Buzet you probably wouldn’t give a second glance. But, we were starving, so we went inside. The place was empty and the only person inside was sitting behind the cash register reading a book. She was so disinterested in us that I had to ask of they were open (“Aperti?” Luckily, she spoke Italian). We ended up having a memorable meal of pasta with fresh truffles, grilled vegetables, and local wine for about the cost of dining at Applebee’s.
Hill Town Day Trips
I think that the thing that best links Isria and Tuscany is the hill towns. You might’ve heard of Montepulciano or San Gimignano or Volterra in Tuscany, but you’ve likely never heard of Motovun, Grožnjan, or Hum in Istria.
And you’ve certainly never heard of Momjam, a village that’s not much more than a rise in the road dotted with olive groves and vineyards. Agroturizam San Mauro is supposedly run by the Sinkovic family, but Gigi, a retired 300 pound truffle hunting pig, is really in charge. The beds aren’t the most comfortable, but the hospitality is unrivaled. There’s a small bar in front where locals drop by for a glass of the Sinkovic wine. They make their own Rakija (Croatian firewater), too! Highly recommended.
Motovun has some of the nicest views in all of Istria. Perched on a hill, the town is car-free, so park in the lot below and hike up. Around every corner is another delight. Walk the city walls for views of the rolling countryside. Motovun is a good place to stop for lunch. Several well-regarded restaurants as well as mom and pop places have truffles on the menu. Pod Voltom, Konobo Mondo, and Pod Napun are some of the best, but if you’re looking for a splurge, visit Restaurant Zigante, just outside Motovun in Livade. This is ground zero for pilgrims as Giancarlo Zigante is the owner of the restaurant as well as several truffle shops in the area. He’s probably most famous for finding the world’s largest white truffle (over three pounds!) with his trusty truffle hound Diana, in 1999.
If you think tromping around in the Motovun forest is your idea of a good time, you can book a truffle hunt at Miro Tartufi in Motovun. If not, a visit to their store is quite fun as well. They sell truffle oil, truffle cheese, truffle sausage, everything truffle your heart desires.
Speaking of truffle hunting adventures, you can also book a tour with Karlic Tartufi, just outside Buzet. If you go on a truffle adventure with them, expect two hours of good fun and a nice meal with truffles. The Karlić family also trains truffle dogs. One of the highlights is meeting all their dogs.
Grožnjan, less than a half hour’s drive from Motovun, is a tiny hill town populated with artists. Art galleries abound and many studios are open to the public. In fact, if you wander the streets of Grožnjan, you’ll see artists working with their doors open. However, if you visit in the off-season, many of the studios are closed or only open on the weekend. Grožnjan is a great place to practice your Italian. Over half of the residents are speakers of the language.
Tiny Hum has only 21 residents. It’s so small that it’s not officially a town at all, but a part of Buzet. Still, Hum bills itself as the “World’s Smallest Town.” It’s an ingenious marketing ploy; while everyone else is bragging about how big their city is or how much it’s expanding, miniscule Hum continues to clock in at under two dozen inhabitants. If you’re looking for sites, there’s not many. The church has some writings from 12th century showing an early Croatian language. There’s one restaurant, Humska konoba, and one place to stay, Apartment Dores. But, don’t let Hum’s size dissuade you from a visit. Wandering the cobbled streets and commemorating the visit with a selfie are reason enough to see this gem.
Croatia is simultaneously a young and old country. The Kingdom of Croatia came into being in the 10th century. But that was short lived and Croatia was never truly independent until 1991, when it broke away from Yugoslavia.
During the Communist years, Croatian wine was plonk. Large cooperatives focused on massive production of grapes. But today, Croatian wine has improved greatly and some wineries are legitimately competing on the world stage.
Malvazija, commonly known as Malvasia, is the most popular white variety in Istria. Istrians often drink it by mixing it with sparkling water.
Teran, a red grape, is grown widely in Istria. It is a heavily tannic wine that should be drunk young (less than two years old). I find Teran to be rustic, but enjoyable. However, I always enjoy Teran with food; it can be overpowering by itself. Istrians must think so as well as many of them will pour a bit of water in their glass of Teran to dilute it.
Renting a car is a must for the hill towns of Istria. Bus service is spotty, at best.
Direct flights from many cities on the continent, the UK, Russia and the Ukraine. Some flights are seasonal.
From the Pula Airport it is best to rent a car to the hill towns of Istria. You could also take an expensive taxi or Uber ride. Bus and train service is almost non existent.
Direct flights from many cities on the continent, the UK, Russia, the Middle East, Korea, and seasonally, Canada.
It’s about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Zagreb to Istria. Renting a car is your best option. The bus takes about twice as long, connects through Rijeka, and only runs once a day.
Index of Things to Do in Istria
Events run from the beginning of September to the beginning of November
Book truffle hunts with this family owned truffle business. They train their own dogs.
Tour the distillery and try the different brandies and rakija made onsite.
Takes place every July and features interesting independent movies.
Town of Motovun
Great spot for a daytrip. Quaint village with great views of the countryside.
Town of Hum
The self-proclaimed tiniest village in the world. Peaceful and beautiful.
Town of Grožnjan
Artist colony hill town with lots of galleries and artist workshops.
Index of Food & Drink in Istria
Splurge restaurant owned by famous truffle hunter Giancarlo Zigante in Livade.
Restaurant in Motovun recommended by Anthony Bordain.
Truffles, when in season, are on the menu.
Excellent local Istrian food. Cash only. Hours vary.
Authentic Istrian food in the tiny village of Hum. Local red and white wine by the carafe.
Rustic food served in a converted farm building with stone walls and exposed beams. Cash only.
Index of Shopping in Istria
Several truffle shops around Istria with truffle products
Truffle shop in Motovun. Will also book truffle hunt excursions.
Olive oil and wine tasting.
Honey producer where you can taste a wide variety of honeys and see how the bees are kept.
Index of Places to Stay in Istria
In tiny Momjam, a lovely place to stay. They made their own wine and rakija and have a small bar and an excellent restaurant.
Scenic hilltop location with a good restaurant whose menu features truffles in season.
Prime location at the top of the hill in Motovun.
Great location in Buzet
Larger hotel in Buzet.
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink, including in-depth eating and drinking guides to including the Rovinj and Ljubljana, Slovenia. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.