Some of my favorite days in Croatia were those spent along the Istrian coast. It’s wonderfully beautiful and there are ample cute towns, delicious dining, wineries, olive oil farms, and more to explore. But one of my favorite things we did while we were there – is truffle hunting.
You’ve likely enjoyed truffle oil fries or a truffle shaving on your meal at a gourmet restaurant. But you might be wondering – What exactly ARE truffles?
Well truffles are a fungi (in the same family as mushrooms, but they aren’t mushrooms) and they are usually found near tree roots, and only in certain particular climates around the world. There are two types – black truffles & white – with the latter being the more “premium” of the two as it’s more difficult to find. Black truffles are traditionally found in France, Spain, Italy, Croatia & Slovenia. But have been grown in other parts of the world such as Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Northwest of the USA as well. White truffles are only found in Italy & Croatia.
You also might be wonderful – WHY are truffles so expensive? Well first off, they are hard to find, and secondly, they are tough to harvest. Farms in Australia & the US have made attempts to grow them – although the results haven’t always been super successful. So the main way they are collected is through truffle hunters – a team of trained dogs or pigs and a human owner.
Truffles have a very pungent smell (which is the key to their taste!) – so much so that animals can pick up their scent even as they lie underground. Dogs have a sense of smell that is 100,000 times more powerful than ours (wild right?!). And pigs sense of smell is even stronger. Once the truffle has been sniffed out, the animal will alert the hunter and the hunter can dig it out.
Dogs are used more frequently these days since they are easier to train and stop from eating the truffle once it’s found!
FUN [weird] FACT – truffles produce a compound that is similar to the most prominent sex pheromone for pigs….so when pigs get a whiff, it can be hard to control them as they literally LUST after the truffles. Dogs on the other hand, are a little easier to stop from devouring the truffles LOL.
I had (incorrectly) assumed truffles were mushrooms my whole life, and I hate mushrooms. It wasn’t until this Croatia trip that I actually looked up truffles – and confirmed that they were simply another fungi, and not actually the same classification as mushrooms. However, my traveling partner, Nadia, LOVES truffles. So when we arrived in Istria and she learned about an opportunity to go truffle hunting, it become a top priority.
I looked up a couple companies offering truffle hunting in Istria, and ultimately decided to go with Nikola Tarandek. He has awesome reviews on TripAdvisor – check them out HERE.
We rented a car for our last few days in Istria in order to have more freedom & flexibility to explore. Which I highly, highly recommend. The countryside is beautiful and there are places that are too difficult to get to relying on Uber. It took us about an hour to get from Pula to Motovun, where we were meeting Nikola for our truffle hunting experience.
We arranged to meet at an intersection of the small town area and when Nikola arrived, he flagged us and told us to follow him in our car. So we drive a few minutes down the road and then eventually parked. As we were driving behind him, the three of us (Nadia, another friend Kristina, and myself) were wondering where the dogs were — as we couldn’t see them in Nikola’s compact car. Dang, I hope I hadn’t misunderstood and we weren’t actually hunting WITH dogs.
But as soon as Nikola parked, he opened the trunk of that tiny little car and out popped THREE dogs. Our mouths were all gaping. 1) I didn’t realize you could put dogs in the trunk of a car….I always grew up thinking you would die if you got stuck in the trunk of a car (or maybe that’s just what my parents taught me to avoid us playing hide & seek in there)…. and 2) how did they all fit?!
We hopped out and introduced ourselves to Nikola and the pack of pups. It was a rainy day, so Nikola provided us with rain gear and boots (good news because all I had were white sneakers!). And off we were to seek for truffles!
As we walked through the forest, Nikola explained how he trained the dogs by putting truffles in their milk when they were young. This helps them view the fungi as a delectable treat early in life so that they will want to seek out.
In spite of the mud, the forest was lovely. Being September, the leaves on the trees had changed to pleasant fall colors and the morning light was slipping in to give it a majestic and mysterious feel. The dogs would run ahead and then run back to – careful not to get too far ahead. Nikola talked to them constantly.
Although all the dogs were quite young (1-2 years), it was clear that one of them was the most experienced in truffle hunting and acted as leader of the group. He would catch a scent and then start digging frenetically. The other dogs were quick to follow, and Nikola behind them as well. Nikola would push them aside, so as not to damage the potential truffle and then continue digging gently with his own tool.
Our first truffle sighting came about 20-30 minutes into the trek. Dogs got a whiff and Nikola was able to pull out a truffle from the ground. You could smell it immediately once it was out of the ground. That earthy, pungent smell filled our vicinity. (Our airbnb would later smell extremely strongly of truffles collected that day lol)
Around 45 minutes into our walk, we actually came across another truffle hunter and his dogs. Nikola alluded to some rivalries in the truffle hunting world, and I later read about how trained dogs sometimes go missing mysteriously or that poisoned meatballs will be set out with the purpose of harming other competitive hunters’ dogs.
Over the course of the morning, we found about 3-4 truffles. All of them were pretty small and broken – not of prime quality for selling. Nikola apologized that we didn’t find more but that this is how it goes with truffle hunting. He also mentioned that while his tours are authentic….not all operators are as honest. Some of them will plant truffles in the ground ahead of time to guarantee that guests find truffles.
All in all, it was a really fun experience. And if you find yourself going through Istria, Croatia, I highly recommend booking truffle hunting with Nikola. You can email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After our 90 minute walk, Nikola made a suggestion to us to have a meal at the Michelin-star truffle restaurant in town, Zigante. We were all hungry, and being the foodies that we are, decided that sounded like a fabulous way to end our truffle experience.
We were the only ones in the restaurant when we arrived and the staff was so attentive and sweet (even gave us some truffle chocolate bars when we were leaving!) Everything we ate was amazing! Highly recommend a visit here when passing through Istria. Some photos from our meal are below 🙂