Can Croatia steal Italy’s truffle crown?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
The Gannet loves a truffle hunt. At this time of year, the prize is Tuber magnatum pico, the Alba truffle, and thousands of dogs all over northern and central Italy will be eagerly pawing soil in search of these white diamonds. Success is far from guaranteed, but a bracing tramp through sun-dappled autumnal woodland is reward in itself. Philosophical golfers will know the feeling.
My most recent foray, however, was startlingly successful, and not in Italy: I was about 560km east of Piedmont, in the north of the beautiful Croatian province of Istria. The truffle hunter, from Karlic Tartufi, parked his car, unleashed the dogs and within a minute or so one of them was scrabbling furiously around a tree root.
The truffle that emerged was about two ounces with a dizzyingly strong aroma, at least until the euphoric truffle hunter squirrelled it away in his pocket. It was the gastronomic equivalent of a hole in one.
And so to lunch: hungry truffle hounds can do no better than to pull up a chair at Konoba Stari Podrum near the Slovenian border. Konoba is Croatian for inn or tavern: often in a rural location, with traditional decor and hearty local dishes, the konoba is the soul of Croatian hospitality, and Stari Podrum was no exception.
A plate of local charcuterie and cheese featured grilled wild mushrooms; then a silky pumpkin soup, scattered with pumpkin seeds and drizzled with local olive oil (every Istrian table is dressed with a bottle of good oil); then fuzi, Istrian diamond-shaped pasta, barely visible under a blizzard of shaved white truffle. And finally, an excellent steak, with more truffle, to fortify me for the short walk to a wine tasting at the lovely Kozlovic Winery.
At Konoba Astarea, a few miles southwest towards the Adriatic coast, there is warmth both in the welcome from owners Alma and Nino Kernjus and in the huge, homely hearth. The speciality is seafood: marinated shrimps tossed with lemon and rocket; scallops roasted in their shells, sweet and smoky; whole seabass baked over glowing embers with sliced potatoes; and cuttlefish risotto, al dente and jet-black. Save room for apple strudel, also cooked over the coals.
You should also head to Selo Mekisi, a vine-swathed farmhouse near the village of Filipi: truffles here are shaved over long, chewy quills of hand-rolled pljukanci pasta. They also serve terrific cured meats and sausages, and rib-sticking bowls of manestra, a soupy Istrian vegetable stew whose ingredients vary with the seasons: mine included beans and scraps of ham.
Istria still has a pleasingly undiscovered quality, as does its superb larder: the olive oil, cheese, charcuterie, bread and wine are all top-notch. And truffle lovers need not fret: these dogs are multiskilled. Come January, they will be unearthing black truffles instead.