The Hunt: Digging for White Gold in Istria

Truffle hunting success in Buzet

As the morning’s events begin to unravel it is becoming increasingly apparent that today, I’ve made the wrong footwear choice.

I am 6 inches deep in mud in a pair of strappy green snakeskin print Loeffler Randall flats, (thank GOD they were purchased at a sample sale,) grabbing onto tree trunks and battling branches as we descend deeper into the Buzet forest. Our leader is a white lab named Nellie, a trained master at unearthing Istrian truffles. Clearly I had underestimated the strenuousness – not to mention the sheer verticality — of the actual sport of “truffle hunting,” which happens to be serious stuff.

Daniela Puh is our lovely host. Her family has been in the truffle business for several decades. She narrates the morning with tales of tourist hunts past and admits to planting a few from time to time so that “people aren’t disappointed.” She speaks lovingly of her superhero mom who allegedly spends up to 12 hours at a time out in the forest. Having grown up in these hills, she presents a vast knowledge of the area and its history and peppers our walk with various truffle trivia.

We learn that Istrian truffle producers weren’t always taken so seriously. The common misconception was that all truffles came from Piedmont, silly. But now the word is out and foodies from all around the world come here to Istria to experience the region’s tastiest of offerings.

Raindrops begin to fall and Daniela scoops up my child, carrying him the rest of the way over the slippery stones back to Natura Tartufi Tasting HQ — no doubt wondering, what was she thinking in those shoes. He does not object.

The tasting room is much more my speed. The unmistakable scent of truffles permeates the space, though Daniela swears she’s so used to it that she can’t smell it anymore. This part of the property recently got a slick makeover. The end result is thoroughly modern with charcoal black walls displaying a giant image of a brown eyed canine friend (Nellie’s cousin, perhaps?) and light maple slatted shelves holding all of Natura Tartufi’s different products. Whole black and white truffles preserved in little jars, truffle honey, truffle salt, paste, olive oil, and new for the summer — truffle chocolate. Lucky us, we will be sampling them all.
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It’s not even noon but Daniela begins in the boldest way possible, pouring a heavy handed glass of honey brandy with white truffles. The taste is profoundly unique and quite concentrated; the color, honey-like. I casually put aside a jumbo-sized bottle near the register, already formulating plans in my head to whip it out at our next dinner party back home in NY. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste, but does carry that “oooh….ahhh” factor.

Next comes a tray of sliced bread with all different types of truffle spreads and cheeses. My son Jake keeps going back for the mushroom paste. He may only be 2 ½ years old but his palate is dead on — he’s right, it is the best one. We try chocolate cookies drizzled with truffle honey and chunks of dark chocolate with truffle sea salt. A truffle shaver emerges and we are treated to thin sheets of black truffle atop bruschetta. Finally, Daniela makes a quick call to her husband who appears with a giant white truffle they’ve been saving in the fridge (white truffles are not in season in August) so that we can taste the difference between the two. They’re both amazing.

We are now completely spoiled and full of truffles. The tasting is complete. Jake is beginning to become stir-crazy so we thank Daniela profusely, apologize for trudging forest mud all over her floors and share our plans for the afternoon – a visit to medieval Motovun, a neighboring city high up on a hill. She recommends lunch at Mondo, a restaurant they supply truffles to.

Motovun is decidedly more touristed than Buzet. We are charged a $5 fee from a tollbooth just to enter and drive up the hill. Parking is of the nightmarish variety, parallel and on a steep incline. We tug on the emergency break, exchange partially-concerned shrugs and set out to explore on foot. There are gorgeous views of the entire valley down below, fresh fruit stands and pink oleander obscuring the city’s ancient walls. There’s only one way into the town– up. It starts to rain again, and we book it all the way to the top of the hill where we find Mondo.

Our waiter approaches — head down, pencil to pad — and grunts, signaling for us to spit it out already. We order scrambled eggs with black truffles, Rigatoni Mondo, (a house specialty topped with truffles,) and four cheese ravioli with yes, more truffles. Yes, after eating all those truffles earlier that morning. Before he shuffles away back into the kitchen, we mention that we have just come from Natura Tartufi; Daniela sent us.

He raises his eyes from the paper and his face lights up with a huge grin. “Daniela?” He chuckles. “Ahhhhh, Daniela…” he says, nodding a million yeses. Suddenly, we are no longer part of the horde of tourists who fill the rest of his tables. Now we are part of the family.

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Natura Tartufi

Phone: 00385 (0)52 662975
Address: Srnegla 21, 52420 Mala Huba
E-mail: info@naturatartufi.com

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