From delectable seafood to prized truffles from medieval forests, nature has dealt Istria a bountiful hand.
It is known as the black diamond, the pride and joy of Istria. A precious gourmet gem found in the dark, fairytale forests of Motovun and Buzet, the truffle is impossible to miss when you’re on the peninsula. Whether it’s in a country inn or Michelin-starred restaurant, you’re going to find truffles in Istria – they’re on your handmade pasta, served alongside your steak, dished out with fish or prawns, generously used in scrambled eggs, or even gracing desserts like ice cream or chocolate cake.
Truffles have increasingly become a drawcard for the diamond-shaped peninsula which juts into the azure Adriatic. However, unlike in the premium truffle destinations of Italy, here in Croatia, truffles come sans the snobbery – they are just another excellent ingredient in a destination packed with fresh, inspiring produce. Even so, Istria is fast becoming a truffle destination in its own right – for decades Istria truffles have been sold in Italy as Alba truffles but today local producers are taking pride in their own coveted finds, and are serving truffles, as well as world-class seafood and timeless comfort dishes to intrepid foodie travellers.
The exceptional white truffle is in season between September and January, while different varieties of black truffle can be enjoyed throughout the year. If you somehow managed to not partake in a truffle foodgasm during your time there, you can also bring it home in the form of oil, butter and sauces or preserved in salty water or olive oil.
When it comes to Istrian olive oil, we’re talking about some of the best in the world. Olive groves are part of the hinterland’s fetching landscape and nestled amid the rolling hills are small, independent family farms such as Ipša that are superstar producers on the olive oil world stage. A tour of the Olive Oil Roads in northwestern Istria will take you to lush olive groves and cool cellars where these incredible oils are made. A word of caution though: it will be impossible to buy olive oil off of a supermarket shelf after that experience.
To feast the Istrian way is to dig into mouthwatering dishes at a local tavern. Wash down Istrian prosciutto or traditionally dry-cured ham, succulent sausages seasoned with homemade wine, as well as cold pancetta pork rounds with local wines like the ubiquitous Malvasia white or Teran, a red that is not going to win awards except in the character department. Then, dig into tasty staples like freshly handmade gnocchi served with meat stew, tubular pasta called fuži that is indigenous to Istria and ombolo pork cutlets typically served with tangy sauerkraut.
In spring, look out for the reed-thin wild asparagus, which has an aromatic flavour and a hint of bitterness. Also unique to Istria is the boskarin, a white or grey long-horned cattle that produces meat best relished as carpaccio, steak or with fuži pasta.
Hearty meat-based fare is the way of life in Central Europe. Towards the coast, however, you’ll find that the Istrian peninsula is just as incredible for its seafood. Always start with a platter of tiny Adriatic squid if you can. Grilled or deep-fried and drizzled with a small amount of lemon, you will find in each mouthful of these creatures the delicate flavour of the sea. Then there are the scallops of Novigrad, which are revered for their sweetness, a result of them growing in a mixed body of salty sea water and fresh river water. These are scallops worth enjoying raw.
To fully appreciate the catch of the day, ask for crabs, mussels and scampi to be prepared buzara-style. This ancient method uses just olive oil, garlic, parsley and wine to preserve freshness and the original flavours of the seafood. In Istria, eating is a humbling experience. To taste what is on offer is to be reminded of nature’s exuberance and how we benefit from its abundance.
Based in Singapore and Vancouver Island, Peiwen has called Berlin and the Italian Dolomites home. She likes spending too much time in one destination and making friends with people who will take her to hidden gems for the best food.