There are many reasons to visit Croatia. Whether you’re a Game of Thrones fan eager to see the stone-walled Medieval city of Dubrovnik, or a yacht-enthusiast looking to hop from one spectacular Adriatic island to the next, this coastal Balkan nation offers the best of Southern Europe, but with a distinctly Slavic flavor. Off the traditional tourist path, you’ll find Istria, a triangle-shaped peninsula in the north, nestled between Slovenia and Italy, where medieval hilltop castles, rolling green fields, and rustic vineyards give the appearance of a storybook version of Tuscany. But the region also shares another trait with nearby Italy—it’s one of the largest producers of truffles in the world, with many Croatian truffles secretly passed off in top global kitchens as the highly-coveted Italian Alba truffle. In Istria, you’ll find three varieties of black truffles, as well as the much rarer white truffle, but with none of the pretensions or hefty price tags of their counterparts in nearby Piedmont (Italy) or Perigord (France). Croatian truffle farms also offer something else their European neighbors don't. Here, third and sometimes fourth-generation truffle hunters have swapped ravenous pigs for adorable, fuzzy “truffle puppies,” tails wagging as they help their humans dig up these valuable mushrooms.
Istria’s truffles are harvested between October and January with most found in the legendary Motovun forest, which legend says is home to fairies and mythic giants. Since truffles are buried under a thin layer of soil, and next-to-impossible to spot with the human eye, animals have traditionally spearheaded the hunt. While pigs have been utilized elsewhere for their truffle-specific sense of smell, Istrian farmers have found that puppies, whose natural hunting abilities can be refined, and who are naturally more eager to please, make the perfect gatherers. Training begins at two months, with only 20% of the puppies making the final cut. At the height of truffle season, between 9,000-12,000 canines—from Labradoodles to Vizlas, the traditional Hungarian hunting dog—can be seen wandering the Motovun forests in search of the odorous mushrooms.
“People in Istria have always preferred dogs. It's their tradition,” said Alan Mandic, Director & Owner of Secret Dalmatia, a tour company that organizes truffle hunts throughout Istria. A typical hunt consists of bringing a guest and one dog into the verdant forest, where, once the precious morsels are located and dug up, the spoils are brought back to the tasting room. Stocked with truffle salami, truffle cheese, honey with truffles and other regional specialties, at the tasting room the day's harvest will be carved up and sampled, often cooked in the main dish of fritaja od tartufa (egg omelet with truffles) or local fuži pasta with truffles, or, possibly, with a side of truffle carpaccio.
The epicenter of the truffle region is indisputably the town of Buzet, the "town of truffles". (Here, in 1999, the world’s largest truffle, weighing 1.31kg, was found by Giancarlo Zigante and his dog Diana.) At the Prodan Tartufi truffle farm, along a winding scenic road, you’ll find Višnja Prodan, third-generation truffle farmer, who left an engineering career in Zagreb to join the family business a few years back, revamping the farm's website, expansive tasting menu, and overall social media presence. In addition to the tasting room and restaurant, located under a vine-covered trellis canopy and overlooking golden fields, the farm also sells summer and winter truffles for wholesale, as well as organic honey, mead, and truffle-infused olive oil. On any given day, you’ll find Prodan out hunting under roots and moss with her dogs, Pico and Mel. To pigs, she said, the smell of truffles can mimic the odor of a potential mate. Once they smell the truffle, they begin to furiously dig into the ground, often ruining the truffle with their overzealousness. “You simply cannot stop them!” she said, explaining that they do not just destroy the day’s haul, but also frequently disturb the surrounding roots.
In addition to making better hunters, dogs are likely to be more loyal and eager to please than pigs. For Prodan, each time Pico or Mel finds a truffle, they are rewarded with a treat, reaffirming their very good boy status. “By a few scratches of the paws they'll show you where the truffle is and then stop to dig in,” she noted. All of Prodan’s dogs are terrier mixes. “We always choose a mix breed because they are more resistant, healthier and have way better noses than pure breeds.” The training of the dogs starts very early by familiarizing them with the smell and taste of truffles, giving them small pieces to sample.
Since Croatian truffles must grow wild, in a delicate climate that exists only at the base of hazelnut trees, finding them requires a hunter’s natural aptitude. “We never know under which tree the truffle will be. Because of that, we need a trained dog,” she added. Pigs, on the other hand, are much more adept at finding truffles where there are formal, planted trees, like the black winter truffle plantations of France. "They already know that under every planted tree they can find something. They just need a pig to show the spot." Meanwhile, in Croatia, the truffles require a little more adventurous spirit.
“Our puppies are for us our whole world," said Prodan, speaking not just of her farm but of all of Istria. "They are the smartest little animals, and since they are so energetic, they just love this natural life. It will never seem like they are working when we go out." And for anyone lucky enough to accompany the puppies, the joy is contagious. "They just very much enjoy life, running around, finding some truffles, chasing a bird, eating, and just living their best life!” That certainly sounds like heaven to us.