On our last full day in Croatia, we set off south from the hilltop town of Buzet to the heart of Istria to hunt for truffles.
Both black and prized white truffles are plentiful in the triangle between Pazin, Buje and Buzet, especially in the valley of the river Mirna and in the lush Motovun forest we’d passed.
I figured the hunt would be staged for tourists. Boy, was I wrong.
As our host Radmila Karlic showed off a massive platter of fresh hard black truffles, along with a few pricey white truffles she’d flash-frozen from last fall’s harvest, her son Ivan appeared with Blackie, one of eight trained dogs the family owns, to take our group and a few more visitors out to the woods.
We sauntered past a grove of 1,200 young oak trees purchased from nurseries in Italy and France. The roots of each tree were inoculated with truffle spores, and should start producing black truffles in 2016, a decade after planting.
You can already see a grass-free ring forming around the base of each tree, indicating that something is happening below ground.
A few steps more and we were in the woods, following a path through one of four “good” spots where the family finds black truffles year after year.
Ivan let go of Blackie’s leash and the seven-year-old terrier went to work, running back and forth through the damp leaves, head down, sniffing for truffles.
“Shu Shu,” Ivan called softly: “Go! Go!” while keeping a watchful eye on his favourite dog.
Suddenly, Blackie stopped and began digging furiously with his front paws. Ivan raced to his side – determined to get the truffle before the dog sank his teeth in it.
I suppose I expected the gnarled shroom to suddenly appear when the dog moved away. Wrong again! In fact, I couldn’t even see it at first. Ivan knelt down, face close to the ground, and began brushing the black dirt away with his finger like an archeologist unearthing a rare bone. Slowly a round black shape appeared, snuggled against the root that gave it nourishment.
Blacks grow closer to the surface than white truffles, so they’re easier to dig, Ivan said. The softer (and more fragrant) whites can grow between 4 inches (10 cm) and a metre deep, he said. They’re never found in the same place twice, and if they break while being dug up the price drops 50%.
For every 10 forays between September and the frost, he might find whites three times, he said.
Realizing he wasn’t getting any of his prize, Blackie turned away, bored. But he did perk up for a dog treat.
Now that we’d found our truffle, I figured the hunt was over. But Blackie had other ideas, and as we approached a slope near the edge of the woods, he again began madly pawing the ground.
Ivan ran and knelt down, shooing him away. As he began to dig, the pawing began again nearby. This dog was on a roll!
Before investigating the latest find, Ivan asked Cam to put her hand over the hole in case the dog returned for a snack. Stefani was pressed into service at another hole when Blackie again struck gold.
We returned to the house with four black truffles, ready for our truffle lunch.
Radmila set out a platter of truffle-infused cheese and salami, both made by neighbours, and another plate of crostini topped with truffle-infused cream cheese. An intense, earthy scent rose from the table and lingered in our mouths for hours.
While we snacked, she set to work in her outdoor kitchen whisking eggs with a little truffle-olive oil salsa and grating cleaned black truffles into a heap of black dust for the main event – scrambled eggs with truffles.
It was just a taste of the giant truffle omelet prepared every September in Buzet. According to tradition, an egg is cracked for every year AD, which means this year’s feast will require 2,013 eggs and 10 kg of truffles.
After lunch, we bid a fond farewell to Istria and headed back to the highway toward Zagreb (did I mention the highways here are all in excellent shape?). With the sun shining and the day warm, it seemed a shame to rush back, so we turned off at the exit to Skrad for one last adventure, a hike through the Devil’s Passage, or Vrajži prolaz, a narrow forested canyon
800 metres long.
I suppose we cheated by driving the van down to the start of the trial, near a power station, but it made the walk short and sweet. Up stone steps we walked, past slopes of wild onions, announcing their presence with a strong scent even before their lily-like leaves came into view.
Our guide led us to the entrance of a dark cave created, surely, when a giant moved the massive layered rock above it and replaced it on an angle. Beside it flowed a long skinny waterfall – you had to look way, way up to see where it began.
We returned to the power station and started up another path, which took us deep into the dark canyon filled with rushing water. Since my mountain-goat colleagues were once again far ahead – Cam sat this one out – I didn’t have to confess my fear of heights to anyone as I held tight to the metal railings on the bridges and navigated the metal steps without looking down. That didn’t work when I reached a wooden bridge, slimy from the constant dampness and missing the odd board.
On the way back through the forest, thick braided metal ropes pierced the rock to make the trail’s slippery bits manageable. We celebrated our final adventure in the park’s restaurant with a local specialty, blueberry strudel.
Returning to Zagreb was bittersweet. First we dropped off Mia, whose parents live in a lively town outside the capital. She offered to take us to a bakery to sample her town’s famous cream cake, but we were too full and tired to accept. Then we were four.
Once I’d settled into my beautiful room at the Hotel Dubrovnik, overlooking Zagreb’s main square, my plan to eat out at a nice restaurant down the street evaporated. The others were too tired and just wanted to pack and get to bed early. I didn’t feel like eating alone, and it was my last chance to talk to Cam, who was leaving early for Spokane.
Our adventure-filled week was quietly winding down.