January 15, 1999
From a bureaucratic point of view, truffles have the same value as everything else that grows in the woods: grass, ferns, moss, common mushrooms. But at least three thousand people and three to four times as many dogs wander around Istria's forests and meadows searching under thirty centimeters of soil for this gnarled tuberous fungus that costs about DM 4 per gram.
All attempts to mass produce Istrian sausages, prosciutto or even the famous fuzi have ended with poor results. Therefore, we recommend that you hurry up before the entire affair goes underground.
Motovun's forests are the largest habitat of truffles in Istria. In fact, until ten years ago, the majority of the truffles could have been found in the area that is today covered by a reservoir of drinking water Butoniga. Besides the Mirna River Valley, truffles can be found on the slopes of the Istrian side of Ucka Mountain and in the Labin region.
You can most easily find trufflehunters at the inn called Mirna during the morning hours. This shabby log-cabin is situated seven kilometers from Buzet on the road leading to Motovun. Our arrival disturbed them and soon, one by one, they started to depart for their cars. Many of them denied that they were truffle-hunters, although there were many tell-tale signs indicating that they had spent the previous night crawling into coppices or wading though the mud along the banks of the Mirna.
There was one more detail that gave them away: the rear windows of their cars were usually fogged up from the inside. On the back seats and even in the trunks, truffle-tracking dogs were panting in exhaustion. In Istria these special dogs are called breks (MC note: all Istrian dogs are called breks). It is quite difficult to describe a typical truffle-tracking brek. Mostly they are mongrels, or as the locals would say bastardici, usually crosses between various types of bird-dogs and hounds. Even though they are of impure blood, their owners would not sell them for even DM 20,000. Training a true brek for a truffle hunt is a very difficult job. Puppies begin obedience training at only two months and even then, only 20 percent of the dogs eventually understand what is really expected of them. Few breks die of old age because these animals are especially liable to various forms of tumors. The reasons for this have yet to be explained. It is assumed that main causes are stress and the extraordinary efforts to which truffle-tracking dogs are exposed.
The tradition of truffle-hunting in Istria does not go back very far. According to a few preserved documents, mainly from the archives of the one-time Italian occupation authorities, Istria and truffles were mentioned in this context for the first time in 1932. At that time, an Italian soldier from Alba, the most famous habitat of truffles, allegedly noticed some similarities between his native area and the Buzet region and the area surrounding Motovun. He correctly assumed that if he started digging for truffles, he would uncover some. After completing his military service, this soldier returned to the valley with dogs and that is how it all started.
Today truffles are a very profitable business in this part of Istria and one of its main sources of income, as well as the main reason why so many young people stay in this part of Istria. Nevertheless, many things in connection with truffles still remain unclear, undefined and even illegal. The Istrian truffle does not exist officially. On one hand, the government has not yet realized all of the things that can be done with this delicacy worth its weight in gold. If the government does awaken to this fact soon, truffle-hunters fear with good reason that such an awakening would be of a short-sighted and brutal form: hanging a tax collector onto the tail of each truffle-tracking brek.
From a bureaucratic point of view, truffles are worth the same as everything else that grows in the woods: grass, ferns, moss, common mushrooms. Several years ago the Society of Istrian Truffle-Hunters was formed, mainly with the aim to protect truffle-hunters from greedy illegal dealers who often reduce the purchase price of truffles by half in mid-season. About 500 truffle-hunters are registered as members and they have a formal right to dig for truffles legally. Despite this, it is assumed that at this moment at least three thousand people and three to four times as many dogs wander around Istria's forests and meadows searching under thirty centimeters of soil for this gnarled fungus that costs about DM 4 per gram. Another great difficulty for Istrian truffles are the Italians and French, who rule supreme on the world truffle market.
