A whiff of white goldNovember 15, 2003
It is 7.30 on a misty autumn morning 50 miles from Trieste, and the first rays of sunlight are sneaking through spindly trees. To five yawning Brits, they are a cheering sight: after tramping through a freezing forest for an hour, we were beginning to wonder if we should have stayed in bed.
It is all the fault of Tuber magnatum Pico. To foodies, the white truffle, both stronger and more subtle than its black sibling, is tantamount to the Holy Grail. And not much easier to find.
This extraordinary fungus occurs in very few places - Italy, Oregon, China, New Zealand, and Istria in northern Croatia, where we are today. The white truffle is entirely wild; no attempt at cultivation has succeeded. Because it grows underground, in symbiosis with the roots of certain trees (oaks, willows, poplars), the only way to find a truffle is to sniff it out. The scent is undetectable to the human nose, so trained dogs or pigs are used.
Our truffle hunter, Sandro Toncic, a 23-year-old with sloping cheekbones and a small spade slung over his back, strides through the woods at a cracking pace.
He doesn't use pigs because they are inclined to eat any truffles they find. His three mixed-breed truffle hounds bound in circles, tails in the air, noses to the ground.
The bitches, Boa and Lara, sniff every tree; the dog, Tali, mostly sniffs Boa and Lara (evidence, perhaps, of the truffle's aphrodisiac powers). Now and again, the dogs scrabble at the earth.
Sandro digs, too, and for a second there is that distinct whiff of farmyard, rotting leaves and musk. But the hard white clay yields nothing. In three hours we find not a single truffle.
White truffles are tantalisingly scarce this year. The scorching summer impeded their growth and the hard ground holds back their scent. Even in an abundant year, truffles cost more than their weight in gold; this season the top price has tripled to more than £1,000 a pound.
In Livade, the truffle capital of Istria, there is a food festival and we finally get to see and smell some truffles fresh from the earth. As small as cherries or as big as baked potatoes, they are bumpy, gnarled and not strictly white.
The flesh is pinkish-brown with white veins and, when sliced, looks like paper-thin salami. Warmed up by scrambled eggs, even a few slivers are overpowering: earthy, aromatic, almost off. They are delicious, verging on disgusting.
The quality of the Istrian white truffle is just as high as the famous Alba truffle of Piedmont, but its profile is lower. Communist Yugoslavia forbade free trade in truffles, which led to a black market. To this day, many Istrian truffles end up in Italy, where they can easily be passed off as local produce.
The taste is indistinguishable, and the problem of the knobbly surface is reputedly fixed by a quick wash and scrub with yellow sand.
What put the Istrian truffle on the map was the discovery, in 1999, of a tuber weighing a colossal 1.3 kg (2.9lb), by Giancarlo Zigante, the owner of Istria's leading truffle company. About the size of a Christmas turkey, it went into the Guinness Book of Records and was eaten at a feast by 120 people who bought shares in it.
Istrian truffles are now available in Britain, thanks to Jasper Jacob of the Istrian Truffle Company. As well as working as a museum designer, he supplies restaurants with fresh truffles. He also sells bottled products such as tartufata, a sauce of chopped truffles, mushrooms and olives.
"The idea is that we get the orders in by Wednesday," says Jacob. "We get the truffles dug up that night or the following morning. We wrap them in that day's newspaper to prove their provenance, and fly them to London."
With fresh truffles on the menu at Carluccio's and Locanda Locatelli restaurants (where last year a couple who queried the £60 charged for their spaghetti ai tartufi were locked in until they paid the bill), the demand should be high. Especially when the Istrian truffle costs £2,800 a kilogram (£1,250 a pound) - as opposed to the £4,100 quoted at Carluccio's shop in Covent Garden.
For the price of a bowl of spag truff in a swanky restaurant, the true truffle enthusiast could fly to Trieste, drive for an hour through Slovenia into Croatia, and spend the weekend tripping out on truffle. Until January 31, you won't be offered much else.
As we feasted on the fifth all-truffle meal of the weekend with a swig of mistletoe grappa at Zigante's restaurant in Livade, it dawned on me that the bulbous fungus is not a food but a flavour. Yes, pronounced one of our party: "It's more about nose than palate." Perhaps we should just have scratched and sniffed.
Croatian truffles are available mail order from the Istrian Truffle Company (020 7622 7277) and cost from £129.50 for 50g (enough to shave over risotto, pasta or scrambled eggs for four).
November 15, 2003; Last updated:
Wednesday, September 14, 2016