Truffle hunting in Croatia
The truffle hunting in Croatia is truly a unique experience with a long history in Istria and Dalmatia being a recently established location. But let’s start from the beginning.
The history of truffles, the edible subterranean fungus, also praised as a food delicacy, traces all the way back to Paleozoic era and the period between 360 and 280 million years ago. Throughout history, these noble fungi have been mentioned in various inscriptions, texts and books and have inspired numerous myths and legends.
Among ancient nations, truffles were particularly appreciated by Romans who shared a belief that Truffles were created when the Roman god Jupiter’s lightning struck an oak tree. Due to their connection to Jupiter, and the associated legend that he fathered many different Roman gods and held a passion for his lovers, truffles became associated with aphrodisiac properties. This is likely one of the primary reasons why, in the Middle Ages, the church condemned consumption of this delicacy, categorizing it as sinful. For years after, truffles were forgotten – or mainly used by peasants – until they finally found their way back to haute cuisine, becoming a display of wealth and prestige.
For the most part, the popularity of truffles grew because of Giacomo Morra, the Italian founder of a Piedmont Truffle Company and the creator of the cult status of Italian truffles from the town of Alba. Morra, a brilliant marketer, came to the idea of giving the biggest, most precious white truffles of the season to celebrities like Marylin Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Winston Churchill, Pope Paul VI and similar public figures. This brought the white Alba truffle fame, making it a subject of prestige to be coveted, and gave it a status as one of the worlds greatest culinary treats.
Though truffles were mainly associated with Italy, they soon came to the attention of other European countries like Spain, France and Croatia, with their Mediterranean oak forests providing ideal conditions for the fungi to grow. Even though there are more than 70 types of truffles and they can be found on almost every continent, the most commercially and culinary valuable species come from the Mediterranean region.
In Croatia, the famous Motovun Forest, located along the Mirna River, is thought to be the cradle of truffle hunting. The area has a century-old tradition of truffle hunting, but according to insider stories that were published by the BBC and the New York Times, many truffles from Alba actually originated from Istria, even though Istrian truffles have maintained a low profile for numerous years.
The turning point likely came in 1999 when a truffle hunter from Istria named Giancarlo Zigante, along with his dog Diana, found a 1,310-gram white truffle in the Motovun Forest. Soon after it was included in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest white truffle in the world at the time. The discovery added Istria to the limited list of places in the world where white truffles could be found. The heart-shaped peninsula soon became a true foodie gem just waiting to be discovered by gourmet lovers from all around the world.
Truffle hunting gained popularity in the following years as more and more locals engaged in the pursuit while also opening the doors for tourists to take part in guided truffle hunting tours. It soon became one of the most popular visitor experiences, enabling them to engage in local traditions and experience the unparalleled flavors of the area.
Because truffles grow underground in a symbiotic relationship with the root systems of trees like oak, hazel, poplar, beech and pine, no sign of the truffle is visible above ground, making it almost impossible for humans to spot. For decades, truffle hunters used specially trained dogs, and more traditionally pigs, to find the precious tubers. Over time, dogs proved to be much easier to train than pigs and were also less likely to try to eat the truffle once they found it, and these days dogs are a much more common option for truffle hunting activities. Most dogs can be trained to hunt truffles, but the breed most commonly seen escorting the truffle hunter is the Lagotto Romagnolo. Their great sense of smell, paired with an extraordinary memory, has proven to be a particularly successful combination in the truffle hunting quest.
Once the dog sniffs out a truffle in the woods, the hunter uses a special tool to extract it with the greatest care. The soil is then replaced exactly as it was so that new rootlets can grow to form mycorrhizae, and finally a new fruiting body.
Following the findings in Istria, it took years of searching until the folk tales were finally confirmed and truffles were found in other favorable areas around Croatia. The next region, after Istria, that confirmed the presence of truffles was Central Croatia and the area surrounding the Croatian capital of Zagreb. Various locations in oak forests near Samobor, Medvednica and Turopolje proved to be abundant with both black and white truffles. They are now working to promote the discovery and market themselves as a true truffle destination.
But what came as one of the biggest surprises was the latest discovery of the delicious fungi in one of Croatia’s most popular touristic destinations; Dalmatia. The beautiful, and yet largely undiscovered, Dalmatian inland is now a confirmed truffle growing area.
We owe the discovery to the Najev family, local Dalmatians who, together with their Lagotto Romagnolo dogs, spent countless hours and untold kilometers trekking the hills, woods and meadows scattered around the Dalmatian inland until they finally had a lucky break, thanks in large part to one dedicated dog, and found their first truffle. The first one was followed by many more and the family has now turned their hobby into work, making it their mission to promote Dalmatian truffles, as well as raise awareness of the remarkable natural resources of Dalmatia.
Through the years, truffle hunting tours have become an important part of the local diversity and sustainable tourism offering. The activity itself is an ideal way to spend some quality outdoor time enjoying the wonderful natural sites and hunting the delicious truffles in the knowledgeable company of professional local hunters and their brilliant dogs. The truffle season is year-round, with the only difference being the type of truffle picked: either black or white. The hunt usually ends with a truffle-themed tasting of local products, enabling you to truly immerse yourself into local traditions through a unique gastronomical experience.
Want to learn a little more about truffle hunting to see if this activity is right for you? Please reach out! We would be happy to provide you with additional information and share our first-hand insight in the world of truffle hunting in Croatia.