Croatia: Hunt out an authentic flavour

First prize in last year's Bradt/Independent on Sunday travel-writing competition was a trip to Istria – and the chance to write about it in these pages. Here, winner Cal Flyn takes a gastronomic tour

Ivan Karlic has been hunting for truffles in the forests of Istria, the heart-shaped Croatian peninsula, since he was 10 years old. He inherited his passion from his mother Radmila, who in turn was initiated in the art by her own father in the woods around their home. The family estate sits in a valley below the medieval hilltop town of Motovun, in a region world-renowned for the quality and size of these fragrant fungi. The largest truffle ever known, weighing in at 1.5kg, was found in these woods.

Ivan has Blackie, a wire-haired mongrel, in tow. Blackie has been specially trained over months and years to sniff out truffles among the leaf litter and soft, damp earth. As soon as we're in the shade of the trees, she is on the hunt, nose skimming the ground, entirely alert. Ivan follows close behind, ready to leap in as soon as a truffle is detected. "Otherwise," he warns me, "she'll snap it up in one bite."

When we sit down for brunch up at the farmhouse I think I know how she feels. There is sheep's cheese with paper-thin truffle shavings, scrambled eggs stirred through with grated black truffle, smoked sausage studded with chopped truffle and crusty white bread – all washed down with a shot of mistletoe brandy. It is the first meal in my gastronomic tour of Istria's lush interior, a gourmet's paradise in the image of Tuscany or Provence where local producers compete for the most impressive accolades and top-class restaurants jostle for space in cobbled courtyards.

As well as black truffles, which can be harvested year round, the more unusual white truffle can be found on higher ground in Istria between September and January, and sells for up to €10,000 per kilo. The start of the white truffle season is celebrated each year in nearby Buzet, the self-declared "City of Truffles" where the Festival of Subotina is held. The celebration involves a giant omelette containing two thousand eggs and 10kg of truffles which is cooked in the main square on the second Saturday in September.

Istrian truffles with pasta Istrian truffles with pasta Grapes and olives also thrive in Istria's Mediterranean climate. I take a trip to the Kozlovic vineyard outside Momjan, where head vintner Gianfranco Kozlovic is at the forefront of the reinvention of the Croatian wine industry. "During Communist times [when Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia] the emphasis was not so much on producing quality as quantity," he told me. "We would simply fill jugs of wine from the tap to be drunk at home. So, Teran, the typical Istrian red wine, in particular did not have a good reputation."

But after the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia, the so-called "Wine Spring" took hold. Gianfranco became one of a new generation of Croatian winemakers who were prepared to experiment, stepping away from traditional methods and embracing hi-tech gadgetry. Recently, he let his imagination run wild, sketching out the design for a brand new winery, now made real as a sculptural stack of polished concrete full of bleeping, blinking displays that would not look out of place as a Bond villain's lair.

The Kozlovic estate now produces around 200,000 bottles of its trademark white Malvazija and reserves the exclusive "St Lucia" label for the best vintages – 2009 and 2011 were particularly good years. The sweet Muskat is also highly regarded.

Milan Matkovic is making a similar splash in the world of olive oil. The former ad man returned to his tiny village of Pagubice, near Pazin, after a high-flying career in Paris. Istrian olive oil has the distinctive aroma of freshly cut grass, an unexpected and refreshing taste, perfectly suited for dunking cubes of feta or even drizzling over vanilla ice cream.Milan's oil mill, only four years old, has already racked up a number of honours for its Grimalda extra-virgin oil, including a gold medal last year in the international AVPA oil-producers' awards.

A short drive from Pazin through rolling hills, past tangled vines and hazelnut copses, I discover Toklarija, an intimate, six-table slow-food restaurant in a converted 16th-century oil mill. Over five courses and the best part of three hours, chef Nevio Sirotic presents me with the region's best offerings: his ever-changing menu is based on what's in season and is almost entirely locally sourced. Tendrils of wild asparagus, carpaccio of beef, the omnipresent truffle and a curious baked dessert whose thin crust turned out to be filled entirely, gloriously, by liquid chocolate.

"Incredible," I gasp at the end. "Where did you train?"

"With my mother," says Nevio, po-faced. "I learnt from the best."

Also keeping it in the family are the Skokos at Batelina, a startlingly good seafood restaurant in Banjole, on the southern tip of the peninsula, where the father catches the fish, the mother and mother-in-law cook, and the son is maître d' ("a situation that is better for you than it is for me, I think"). For fresh, imaginative dishes – shark's liver and red snapper carpaccio, followed by a cauldron of mixed shellfish – in unpretentious surroundings, it is hard to beat.

Prices may have risen in Croatia since it joined the EU last year, but bargains are still to be had when buying directly from the farm, mill or winery. I fly back with a suitcase full of truffle jam, hazelnut oil and individual preserved truffles in jars. The price? Nine euros from our friend Milan, £60 in the deli at home.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Cal Flyn travelled with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), which flies from Stansted to Pula from £59. Alternatively, Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) has flights from Edinburgh, Leeds/Bradford and Manchester.

Staying there

Hotel Kastel in Motovun (00 385 52 681 607; hotel-kastelmotovun.hr) has doubles from HRK806 (£85), including breakfast eating and drinking there Karlic Tartufi (00 385 52 667 304; karlictartufi.hr); Kozlovic (00 385 52 779 177; kozlovic.hr); Uljara Zlatni Brig (00 385 52 684 050; uljarazlatnibrig.com.hr).

More information

croatia.hr; istra.hr

Life and Style
love + sex
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
News
people
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn