For the normal man, September is the start of football season. For Don Day, September is the start of truffle season.
As I write this, I am not in front of my 60-inch Samsung, checking my fantasy league performance; I am in the heart of truffle country hoping to fulfill another fantasy. I am in Motovun. No, that’s not in Piedmont, Italy. Nor is it in Perigord, France. Motovun is in Istria, Croatia. And it may just be the home of the best truffles in the world.
I don’t think there is any other animal, vegetable or mineral that perches on a higher rung of the foodie ladder than the truffle but, before I describe its phenomenal taste, let me make sure that you realize that I am not talking about the delightful chocolate truffle (which also sits sky-high on the culinary scale) but the ugly, lump-of-fungus truffle. The one that grows around the roots of trees, usually oaks. The one that is hunted by dogs. The one that looks like a dog may have actually deposited it in the forest.
Oh and yes, I promised to describe the taste of a truffle. OK. Those who wear white lab coats tell us we taste with our nose and a truffle smells like…well…pipe tobacco, chocolate cake, dirty socks, wet hay, potato skins, smoked trout…OK, the taste of truffles is indescribable. But extraordinarily, extraordinarily, extraordinarily (have I used the word too much yet?) good.
People first categorize truffles in simple terms by just dividing them into black and white. Then it gets a little more complicated.
Depending on the time of the year, I might find and enjoy four different truffles in Istria. But, unless you’re the kind of person who does Miami in August, it would be kind of unusual to holiday in Istria at any other time than Summer or Fall. So all I really need to know about and find are two kinds of truffles, one black and one white. Though I was never good at Latin or botany, their scientific names are about the only handles that are particularly good for differentiating them.
Tuber Aestivium, the summer truffle, is the local Istrian black truffle and I have already met a woman selling them in the market. Fortunately for me, Summer truffles are available from May through til the end of October. They are quite large, measuring usually between one to two inches in diameter but sometimes they’re as big as a heavyweight’s fist. Plus, they’re reasonably plentiful. The black summer truffles are not as aromatic as the white truffle I’ve come all the way to Istria for but the good part is they’re a little easier on the wallet.
Then there are those white truffles. There’s just one white truffle in Istria, the Tuber Magnatum Pico. This truffle is exactly the same as the one found in Alba, in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy and on many of the menus of restaurants recommended by a certain tire manufacturer.
Tuber Magnatum Pico has the most intense aroma of any truffle. Unless you have two first names like Jean-Pierre or Jacques-Louis and pledge allegiance to a black truffle found in Perigord, France, you will probably consider the Tuber Magnatum Pico to be the most treasured of all truffles. And no matter what you think of it, you will pay dearly for it. The white Magnatum Pico is one of the most expensive foods in the world.
Today is September 15 in Istria and, according to the guidebooks, the white truffle season in Istria begins in mid-September. Let’s see, thirty days hath September, now divide by two.
Motovun is a medieval hilltop village about 40 km from the Adriatic Coast. Almost hidden today behind low-hanging clouds lies the dense Motovun forest and through the oak forest runs the Mirna River. It’s a place that truffles love to call home, sweet home. Motovun has but one other claim to fame. Mario Andretti was born here. I wonder if the supposed aphrodisiac properties of truffles had an influence on his creation.
Now why would a guy pay $800 to sit for eight hours in basic economy (that’s below premium economy and regular economy in the latest airline lingo) with his knees far closer to his chest than they were ever intended to be? Like I said, truffles are expensive. And if you want to experience truffles at their peak, they must be fresh, very fresh, something Don Day, though well into his eighth decade, had never quite experienced.
They say a truffle loses half of its flavor in about ten days. In three weeks, they are almost tasteless. In Motovun, I hope that I am guaranteed, for the first time in my life, to taste a just freshly dug from the ground white truffle.
Motovun has a population of 532. There is one hotel in town and, like most hotels in every remote part of the universe, it is not just a hotel but a spa. It advertises truffles but I think the emphasis may be more on mani and pedi rather than a fungi.
There are a few legendary truffle hunters in Motuvun. Today I’m with Miro Novi. They say Miro’s dogs are two of the very best at nosing their way under the roots of not just oaks but willows and hazels and pines and detecting that undescribable but unmistakable aroma of truffles. There is an extra incentive for me having a Field & Stream morning. Miro’s wife Mirjana is a chef, a very good chef, and she has promised me, “I will prepare truffle scrambled eggs right in front of you with the truffles you have found that day”.
Upon hearing about the post-hunt feast, Don Day’s Wife even decided to forego the hydra-jet pool and join the party (though it did require the purchase of not one but two pairs of sensible shoes). Now all we had to do was unearth one of those nuggets.
“What’s the chance of finding a white?”, I asked Miro.
“A good chance we’ll find black and white”, said Miro, “but I can’t guarantee it. It all depends on the weather…how much rain we’ve had and when.”
Truffles don’t share the same long history in Croatia as they do in Italy and France. They were, of course, always there, but remained undiscovered until less than a hundred years ago. Until around thirty years ago, virtually all of the white truffles ended up with Italian resellers who often neglected to share the providence of their merchandise. There was no way to tell the difference between an imported Istrian white truffle from Croatia and a domestic Italian white truffle from Piedmont.
Then, after the break-up of Yugoslavia and the emergence of an independent Croatia, the Adriatic coast became a tourist destination and Istria, more specifically, a gastronomic destination. There was now a local market for truffles. Foragers began marketing their skills, retail specialty shops opened, and restaurants like Mondo, where we’re planning to dine this evening, loaded their menus with truffle dishes.