Well-informed people say that it is precisely the Istrian truffle, although gnarled, wrinkled and homely, which is the best in the world in terms of aroma and taste. Since a gram of truffles costs DM 4 in a restaurant in Milan for example, it is quite logical that Italian truffle merchants are trying to get a hold of as many of the Istrian truffles as possible, sending them to the world market under an Italian trademark.
It is also claimed, although not officially, that the lovely, shapely and rounded but less tasty truffles from Alba, Italy are mixed with the unattractive little Istrian ones to make them taste better. The smell of the Istrian truffle is so intense that if you leave a piece in the refrigerator for several hours, even eggs in a shell will absorb its fragrance. There is definitely a great deal of money involved in the truffle business. That's why truffle-hunters run away when they hear that journalists are coming. People do not like to talk too much about money, especially when it is counted and dealt under the table. There are always luxurious cars, with Italian or Slovenian plates, among the cars parked at the sites where truffle-hunters meet. They are, of course, dealers that pay truffle-hunters only a quarter of the retail price.
Truffles are carried out of Istria through well-organized smuggling channels because their export is prohibited, although there are no special laws that regulate their export as is the case with certain types of shellfish. It is probable that even customs officers at numerous local border crossings in Istria are involved in this trade. Carrying truffles across the border demands more than just the customs officer looking the other way; unless you shut them tight in a hermetically-sealed jar, he should also plug his nose firmly. The reason for such a high price and demand for truffles lies not only in the fact that they do not grow everywhere, or in their special taste, which may not be pleasant to everyone, but and this is well known also in their allegedly aphrodisiac properties. We were eating truffles for five days in Istria and... what can we say? Somehow everything seemed normal, we did not feel any unexpected or unpredictable drives.
It is also true that there are not many reasons for any significant excitement at Istrian spas. On the other hand, numerous cars with Italian plates indicated that our Latin neighbors do not doubt that a portion of the truffles will immediately transform them into raving satyrs. If we recall that many people are ready to eat the ground horn of a rhinoceros, the dried penis of a whale, the tail of a tiger and who knows what else to enhance their sexual drive and potency, the consumption of truffles for the same purpose seems politically and ethically (as well as erectically ) as the most correct.
Truffle-hunting season begins on October 1 and lasts for three months. At about the same time, weekend migrants from Istria's coast move to the inland parts of the peninsula. This pilgrimage lasts a little longer, until the last asparagus is picked by the end of June, and then the whole story continues back on the coast. In the meantime, along with truffles, there are forest mushrooms on the Istrian menu. Then comes the season of venison, while winter brings the scents and flavors of Istria's famous sausages, omboli, prosciutto, and at last asparagus. Istrian wines malmsey, Istrian teran and muscat are available throughout the year. As you leave Ucka behind and head towards Buzet or Pazin, the scenery that starts to unfold before your eyes makes the areas of Tuscany or the south of France seem quite commonplace. There is many a hill topped by a small fortified town, while villages are mainly in the valleys, or vale as the Istrians say. In other areas it is the other way around, but in Istria everything is possible.
Unfortunately, many small Istrian towns are abandoned nowadays, or they have few inhabitants. The only traces that people once lived there, quite uproariously as it seems, are faded graffiti from the times when Istria was still divided into Zone A and Zone B, in addition to the division into gray, black and red zones. In the remaining fragments one can still read Tito...Vogliamo fabbriche... Trieste e nostro... Viva communismo... As it is more and more fashionable among those who can afford it to have an authentic, renovated house in inner Istria, there is hope that a majority of these true pearls of unique medieval architectures will be preserved. The atmosphere in Istria is very cosmopolitan. Perhaps this is due to the bilingual signs all over the region that often create funny situations. For example, you pass may road sign for Gornja and Donja Gomila (Upper and Lower Crowd) beside which stands a sign reading Gomila superiore and Gomila inferiore. Zavrsje could, therefore, become Piemonte if you will. It is a nice cure for a provincialism complex, even though this is quite rare in Istria.
This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran and Gordon Bevanda