We’ve parked the car by the river and we can hear the dogs barking in the forest. We’re on the outskirts of Livade village, we’re changing into the other pair of shoes and are ready to enter the muddy forest to go on a truffle hunt.
Although visiting Croatia in October may not be the most common but we were attracted by the Istrian specialities - wine, olives and truffles, whose main season is since September till the end of the year. The truffles grow in the woods around Motovun and the surrounding villages which is where most of the truffle hunts start and you also get countless possibilities to enjoy this delicacy in the local restaurants.
Anyway, we enter the forest with the hunter and his two dogs, Stela and Lola to look for truffles near Livade, a village we saw from the walls of Motovun and we’re about to go on an hour-long hunt during which we can’t help but find similarities with mushroom picking. But to pick mushrooms you need a few pieces of good advice from experienced mushroom pickers, a basket, a knife and a sharp vision. For truffle hunting, you need much more though, a well-trained dog.
The truffle hunter training starts when the puppy is approx. 3 months old. At first, they get pieces of truffles to pick from the ground to get used to their smell and taste and the training is purely a game for them. Later on some “training truffles” are buried in the ground for the dogs to find them and the last part of the training includes joining the experienced dogs in the forest to learn from them. It can take up to 4 years to train a good truffle hunter and the dogs become indispensable partners for their owners.
We can see how the dogs are trained when we observe Stela who is 3 years old work with her mum, Lola. Ivica, who is our guide, keeps an eye on both of them, gives out orders and when Lola gets excited and starts digging under the roots of a walnut tree, he quickly calls Stella who comes running to learn and dig with her mum. However, Ivica has to be fast and stop the dogs at the right time, otherwise, the truffle might end up as a dog treat.
Ivica has a small flat shovel to dig the truffles from the ground and when he holds the first black truffle of our hunt in his hand, the satisfied dogs get a reward. Ivica throws the treat on the ground so the dogs keep in mind that they have to look on the ground for food.
Ivica puts the truffle in a bag and we get going again. Not even after 5 meters Stela smells a truffle. We’re lucky, this time it’s the rare white truffle and we go through the same process again. Ivica slightly brushes off each truffle since the miniature particles that fall on the ground could be the ones that will become a truffle one day. For the same reason, he puts the clay back and steps on it so that the truffle can grow again.
Our hour quickly comes to an end and we’re near the spot we started from. Ivica shares a few more interesting facts with us and we learn that he prefers to go truffle hunting at night when the dogs can focus better and that one hunt can be six to twelve hours long. Which is why it’s so important the dogs have fun, get rewarded for their finds and are generally at ease since they are the most important part of this process and without them, there would be no truffles in Ivica’s bag.
He also explains why they don’t use wild boar for truffle hunting. They are forbidden in Croatia since when they look for truffles they also ruin the soil around them and are very hard to stop from digging (it is generally easier to stop a twenty-kilo dog from digging than a hundred-kilo wild boar).
As the time in the forest comes to an end we’re getting more excited about the next part of our program. We went truffle hunting with the Zigante restaurant which is literally the kingdom of truffles. It has also been in the Micheline guide for the past couple of years so we changed into shoes that were mud-free and got ready to continue with our truffle day.
Restaurant Zigante focuses on truffle specialities (and was the first Croatian restaurant to open with this concept) where else to see what truffles are about.
You can choose either a tasting menu with black or/and white truffle (but be aware that for a Gold tasting menu with white truffle you will have to pay an accordingly exclusive price) or a la carte which is what we ended up choosing since we saw a few favourites we would like to try. However, I would not recommend reading the following part if hungry, better grab a snack.
We had beefsteak carpaccio and beef steak with black truffle, homemade pasta with white truffle and finished the feast with truffle ice-cream. We also got to taste a truffle paste and as a surprising “meal between meals” polenta, of course with truffle (although polenta is not my first choice when ordering food, Zigante changed my mind)
I won’t offend the work of food critics and try to describe how great each course was but it really was a special experience. I was looking forward to ordering the pasta ever since I saw it on the menu online and I kept thinking about how good it would taste but together with the best service ever, a glass of bubbly and a very cosy atmosphere it was even better than I could ever imagine.
There are many different opportunities to go truffle hunting and you might find many positive reviews of e.g. Karlič Tartufi, Miro Tartufi, Prodan Tartufi… the prices for a truffle hunt vary but I would suggest looking at the Zigante Restaurant website, during “Truffle Days” in October and November you might find they offer a truffle hunt for 50 kuna which we think is more than fair and it isn’t even necessary to book a room or a table (but we did anyway and I would highly recommend it because all you want to do after seeing how truffles are found is to taste them).