There was one more thing that helped put Istria on the truffle map. Istria crowned a world truffle king. A local called Giancarlo Zigante became the owner of the Guinness Book record for the biggest truffle in history. He foraged a 1.310 kilogram white truffle.
“We had the biggest at the truffle festival, one year”, said Miro. “789 grams. I sold it in Alba for 3,500 Euros. It ended up in an American restaurant. I’d like to know what they paid.”
We were now up on the hill above Miro and Mirjana’s home where they have about 100,000 square meters of forest. The view of Motovun is spectacular. But Bella, a six-year-old beagle/spaniel cross and Nera a four-month-old black lab in training have seen it before. They are busy zigzagging between the pines and the hazels, sniffing and snorting, knowing that there is a piece of bread in Miro’s pocket that will be theirs if they can locate a truffle.
Suddenly, Bella’s paws are scratching frantically at the base of an old hazel. Miro falls to his knees beside her and tries to pull her back. He scrapes back the grass and starts prodding with his digging tool while Bella tries to nose her way into his pocket where she knows her reward is tucked away. Then Miro claws deeper into the rich black soil and lifts out the gem. A black one, a summer truffle, a Tuber Aestivum. Small but still worthwhile. Lunch will be served today.
I’m amazed at the ability of the dogs to sniff out something four, maybe five inches deep in the ground.
“Their sense of smell is 8,000 times better than a human”, Miro tells me.
The next truffle, another black, gets Nera a reward. It resembles the lab’s nose only a little larger. As does a third black summer truffle.
We trek on down the hill and twist up a less beaten path. I’m getting a little antsy about finding a white. But Bella’s digging again. This time under a pine. Nera’s at it too and Miro’s trying to grab her by the scruff of her neck.
“It could be gone in one gulp if I didn’t stop her”, says Miro. “Even with a little damage to the truffle, the value could be reduced by two thirds.”
“Here it is. A white. A Magnatum Pico. Smell it”, said Miro as he held a not-even-golf-ball size chunk to Don Day’s Wife’s nose. “I think the truffles you find under pines have the best aroma of all.”
“And how will the taste be?”, I ask.
“I don’t think you’ll ever find out. It’s not really big enough for eating”, replies the forager. “I’ll use it to keep training, Nera.”
Mirjana had her omelette pan out when we returned to the Novi’s home.
“After 30 years of practice, I have learned that the best eggs are cooked in both olive oil and butter” explains Mirjana. “Your black truffles will be best when grated. The flavor intensifies when they are in the sauce.
Though Mirjana’s English is a thousand times better than my Hrvatski, I’m not sure exactly what she tells me next but, roughly translated, I think it might be, “We grate for taste. We shave for show.”
The omelette is just one of six small courses, all with truffles, the finale being a chocolate cake with vanilla cream and the last shavings of our hunt.
“I knew there would be more food”, said Don Day’s Wife. “There’s always more food in Istria.”
There’s a blackboard outside Konoba Mondo when we arrive that evening. It reads, in English, “Homemade Pasta with Fresh Truffles”. Klaudio Ivasic knows how to hustle. He’s taken Mondo from a little coffee bar to the region’s most successful taverna over the last 20 years. But that sign just says truffles, there are no Latin words, no mention of what color they are.
“Do you have white truffles?”, I ask the waiter.
“We will”, says our server.
“Is Klaudio here?”, I ask.
“He will be”, he replies.
I order a carpaccio with black truffles. A generous helping of the brainlike shavings goes on top but it’s a little lost in the rich flavor of the beef. I see what Mirjana Novi meant when she talks about the flavor being enhanced when it’s “cooked in” instead of raw.
A car pulls up beside the terrace of Konoba Mondo. The window glides down and a brown paper bag is handed to the waiter. A couple of minutes later Klaudio Ivasic walks down from the parking lot.
“Sorry, I’m late. Sorry I’m not dressed a little better”, he says. “I had a bicycle race today.”
“And so you didn’t go truffle hunting?” I inquire.
“Yes, I went earlier this morning”, says Klaudio.
“And white ones, you found some Magnatum Picos?”
“Nothing. I found nothing”, he says as he watches my eyelids fall and my beard disappear into my shirt.
“But my cousin did. With my mother’s dogs. My mother is the best trainer anywhere. Anywhere.”
“And that’s what was in the mysterious hand-off I saw?”, I ask.
“Yes, some white ones, wonderfully fresh white truffles,” says Klaudio with a mischievous grin.
Klaudio heads off to the kitchen and returns with a soup bowl filled with his mounds of joy. I discover the flesh of a white truffle, isn’t really white, maybe off-white, but more of a cream or beige. He teasingly, brings it closer and closer to my nostrils.
“This is it”, I say to Don Day’s Wife. “This is the moment we came to Croatia for”, as she takes her turn inhaling the aggressive and intoxicating aroma.
“We are now ready for your pasta with white truffles, with Tuber Magnatum magnificum”, I said to our genial host, “and we’ll be counting every second until it arrives.”
“May I just take a few more seconds to make one suggestion”, said Klaudio. “The two best ways to savor Istrian white truffles are with pasta and with polenta. I am more proud of my kitchen’s polenta than anything else. May I serve you a portion of each?”
You know my answer. And you now know why I will now be the great white hunter (in restaurants) for the rest of my life.