Croatia gets that Riviera touch

In Istria, a post-war generation of chefs and restaurateurs are creating a cuisine good enough to rival its Italian neighbour. Rachel Spence takes a gourmet tour
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The Independent Travel

Tour operators bill it as the new Tuscany but when I mentioned taking a gourmet tour of Istria, foodie friends raised an eyebrow. On hearing that it was the coastal region of north-eastern Croatia, just across the Adriatic from Venice, they frowned. "Right. So ... fish? Potatoes? Polenta?"

Tour operators bill it as the new Tuscany but when I mentioned taking a gourmet tour of Istria, foodie friends raised an eyebrow. On hearing that it was the coastal region of north-eastern Croatia, just across the Adriatic from Venice, they frowned. "Right. So ... fish? Potatoes? Polenta?"

Certainly there is fish by the trawlerful and a kilo of spuds will set you back 10p. Polenta and pasta also abound; as does manistra, a vegetable broth that is minestrone's first cousin. Istria was a Venetian colony for 300 years until Napoleon snaffled it in 1797. It returned to Italian rule between the world wars and joined Yugoslavia in 1945.

In one sense then, the western gastrosnobs are right: Istrian cuisine is a legacy of cucina povera. Indeed, before the First World War so poor were the peasants that families would share a hambone, carrying it from one house to another, so everyone could make a pan of broth. But times have changed. A new generation of chefs, restaurateurs and wine-growers is creating a cuisine to rival any in Europe.

We arrive by car, driving south from Trieste and passing through two borders, the Slovenian and then the Croatian, in quick succession. Around us unfolds a landscape so lush it borders on tropical: hills emerald-glossy with oaks, vineyards, olive groves, deep-sided valleys planted with potatoes, artichokes, onions and carrots. It is still early and knots of men and women walk by the road, wooden hoes over their shoulders, on their way to tend unfenced patches of land, on which they grow enough crops to feed their families and maybe sell locally. The verdant landscape is the key to Istria's gastronomic riches. Aided by marine minerals, a Mediterranean sun and the drying bora wind, the clay soil that makes up much of the territory is among the most fertile in Europe.

Lunch at the Hotel San Rocco in the village of Brtonigla gives us a taste of things to come. Wild asparagus, picked that morning in the woods by Rita Fernetich, who owns the hotel with husband Tullio, is folded into daffodil-yellow scrambled eggs. The pan-fried prosciutto has a sweetness missing from its Italian counterpart. The presentation of these earthy flavours is as polished as in any top-flight eaterie. And San Rocco is a boutique gem; 12 comfortable rooms scattered through 16th-century farm buildings overlook a sauna and pool, surrounded by orchards and olive groves. In the distance, a band of forest stretches down to the sea.

That night, we head to Porec, a Romanesque-Venetian coastal town. Our restaurant, Sv Nikola (St Nicholas), lies on a harbour as pretty as any on the Riviera yet deserted save for oneyacht. Waiting on the terrace is Roman, a young man whose model-trendy looks belie his proprietorial status. Just 23, his dream is to see the marina packed with Euro-chic yachts and his restaurant full of their owners.

He deserves to succeed. The intensity of the lobster sauce that adorned our black tagliatelle had us clamouring for the recipe - Roman finally admitted that as well as lemon, orange, and capers, he added a dash of brandy. "And the lobster didn't travel far." He points at the black water where the nets are laid. Just as flavour-packed was our main course: a trio of lobster curls, naked save for a shaving of black truffle.

The truffle is Istria's culinary pièce de résistance, though for centuries the funghi thrived undisturbed in the mineral-laden soil of the region's oak forests. It took a group of Italians laying water pipes in the Motovan valley early last century to recognise the muddy roots for the money-spinning edibles they were. Now truffle-hunting is big business. The black sell for around €300 (£220) per kilo; the white for a staggering €5,000 (£3,600). The process of finding them, however, is much more down-to-earth.

At 8am, we trot obediently into the Motovan forest behind Marica. She in turn is tracking Baffo, a nondescript mongrel whose snub snout skims the undergrowth like a canine vacuum cleaner. That morning, he draws a blank but Marica is more irritated by the uncovered holes she finds. Left by irresponsible hunters, they are a symptom of the ruthlessness that has infected this once serene activity. The smuggling trade across the Italian border is thriving; good dogs are at risk of poisoning from rivals.

Time to taste truffles at their best. A five-minute ride up the hill brings us to Enoteca Barbacan in Motovan, the medieval hilltown that overlooks the forest. Course after course of exquisitely crafted dishes with black truffles - the white season is autumnal - take centre stage: they arrive diced into a croquette of celery; shaved under duck foie gras; grated into a , saffron risotto; flavouring the marinaded raisins with our crème brûlée. Mr Michelin should pay a visit here.

After a weekend in Istria, it's impossible not to be impressed by the energy and talent of a generation determined to do the best they can with a land blessed by nature, yet cursed by conflict. Although the 1990s war is rarely mentioned, its ghost lingers. Some effects are obvious: farming techniques were put on hold, vineyards and olive groves left untended. Considering these challenges, Istria has come a long way in a very short time.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Rachel Spence travelled to Istria as a guest of Hidden Croatia (0871-208 0075; www.hiddencroatia.com). The company offers seven-night gourmet tours of the area from £799 per person, based on two people sharing.

The price includes return flights from London Gatwick to Pula, car hire and b&b accommodation in a classic double room at the Hotel San Rocco.

Further information

Contact the Croatian National Tourist Office (020-8563 7979; www.croatia.hr).

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